Building: Inside Studio Gang

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Adrianne Joergensen

Published on March 12, 2013

  • Description:

    Review of “Building: Inside Studio Gang”
    The Art Institute of Chicago
    Adrianne Joergensen
    2013.02.25, revised 2013

    The lasting impression after visiting Building: Inside Studio Gang at the Art Institute of Chicago is that architecture, as a profession, maintains its cool factor. Like its frequent appearance in film as the characters’ profession of choice (think Sleepless in Seattle), the exhibit makes the practice of architecture seem both more fun and more glamorous than it is in reality. (A reality which I can attest to, as an aspiring architect.) Simultaneously correcting and re-enforcing this misconception is the dual agenda of Studio Gang’s solo show. It promises both uber-coolness with a little sweat and toil. As the title itself, Inside Studio Gang, attests, the visitor gets a glimpse of each.

    The exhibition divided the two-room Architecture and Design gallery into project showroom and model fabrication lab. The first room displayed visionary and built projects in their presentation-ready format. The start of each project was signified by an oversized black and white drawing, like an icon. Process images like sketches and study models accompanied finished renderings and drawings, which were arranged in a continuous strip that ran around the entire room. This timeline-style format gave the viewer a clear method for navigating the exhibit, and its lower height made the materials readily visible to everyone. These images corresponded with physical models on pedestals nearby, so there was a rhythm to how the visitor should move between viewing two-dimensional and three-dimensional components of each project. The viewer could easily associate the process with the finished product.

    The projects themselves were not surprising to a visitor already familiar with the work of Studio Gang. The firm is widely published, and many of the projects on display are visible elsewhere. But it was refreshing to see the work assembled in one room, and the firm’s exhibition at the iconic Art Institute certainly exposed them to a larger audience.

    In addition to exhibiting completed work, the room contained hourglass-shaped spaces created by ropes woven around metal frames. Each space contained a different activity, from viewing a drawing set to working on iPads, with seating for lounging. These spaces were large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and comfortable for a few people. The rope rooms brought architecture into the space in a very tangible and visible way.

    The second room displayed samples and tools from Studio Gang’s model shop. Both the layout of the room and materials were more raw than the first, lending it an authenticity. There was also a larger variation in the scale of the objects: from small-scale model components like trees and scale figures to a large, full-scale metal structural test, it showed phases of the design and testing process that are not typically not visible to the public. On one wall, the series of development documents for the rope rooms in the first room created a meta-narrative for the exhibition. In retrospect, I wish the order of the rooms had been reversed, so the viewer saw the work in progress before the finished product. The concept of revealing the architectural process in this room was more refreshing than the display of finished work in the first room.

    The entire exhibition flowed well with two minor exceptions. The first was a pair of diagrams in the tiny hallway-like space between the rooms. The diagrams illustrated a façade system that would prevent birds from flying into the glass and dying. The drawings were simple but had been enlarged too much for viewing in that small vestibule. Their content did not relate to anything else on display, which made them seem like a hastily-considered afterthought.

    The second was a display of several study models up against a wall. There was no glass around them, as with all of the other models, just a barely-visible perimeter line painted on the floor. The guard posted at the door was constantly warning visitors not to get too close, which was disruptive enough, but then the loud beep of the alarm kept sounding. It’s unclear as to why this stand was the only one equipped with an alarm, or why they didn’t design it differently so visitors couldn’t touch it.

    Overall I would say that Building: Inside Studio Gang accomplished its dual goal as an exhibition: to impress the viewer with the firm’s body of work, but leave them feeling that they got a little insight into the architectural process. As an architect, not much about the exhibition surprised me, but I am also not its primary audience.

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