Montréal’s CCA (Canadian Centre for Architecture), the international museum and research center which was founded by Phyllis Lambert in 1979 and is currently directed by Mirko Zardini, has launched a new iteration of its website. The organisation’s new online presence has been conceived as an active editorial project which aims for more than dissemination of information alone; rather, it will take positions and—being organised around several themes such as “The Planet is the Client,” “Origins of the Digital” and “Technology Sometimes Falls Short”—will reflect the CCA’s ongoing research interests.
This interview with Zardini has been conducted by Steffen Boddeker (currently Director of Communications at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation – GSAPP), who has worked with the CCA as a communications and online consultant overseeing its web presence since 2006.
MZ: In the contemporary situation it is very clear that all institutions—universities, museums, libraries—have to be rethought – not only in relation to their geographic context, as it has happened until now, but on a much larger international scale. Libraries are going in this direction and some of them are developing very interesting strategies to provide content at a worldwide scale. An institution like CCA also needs to go in this direction: whatever we do is a way to produce a new discourse, new content, new material for a larger discussion.
For us, an exhibition is never an objective in itself, a publication is never an objective in itself. Then what is our objective? To build a new discourse. We are facing a situation that is very similar to the one of the first decades in the twentieth century, when modern architecture interpreted the problems of that moment and suggested different ways to look at the urban conditions, the architecture, the housing. Architects addressed the issues raised by the new industrial society in a different way, and there was a revolution of values and attitudes.
Today we are facing a similar moment of changing values, different ways of working, social transformation, and environmental problems, and we have to build a new platform for architecture in order to address these challenges. Our objective as an institution is to build this discourse and, of course, we use traditional tools including the exhibition, publication, building the collection to reflect these interests, and developing certain researches. But considering the new technological transformation we are facing, there is the opportunity to also develop the discourse in another place, which is the “Second Building.”
SB: Museums expansions and additions are ubiquitous, but you have no desire to expand the CCA’s physical footprint in Montreal. Instead, when you speak of adding a second building, it is an expansion in the digital realm. How do the two interact?
The second building is an announcement of what we do and the possibility to develop this conversation in a much larger network than the one defined by the institution’s geographic location in Montréal, Canada. It is an extension of a publication strategy, but clearly it also offers the possibility of a larger conversation in the future. This point was made by museum directors Sir Nicholas Serota (Tate) and Neil MacGregor (at the time, the British Museum) in a conversation some years ago, in which they suggested a broadcasting role for institutions, considering the museum as publisher. I think that this is very true, but I feel that what is needed is not simply broadcasting: it is a question of building a different kind of digital space.
We are building this second building for the CCA, and I have to stress that it is a matter of constructing a building that is different from the first. This process will provide an internal conflict, a friction because one of the risks of the institution is to stabilize itself around a permanent idea. And the constant friction between the online and the physical will inevitably allow things to go on. Clearly they have a lot of things in common, but they are different. The physical CCA is a kind of laboratory or factory or small industry where we produce certain things. The e-publications we developed, the website, the social media presence are all elements of this second building that is under construction at CCA.
You mentioned that the audience for this second building is of course worldwide. What about the characteristics of this audience – who are you targeting with the discourse it will generate?
We are an architectural institution, so our international audience is mainly related to the field of architecture and is looking to us for an architectural discourse. And when I say architecture, I include urban design, planning, cities, photography, landscape architecture, geography – everything that relates in some way to the idea of the physical environment. And in our research we are also stressing multi-disciplinary approaches to that. We are trying to develop research that takes advantage of this type of second building, so that a researcher has the possibility of working with us online and we can develop relationships with curators to build a network that is both physical and active in the second building. So the digital becomes not only a broadcasting or publishing platform, but also a way of producing content through the geographically dispersed network of people collaborating with CCA.
Let’s speak more specifically about the publishing aspect, the actual content. What are the CCA’s thematic interests and how do you want to shape the discourse you described?
During my ten years at CCA we have explored some issues that we consider to be at the base of a new platform for architecture, and we tried to do this in a critical way. Today there is a general tendency to support new causes, but the problem is that an architecture of good intention may be okay – but it is not enough. If we look at new problems in the same way, with the same tools and the same cultural frame that we have been using in the last 50 years, we will not be able to produce interesting solutions. It is like the famous eyes of Le Corbusier – architects have to look at these problems in a different way. It is necessary to transform the architectural thinking and practice because tools are not neutral. If we we address certain important issues with the same old tools, we will probably not find an interesting solution. We have to rethink the way we frame problems, but also anticipate emerging problems and use different tools to approach them.
