I‘ve been twice to see the show, and might just go a third time before it closes on April 15. If you want the short version, it’s a very nice show. A little small, but a fascinating way to spend 90 minutes or so.
The longer more nuanced version goes as follows: When I first heard about Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture at The Canadian Centre for Architecture, I kind of scratched my head. I couldn’t quite figure out the what and the how of what they were going to exhibit. But my curiosity got the best of me and I was pleasantly surprised.
Once there, it kind of becomes obvious as to how and what gets displayed. There are are pictures of trees (lots of pictures of trees, depending on who you believe, trees are either good for your health or bad for your health) ranging from Robert Burley’s photographs of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (good for your health) to Cesare Leonardi’s awesome drawings of trees (bad for your health). There are floor plans for old age homes, plans for a pig apartment building and lots of other cool things that all have some connection between design (more so than architecture) and health.
To get the crotchety stuff out of the way quickly and early. Given that The Canadian Centre for Architecture is in Montreal, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more local content. It’s not like every city in the world can boast that they have park designed by Olmstead. But sadly, there was no picture of Mount Royal and given that there are not one, but two hospitals being built here now, I would have thought that they might have incorporated something from those projects into the exhibit.
There is a preponderance of information in how buildings can be bad for your health – a significant portion of one room given over to asbestos, which is really the only local content, and a whole other section devoted to dust and materials that cause allergies – while at the same time there are also numerous plans of buildings that are supposed to be good for your health (from OMA and SANAA specifically) I would have loved to have seen some information on older medical architecture. Something like how the Royal Victoria Hospital developed, or the evolution of hospital wall colors, or pill design, or, or, or. You get the picture. Something slightly more historical.
I wasn’t obsessive about note-taking but it struck me that for the most part there was nothing prior to 1960 or so. I don’t know if that has anything to do with what actually got archived, and therefore was available, or if there was some executive decision not go further back. Because of the heavy emphasis on contemporary practices and the fact that it wasn’t as large and sprawling as previous exhibits at the CCA, I was left imagining the gaps. What type of stuff could have been there.
The stuff from the 60s was tremendous. There was a section devoted to Sun City, AZ the “first and finest planned retirement community for active seniors.” They had a selection of floor plans
and a video on the history of Sun City that I wouldn’t watch there, because they insisted on playing it on an endless loop, which as I have said before (and will say again) makes no sense when the film or video that you’re watching has a beginning, a middle and an end. But was able to find it on YouTube.
The Sun City film was part of the exhibit on aging. The exhibit itself was loosely built around six health related topics: allergies, asthma, cancer, obesity, epidemics, and aging. As an introduction to each section there was a bulletin board with a variety of clippings, reprints from websites and other assorted ephemera. Some worked better than others. I never really ever thought that I would see a page printed from The Globe and Mail’s website as something displayed in an exhibit at the CCA.
In no particular order, some of the things that I particularly enjoyed were the photographs of elevators in the fat room (I’m actually in the process of taking some of my own, more to follow later), the photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher (I never get tired of seeing their work). Sophie Handler‘s Resistant Sitting project (pdf alert, and if she happens to read this, congrats to Dr. Handler on her recent PhD). And The Heterogeneous Home by Ryan Aipperspach, Ben Hooker and Allison Woodruff
As part of the asthma room they had a copy of this picture from Kirill Kuletski’s Speleotherapy series.
While each object in the show was presented in order to raise questions, I think that the allergy room was the least effective. There were samples, under plexiglass of building materials that could potentially cause allergic reactions, and other samples for you to handle that wouldn’t cause allergic reactions. I would guess that they were there in order to facilitate the younger viewers to the exhibition. But I haven’t been young for a while, so as you might expect I found them a tad juvenile.
And speaking of questions, one occurred to me last night. The exhibit comes down fairly hard and strong in it’s condemnation of asbestos, and I’m fairly certain that everyone, myself included, knows that breathing in asbestos fibers will cause cancer. But the reason it was used so much as a building material was because of it’s fire-resistant properties among other things. I wonder how many people would have died in burning buildings if asbestos had not been used, and how would that compare to the number of people who died (or will die) due to asbestosis?
One of the prettier, but more obtuse parts was from Ms. Calvillo. He attempts to map the atmosphere are quite nice. But the attendant documentation in the exhibit was somewhat sparse. In doing further research after the fact I came across this article by Javier Arbona that did manage to explain her work in plainer language and also had a link to the website for In the Air.
And that I think is one of the other small faults I would note about the exhibit. It seemed to me that far too much of it was the internet made material. Kind of like the exact opposite of their previous exhibition 404 ERROR The Object is Not Online.
All of this is not say that Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture at The Canadian Centre for Architecture is flawed or not worth it. As I wrote at the top, “it’s a very nice show. A little small, but a fascinating way to spend 90 minutes or so.” it raises questions, and for the most part I always think that raising questions is a good thing. But like with anything that I am fond of, I always wish there was more. Or that things were slightly more nuanced (or in other cases slightly less nuanced). But you get the idea, there is always something that could be done to take something very good and make it exceptional, or to go from great to amazing.
Your level of enjoyment of the exhibit will be roughly inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend on line looking at and reading about theoretical architecture. Or exponential to the amount of time you spend in the galleries of the CCA taking notes and then entering them into Bing or some other search engine. Given that I don’t do much of the former and a lot of the later, it worked out quite well for me. But as the kids say, “your mileage may vary.“