I Am Interested in Seeing the Future is an architectural exhibition, that, contrary to what you might expect, includes no models and no drawings. Instead, as soon as visitors arrive, they find themselves surrounded by text. The wall facing the entrance is covered by an installation of single words on posters, interview transcripts on colored paper, and mirrors that reflect the sentences on flimsy scrolls arcing down from the ceiling.
There is only one word on each poster, written in both English and Chinese. The words in Chinese are always larger than those in English. I doubt this was done by design, as the words in Chinese are usually much shorter than their counterparts in English. However, the big Chinese characters function well: they grab your attention, whether you want to read them closely or glance them over as you pass by.
As a native Chinese speaker, I immediately caught all the words the minute I stepped into the room: 多重阅读 (multiple readings)，好奇 (I am curious)，愉悦 (pleasure), 不安 (discomfort), 错位 (displacement), and so on. Some of these are the least related words to a building. Another visitor to the exhibition, not an architect herself, told me that she was surprised to find out what is really going on in architects’ minds.
While text is usually found only in the statement or labels that structure a viewer’s experience of a physical object, they are the primary objects of this show. These texts are the voices of ten architects who were interviewed by Vladimir Belogolovsky, a curator and critic who founded the New York-based Intercontinental Curatorial Project and created this exhibition. As the exhibition’s introductory text reads, “the installation is meant to serve as a platform for the architects’ voices to be heard.”
This is the fifth installation of Belogolovsky’s Voices project and the very first Chinese edition. Over the years, he has interviewed some 300 leading international architects and mounted four exhibitions in four different cities. Belogolovsky selects a different group of architects for each city, and usually, some of the architects have local ties. The design of each exhibit is also site-specific, mirroring one of the architects’ practice. This iteration of the project is hosted by Fab-Union, an exhibition space designed by Philip Yuan (Yuan Feng), an architect in this show. Belogolovsky selected the voices of five Chinese and five American architects to construct two text installations. The two installations are on separate floors. A mezzanine between the two contains ten monitors with the interview recordings and related pictures. Belogolovsky’s intentions are easy to read: to contrast, or at least compare, the architects.
The selected Chinese architects are among the best independent architects in China. The Americans are similarly exceptional but significantly older than the Chinese. If you scrutinize the list, the notable difference in age is apparent. Peter Eisenman, aged 86, is Ma Yansong’s professor. James Wines is also already in his 80s, but most of the Chinese architects are barely 50. The list reminds me of Alejando Zaera-Polo’s 2016 diagram that taxonomizes 21st-century architectural practice, itself a riff on Charles Jenck’s legendary chart. Four of the US architects selected for this exhibition were on Jenck’s map, whereas none of the Chinese names appears. Three architects from the Chinese group are represented in three different categories in Zaera-Polo’s classification, which didn’t include any of the American architects in this exhibition. Within this particular setting, you can not only read the differences between the practices in two countries but also the gap between the two generations. You can even count the age difference as one factor that differentiates architecture markets in both countries. However, this scenario makes the comparison unclear. The visitors become responsible for telling apart the age difference or the environment in which the architects live and work. And since the visitors are not necessarily familiar with the recent history of architecture, they might get confused.
In all of his voice exhibitions, Belogolovsky has used various colors to distinguish the architects. Each color, used for the words and background of the scripts, represents a different interviewee. This assignment of color to name, however, doesn’t work well when you are presented with words and sentences in five colors at once. Despite, and in part because of this confusion, the impact on the exhibition is positive. In fact, Belogolovsky deliberately dissolves categorization. The hanging strips of text weave together with the others, scattering words and phrases. The pages of each interview strip are broken up by pages from other interviews, annulling the linear flow of the color and the associated conversation. Here, everything gets mixed.
The fragmented and juxtaposed voices, like the introduction claims, spark new interpretations. When I read about the show, I thought that I would try to put all the broken pieces in context and see if they meant what I thought they did. But, in the gallery, there are too many pieces, so many that, to an extent, you cannot remember who says what. As a matter of fact, who produced what idea doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The only thing that matters is the voices. And the point is to join the discussion: “Is anyone an authority?” Anyone? “To produce something neutral is a failure.” Is it? “Good work is not enough.” What else? “I always doubt everything.” Can we believe anything? “How do we stay contemporary?” Why should we?
Visiting the exhibition, you can choose to stick with one color from beginning to end. Or you can look at all of the voices together and critique them one by one. Are they up-to-date? Can they be related to people other than the speaker? And to what else beyond them?
The power shifts from the architects to the exhibition’s creator. Viewers can take charge, too, if they want. I agree with Belogolovsky that the show is not about celebrating this group of architects or attempting to study their minds. It is, in fact, all about us.
Whenever we, as architects, talk about Architecture with a capital A, we have in mind a system more than actual buildings. We think about space, drawings, material selections, structural design, images, or discourses—the theoretical bases of the subject. Dispensing with physical objects and leaving only the voices and the discourses, I Am Interested in Seeing the Future is absolutely unconventional. It also makes me wonder: can we understand architecture without images? Or is there any “correct” way to understand architecture, anyway?