The Graham Foundation's exhibition Spaces without drama or surface is an illusion, but so is depth showed that the recent rise of digital collage among avant-garde practitioners has its roots in postmodernism's earlier scenographic obsession. The exhibition featured nineteen commissioned works from architects, artists, and a scenographer alongside five historical references, all orchestrated by curators Ruth Estévez and Wonne Ickx and displayed in the Graham Foundation's Madlener House.

Spaces without drama joined a provocative series of contemporary publications and exhibitions in propagating alternatives to the frequent commercial sleekness of architectural representations, whose commoditized realism often reads as fundamentally false. Estévez and Ickx sought to demonstrate that the widespread use of collage by architectural firms such as fala atelier, OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, and Sam Jacob Studio represents a strategic opposition to the ubiquity of photorealist digital renderings. Thus, the exhibition explored flatness: the making of images and buildings that function as images first and foremost. Through digital collage, architecture becomes a series of disciplined compositions to which surfaces are applied; mass and volume give way to layered planes.

Conceptually, the exhibition's analogy between theater and architecture was made explicit by a singular and puzzling object: Aldo Rossi's Little Scientific Theater (1978), which was presented through photographs. The architect used this viewing box, measuring 50 by 60 by 70 centimeters, to arrange model fragments and painted images, as well as toys and kitchenware. The Little Scientific Theater was regularly transformed (compositions that pleased Rossi were documented in photographs), but only through “scenographic” rearrangements and not through action on its stage. The first part of the exhibition's title refers obliquely to this curious absence. For Danielle Sá, these arrangements, as well as the design for the floating Theater of the World a year later, exemplify the antifunctional nature of Rossi's typological research.1 The Little Scientific Theater was a constant ground for rehearsal, for the speculative creation of fictions bearing the potentiality of action, collapsed into a framed image.

As Estévez and Ickx acknowledged, the Little Scientific Theater adopted the form of the proscenium stage at a time when avant-garde theater was rejecting it in favor of more unified spatial approaches following the examples of Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig. Here, another 1978 work—from the more conservative realm of opera—was crucial: David Hockney's sets for Glyndebourne's staging of The Magic Flute. Like Rossi's theater, Hockney's sets adopt a frontal perspective whose spatial affect comes from the distribution of flat planes—a quality that resonated with the collages produced by many of the architects featured in Spaces without drama. (The second part of the exhibition title is a reference to Hockney's 1988 film A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, or Surface Is Illusion, but So Is Depth, which explores the spatial affect of Western perspective as a corrupting influence in Chinese scroll painting.)

The exhibition assembled the work of a talented if loosely affiliated generation of architects, creating a field of spatial affects for visitors to navigate. Inspired by the miniature theater kits popular in nineteenth-century Europe, the curators transformed the Madlener House into an oversized cabinet of curiosities that confounded distinctions between objects and their representations while choreographing dramatic juxtapositions in scale. Motivated by a desire to stake out two opposing architectural paradigms based alternately on two-dimensional images and three-dimensional spaces, the creators of the exhibition's most potent works paired models and images to synthesize them in dramatic and meaningful ways.

A model derived from the spaces within Johnston Marklee's Vault House (Oxnard, California, 2013) provided a theatrical setting for an arrangement of Rossi-designed objects from the architects' personal collection. While Teatro del Mare is clearly an homage to Rossi's own drawings, which often mixed coffeepots and buildings, it is unclear whether it is a scalar representation of a building or a piece of furniture—a cabinet—in its own right. The conjunction of the Vault House with the composition and contents of Rossi's drawings recalled Johnston Marklee's earlier experiments with photocollage. In particular, the temporal translation of the firm's contribution to Spaces without drama brought to mind the pairing of its Hill House (Pacific Palisades, California, 2004) with Julius Shulman's iconic 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22 in the Hollywood Hills.2 

The exhibition's display of work by the Italian office baukuh demonstrated the highly ambiguous nature of architectural models. While a model of baukuh's Theater in Varese was placed on the floor of the Madlener House's lobby, the exhibition also featured a photograph of the firm's model of its 2012 project for Berlin's Humboldt Forum, as it was displayed in Milan's Palazzo Reale. In the first case, two objects (the Madlener House and a representation of a possible theater) were placed in relationship to one another; in the latter, the creation of an image added to the artifice of the composition. As with so many of the works in the exhibition, it was a photograph—in this case by Stefano Graziani—that catalyzed the projective fiction of a model and its setting into reality.

