Exhibition: Atlas of Architectural Theories. Madrid, 14 February – 26 May 2019

Círculo de Bellas Artes, Calle de Alcalá, 42

Curator: Rodrigo de la O

Architecture, like any other discipline, expresses its theories in words. At the same time, however, architecture is also able to think in images. When Renaissance humanists began to expound their knowledge of the building art in treatises, they tended to combine words and illustrations. In fact, some of the most famous treatises look more like visual atlases than written volumes. But how does an image develop a theory? The theoretical fecundity of the image presents itself before us, almost by surprise, when we substitute the modern notion of “theory” for the original meaning of the Greek theōria: the visual act of “contemplation” and “speculation” in the development of a “vision”.

Atlas of Architectural Theories is a visual sample of different ways of seeing the art of building: different ways of understanding what architecture is, how it is done and how it should be understood. Each generation of architects has needed to rewrite history from its own present and therefore also develop its own theory that —like a haunting— appears with urgency again and again. Architectural theory, as Hanno-Walter Kruft demonstrated, is made up of a multiplicity of theories of architecture connected by a multiplicity of historical relations.

This exhibit brings together a broad collection of images relevant to the history of architectural theory, and presents them in a very particular manner. Like a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, the exhibit includes more than seventy original documents lent by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Library of the Madrid School of Architecture and the National Library of Spain: engravings by Piranesi, Palladio and Cesariano, montages by Peter Eisenman, project proposals by Le Corbusier, Gunnar Asplund and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, conceptual drawings by Aldo Rossi and John Hejduk, unique films by James Stirling and Auguste Choisy, advertisements by Cedric Price and Bernard Tschumi, posters by Daniel Libeskind, archeological surveys by Le Roy and Hittorff, and urban utopias by Scamozzi and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Like any cabinet of curiosities, the exhibit includes images that stand on their own at the same time as it seeks to classify them according to their possible relationships to others. Therefore visitors have various options as they orient themselves in the room. Amidst the apparent disorder they may seek out their own marvels, that is, those images that most stimulate their own imaginations. If they prefer, they may reflect upon the seven themes according to which the works in the room have been classified; each group of images has a text associated with it, but these intentionally have not been given titles. Or visitors may simply amuse themselves trying to compare the images, finding similarities and analogies between them.

In its zeal for accumulation, Atlas of Architectural Theories questions aspects of the current state of architecture, which some consider to be drowning in a torrent of images. This is a consequence of the intense phenomenon of accumulation and acceleration of images that characterizes our age of digital hyperstimulation. Some claim, with irony, that today “form follows image”. Faced with this horizon, it is useful to recall the words of Francesco Milizia, no doubt the most influential of the architectural theorists working in Rome in the late 18th C., who said: “But to see is nothing; to discern is everything. And the advantage of the sublime man over the mediocre man is that he may choose which serves him better.” He was referring to the art of “examining, comparing, contrasting and selecting” within the fine arts. Is not Milizia’s statement more relevant now than ever?

The exhibition Atlas of Architectural Theories is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue that includes essays from its curator, Rodrigo de la O, and scholars Joan Ockman (PennDesign; Cooper Union), Philip Ursprung (ETH Zurich), Juan Miguel Hernández León (ETSAM), Davide Tommaso Ferrando (University of Innsbruck), Léa-Catherine Szacka (University of Manchester) and Georges Teyssot (Université Laval).

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