Entering Architecture: You Are Here Exhibition’s Final Week!
Gaze into one of German artist Candida Höfer’s wall-sized photographs, and you’ll see ornate, sometimes anachronistic structures: the immense, book-lined walls of a monastic library in Prague; the Modernist gyres of a Brazilian contemporary-art museum; the taxidermy trophy mounts adorning the walls of a Portuguese baroque palace. (Höfer’s photographs are on view for one final week, through May 29, as part of You Are Here: Architecture and Experience at the Heinz Architectural Center (HAC) at Carnegie Museum of Art. See previous posts on the other artist in You Are Here, Cyprien Gaillard, here.)
But as full as they are of architectural twists and turns, what you won’t see in Höfer’s 17 photographs are people. Rows of chairs at a palatial dining hall, lined up perfectly, and the orchestra pit of a grand opera house, its curtain tucked to one side, hint at human habitation. But the folks imagined in these seats are ghosts, their movements evidenced, their presence felt but not seen in these “empty” interiors.
Empty, that is, with one vital exception, as a visitor pointed out at a packed edition of the museum’s Culture Club series: and that exception is you. The sightlines, the lighting, the size and perspective of the photographs—Höfer’s interiors are all expertly chosen to make the viewer feel like the sole inhabitant of the portrayed room. (The curator has noted two subtle exceptions: the artist herself is reflected in the mirror at the end of a dining hall; and there are two faint images of the same woman in an orchestra pit—doubled, presumably, because of the long exposure time.)
On the wall of the exhibition’s gallery, Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at HAC and organizer of You Are Here, has placed a quote: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” (From a man who understood architecture from the grandiosity of Blenheim Palace to a bunker beneath the London Underground, Winston Churchill.) In Höfer’s photographs, the experience of the room becomes completely subjective: Is it stifling in its grandiosity? Or, perhaps, enlightening in its lavish beauty? As Churchill reminds us, the building will help decide our point of view—but as Höfer seems to say, deciphering these spaces is a task ultimately up to each of us.
It’s a feeling heightened by Myers’s deliberate curatorial decisions. In order to make the works about the essence of the room, she’s left only the photographs’ titles on the labels, leaving to our memories and imaginations the use and location of these rooms. The actual placement of the photographs is just as important, extending the gallery’s length by placing images on walls opposite the entrance, spacing them to maximize their grandiosity and our own ability to fall into the image.
But perhaps the most important decision on the part of the curator is to create a show about architecture, in the Heinz Architectural Center, that includes no models or blueprint sketches. This is a show about the less exhibited, yet arguably more important side of architecture: What is the meaning of architecture after a building is inhabited? In Höfer’s photographs, we see spaces as moments of history and definers of class—the anachronisms, vanities, and beauty of spaces; the humanity, in all its sins and glories, that can inhabit a built environment, without so much as a glimpse of a human.