Gerardo Caballero's Untitled (Little Theater) superimposed a drawing, a model, and a photograph to depict the landscape of the architect's native Argentine pampas (Figure 1). With elegant simplicity, Caballero spatialized the construction of an image, turning the flat superposition of digital collage into an object that—in its magnificent simplicity—made bare the artifice conjoining site, idea, and project. In its House No. 8, Image No. 1, with Layers and Masks, MOS Architects took a similar approach, creating an object in which the individual layers and masks of a Photoshop file were printed on separate reflective aluminum plates. This deconstruction of an image picked away at the notion of the “seamless” nature of contemporary architectural representation.

Figure 1
Gerardo Caballero, Untitled (Little Theater), 2017, oak, Plexiglas, and Sintra, with a photograph by Gustavo Frittegotto, 15¾ by 15¾ by 8 inches, in Spaces without drama or surface is an illusion, but so is depth, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2017 (photo by RCH | EKH).
Figure 1
Gerardo Caballero, Untitled (Little Theater), 2017, oak, Plexiglas, and Sintra, with a photograph by Gustavo Frittegotto, 15¾ by 15¾ by 8 inches, in Spaces without drama or surface is an illusion, but so is depth, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2017 (photo by RCH | EKH).

Estévez and Ickx's presentation of the theatrical as the source for current avant-garde architectural practice revisited a key quarrel from the later decades of the twentieth century. While Arthur Drexler criticized the modernist obsession with models in favor of the illusory qualities of Beaux-Arts renderings, Kenneth Frampton made his “case for the tectonic” to counter the scenographic approach espoused by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and other postmodernists—and its relationship to the overt commercialization of architecture.3 Nowhere has the opposition between scenographic and tectonic been made clearer than in James Ewing's recent Stagecraft exhibition at Columbia University's Arthur Ross Gallery (9 February–10 March 2017). Ewing photographed six sectional models produced by Frampton's students in front of projected backgrounds. The resulting images (which were exhibited alongside the exquisitely crafted models) vary from provocative to trite. The most compelling uses a model of Gerrit Rietveld's Schröder House in Utrecht (1924) as a frame for a projection of Johannes Vermeer's View of Delft (ca. 1660–61). This conjunction of representations from two very different Dutch cities, separated by several centuries and each evincing its own form of visuality (the atmospheric perspective of landscape painting and the axonometry associated with modernists such as Rietveld), produces a potent fiction, one that is doubly anchored in reality by the iconicity of Vermeer's painting and the obvious craft of the model.

Model photography—especially when models are placed in front of background photographs—offers a convincing union of tectonics and scenography: pairing physical object and two-dimensional image, the one framing the other. Works such as Ewing's testify to the practice's current popularity, a fashion further evinced in recent model photographs from Caruso St John, Christ & Gantenbein, Eik Frenzel, and other architects. While model photography's lineage—heavily tinged with modernism—is quite different from that of the collages presented by Estévez and Ickx, recent practice reveals its theatrical affinities with many of the works exhibited in Spaces without drama.

Estévez and Ickx's decision to present contemporary representational practice alongside works by Rossi and Hockney, and others by Charles Moore and Emilio Ambasz, testified to the curators' recognition of the link between postmodernism and the present. A shared belief in the centrality of images for architectural practice and experience clearly binds the two moments. Spaces without drama raised a key ethical question: Is architecture ultimately about the production of images? This issue was raised in the larger frame of Make New History, the recent second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (16 September 2017–7 January 2018), which featured many of the same architects and artists whose work was exhibited in Spaces without drama. We may also ask a corollary question: Is the ability to produce multiple, iterative representations from a single object not one of the fundamental roles of a building? Ultimately, images may be illusory, but no more so than objects.


Daniela Sá, “Drama and Project: The Little Scientific Theatre of Aldo Rossi” (paper presented at the international congress “Dramatic Architectures: Places of Drama—Drama for Places,” Porto, 2014).
This image was published in Reto Geiser, ed., House Is a House Is a House Is a House Is a House: Architectures and Collaborations of Johnston Marklee (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016), 105.
Arthur Drexler, “Engineer's Architecture: Truth and Its Consequences,” in The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, ed. Arthur Drexler (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977), 15; Kenneth Frampton, “The Case for the Tectonic,” in Labour, Work and Architecture: Collected Essays on Architecture and Design (London: Phaidon, 2002), 91.