In the summer of 2014, Het Nieuwe Instituut inaugurated Things and Materials, one of three long-term program tracks that serve to align the exhibition and research activities of the now-merged Netherlands Architecture Institute, Premsela (the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion), and Virtueel Platform (a platform for Dutch e-culture). The program track addresses “contemporary crossovers between nature, science and creativity,” homing in on objects, craft, and materiality in particular. Once intrinsic primarily to design and cultural studies, these topics today extend to the domain of architecture too, as scholarly and exhibition emphases shift from singular practices, ideologies, and buildings to the historical lives of objects (as in the ambitious yet critiqued section of the 2014 Venice Biennale Architettura titled Fundamentals) and materials (as in Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty’s rich and articulate book).1 Prompted by diverse logics, architecture increasingly succumbs to the allure of object-oriented agencies and anthropomorphized matter, surfing the waves of a new materialism that has come to haunt contemporary art and philosophy alike.
The first exhibition in the Things and Materials series, Wood, was equally an exponent of this material turn. The show traced the many lives of wood as a crossroads of nature and culture, following the topic as it intersected with a plethora of themes—Arcadia, Putin’s Russia, biotechnology, tools and spoons and bowls, the miniature, fascism, counterculture and environmental movements, the sample book, technology and deforestation, the materialist grounds of colonialism, and more. In doing so, the exhibition, according to curator Dan Handel, unpacked the “cyclical nature” of wood as an index oscillating between “pure” and pristine nature on one hand and sedimented culture and history on the other. Wood was divided into six sections—“Cabinet,” “Factory,” “Downfall/Return,” “Sanctuary,” “Laboratory,” and “Archive”—and included architectural and landscape projects (e.g., Peter Zumthor’s Swiss pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover and SITE’s design for a Best Products showroom, 1978), design objects (e.g., an early eighteenth-century cabinet ascribed to Jan van Mekeren), and various cultural objects and documents (e.g., a logging machine and a video of the 2010 Lumberjack World Championship) (Figure 1).
At its best, this amalgam opened up a speculative as well as spectacular revisiting of the Marxist opposition of base and superstructure—occurring, if only implicitly, in the collection of wooden tools and techniques in the “Cabinet” section, or in the “Laboratory” section, where “foaming” wood, “wired woodlands,” and the genetic modification of trees were thematized. Or it unfolded an argument about the geopolitics and environmental ramifications of forestry in a specific time and region—most prominently in the “Factory” section, which specifically centered on the technological and cultural perturbations of forestry and was the only part of the exhibition that retained the thematic precision of First, the Forests, an earlier iteration of the show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. At its worst, however, the broad approach in Wood resulted in vaguely articulated themes, unconvincing inclusions, and unproductive juxtapositions.
Best described as an accumulation of wooden archipelagoes, a set of islands scraping on the surface of complex topics, each of which deserves a program track of its own, the show provided no criteria for singling out and judging any of its constituent parts. What is the point in juxtaposing Dogma’s Stop City (2007), Marinus Boezem’s The Green Cathedral (1987), and Klaus Staeck’s Waldschädling (1984)—an architectural manifesto, an artistic installation in public space, and a political photomontage, respectively? These works originated in entirely different contexts, yet these contexts, indispensable to the understanding and interpretation of the works, were left unexplained. On the other hand, the exhibition pushed the viewer toward a focus on individual displays. A discussion of Wood that limits itself to the curatorial concept, and thus does not account for particular works and documents, sits at odds with the show’s very intent—namely, to realign the discussion of culture with a generous and rigorous scrutiny of material objects. To tackle a plea for the concrete in a purely discursive and theoretical manner is, simply, to reverse and neutralize it. As a consequence, Wood contained within its dizzying thematic depths a profound dissolution inscribed in the heart of the show, with implications for its critical reception as well. Indeed, all critique ricochets off that dissolution.
Too many—but luckily not all— neomaterialist approaches are based on the empty claim that “concrete objects will be studied” as all the while they obscure the specificities that make objects interesting in the first place. In Wood, the result was a collection of stories, observations, and interpretations of materiality that ultimately did not connect objects to the world, but rather isolated them. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s architectural etching Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East (1778), to name one example, served in the exhibition not as an impetus to unpack the historical and cultural connections among romanticism, nature, and the ruin but simply to illustrate, as one case among many others, how wood and the forest “occupy the cultural imagination” (even though, in this specific print, hardly any trees are in sight). Conversely, many design and interior objects were included in this iteration of the show that were absent at the CCA—presumably in part a gesture toward Het Nieuwe Instituut’s dedication to constructing “layered narratives”—only to have the double binds of nature/culture and practice/theory confirmed, at the expense of true historical and cultural meaning (for instance, the three-drawer chest from IKEA’s MALM series; Aldo Bakker’s technique-varying objects Fume, Stool, and Tonus, 2010; and Makkink & Bey’s Detention Bench, 2007). If this is the dubious road that future architectural culture and scholarship are on, let this show be an incentive for them to change direction.