All the research components of the CCA have been driven in this direction. To make a big political statement is important, and the CCA has a very clear position. As an institution today we have an ethical responsibility in respect to the problems we are facing, and the institution has to take certain political positions: in favor of some things, and not in favor of others. One cannot be neutral in a discussion about social injustice, one cannot be neutral in terms of environmental consumptions – one cannot be neutral in respect to a lot of things. Such statements then have to be followed by a cultural revolution in the architectural way of looking at problems: to develop new tools, new attitudes, and new kinds of research. That was the reason behind our recent exhibition, The Other Architect. We believe that this need is not new, and architects of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s were able to produce new tools that allowed them to look at the problems of their time in different ways. So in a certain way the CCA is trying to frame contemporary problems in a different way, to have a critical attitude about how architects work, and to show the inherent contradictions. Do we have the solution? No. But we think the only way to try to find solutions is by building a new kind of platform.
It seems to me that one of the major distinctions between CCA and other institutions is that the website isn’t just informing online visitors about what’s happening at the building, but is based on ideas – the website is a thing in itself. There is of course a lot of overlap with some of the research and activity happening inside the CCA, which also results in exhibitions or books or programs, but some of these ideas and initiatives materialize on the website independently of the other physical outputs.
Yes, the website is a way for us to present some of these critical issues we want to see discussed, to be shared, to be confronted, and to be enriched by different contributions. These topics could be related to environmental issues or health, the prevalence of the visual in our cultural experience of the physical environment, the idea of planning and participation, the role of technology in our society and its limits, and the power of tools. The website is a place where some of these reflections and discussions will appear. Our new website is organized in three parts, and the primary one—which we consider a publication platform—is where we present these kinds of reflections and hope that it will generate a larger dialogue. The traditional component of communication of the institution is more controlled and limited on the site – it is addressed by an easily referenced service component and includes a timeline we consider to be a kind of institutional archive where the story of the CCA is told through the things that the institution has done. The third part is a powerful search tool designed not only for the collection, but to also access all the activities of the CCA – to allow people not only to reference the collection and archives of prints and drawings, photography, book, ephemera, but to also discover all of the activities of CCA: exhibitions, publications, conferences, seminars, whatever.
For me, these are the two things that are the most radical about the project: first, that the primary face is an editorial project that represents the institution through ideas, not by information or facts. And second, the approach to the search – which we’ve worked on for many years now, it is a very complex thing. I haven’t seen it realized in other institutions to this degree, where the entire collection and library holdings, plus bookstore items, plus website content are simultaneously queried in one interface. That the results show up together was something we already achieved in the previous iteration, but they were still segregated by type with different advanced functions found in unrelated interfaces. Now we are able to actually mix them and apply filters across the entire set of results from different types of source databases.
Yes, for example the publication component contains materials and contributions from the CCA research, collection or activities alongside contributions from our external network. And you can also discover all of this content in the search, where it is displayed among all the other results. We will add other functionalities as the web continues to evolve in the next years to accommodate different needs and make this even more user-oriented to support both focused research and discovery, and we will also offer the chance to build a personal selection supporting individual research and curatorial projects.
Perhaps we can touch on this idea of “the other” you mentioned earlier in relation to the exhibition, and how this approach allows you to shape the CCA?
At the very end, we always have a problem explaining what the CCA is: it is not really an archive, even if we have archives; it is not really a museum, even if we have components of a museum; it is not really a research center, even if we do a lot of research and are working with a growing network of researchers coming to CCA. So in reality, CCA is a project for a kind of “other” – for another institution. We don’t know exactly in which way we will define this, but we believe that most institutions of today are still operating on nineteenth or twentieth century ideas. And when I speak of institutions I include universities, libraries, and museums. It is now necessary to reinvent this outdated basis, and not only in technical terms – but also in organizational terms. To reinvent the institution’s mission and mandate, its purpose and understanding of the world, and the communities these institutions are serving.
The technological transformations we are facing and the constantly evolving new tools we have are interesting things. The problem I see is that very often these new possibilities are incorporated and used by institutions to re-establish an idea of the institution that already existed: the 20th-century idea of the museum or of the university. I think that The Open University in Great Britain during the 1960s was much more revolutionary than most institutions today, despite the new possibilities offered by social media, online presence, and so on. These new opportunities are used mainly to attract more visitors (when speaking of museums). For the museums they are communication tools to get more people to visit the museum or to have more people look at the collection online. Some institutions are starting to put more and more content online, but I still think it is necessary to radically rethink what the institution is, and to acknowledge that it is crucial to provide critical thinking and research material online if these institutions want to not only reinforce their role, but actually take responsibility for what the current situation demands. This is an intellectual and ethical responsibility that institutions have in respect to our contemporary situation. I am concerned by how often technology is used to serve an old purpose instead of being applied to dismantle the existing institution and rebuild it anew. That is what we are trying to do at CCA.
This conversation took place in New York City on Monday, 9 May 2016.