A view to expanded horizons

Seeing work from Croatia, Slovenia

An image of student housing near Ljubljana, Slovenia, on display in ''New Trajectories'' at Gund Hall Gallery. An image of student housing near Ljubljana, Slovenia, on display in ''New Trajectories'' at Gund Hall Gallery. (courtesy bevk perovic arhitekti)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / October 12, 2008
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CAMBRIDGE - Exhibitions of architecture at Harvard tend to be crazily narcissistic. It's as if the real goal were to convince you that architecture is a mysterious priesthood with its own arcane symbols and private liturgy.

I was hoping that the current show would be a change for the better. Harvard's Graduate School of Design has a new dean, Mohsen Mostafavi. In recent talks, he's promised to end the school's traditional isolation from other branches of the university. And he's known to be close to Harvard's president, Drew Faust, who has appointed him to two advisory committees. It's all very promising for a school that's been, in my view, too much wrapped up in itself for too long.

The show seemed promising. It's called "New Trajectories: Contemporary Architecture in Croatia and Slovenia." The whole idea, of course, is to reach out deliberately to a part of the world we don't usually think of as being culturally cutting edge. The goal is to prove that in today's global culture, terrific architecture can happen everywhere. The show is about making connections between the school and the larger world.

The problem is that it doesn't make connections with us, the viewers.

Start with the private language. Writes the curator, Mariana Ibanez, in her introduction: "Regardless of the locality of the built work, these firms' production techniques and strategies may be situated at the core of contemporary practice. . . . Croatian and Slovenian young architects have already created a niche for the production of exceptional work, but one that is charged with the legacy of their own architectural traditions."

A niche is charged with a legacy? When, anyway, did these guys fall from their new trajectories into all these cores and niches? Why does academic writing about architecture always have to sound as if it's been translated by a computer from the original Martian?

One more example. This describes one of the projects, an art installation: "The installation restructured space, time and spectatorship in an exploration of the phenomenology of viewing, manipulating and displacing the viewer's perceptions." That's art-student gibberish.

I'm always hoping I can recommend shows like this to the general public, because architecture, after all, is a public art, and it's nice when the designers and the public can communicate. Alas, "New Trajectories" fails visually almost as much as verbally. Much effort has gone into the bizarre creation of a translucent wall of folded planes. It looks as if someone had taken a Japanese work of origami, created with rice paper, stretched it from floor to ceiling, and put lights behind it.

Why? I have no idea. But I don't think we're in Croatia anymore. Just to be consistent, the show's take-away flyer is similarly folded. No doubt there's some symbolism I'm missing.

The translucent wall displays backlit drawings and photos. The photos look great but they don't tell you much. There are never any people in them and there's little attention to context. Some of the buildings look good. There's elegant university student housing near Ljubljana, Slovenia, to name one. Others feel fussy or theatrical. There are no scale models.

As for the drawings, they're usually tiny and, because they're on translucent material with light behind them, often almost invisible. Even when you can make them out, the drawings are mere diagrams. Floor plans, have no dimensions and no labels to tell you what the uses of the different spaces are.

This is architecture understood as conceptual idea, not architecture understood as the making of places for habitation. As with the language, the game is to make you think you're not smart enough to understand these arcane scratches. During the hour or so I spent there, I saw no one else look at the exhibit, though dozens walked past. Harvard and other schools have been showing us architecture this way for too long.

Each of the 13 firms is introduced by yet another weird intrusion. This is a box-shaped collage, rather like those of the artist Joseph Cornell, in which photos, drawings, and words are used to describe the architects and their work, but are superimposed in such a way as to render most of the information semi-visible. The boxes are handsome, certainly, but they're another example of over-design to no purpose.

This fall I've been told several times, by professors of architecture in at least three cities, that the incoming students of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning are different today. They're concerned with helping solve the problems of the planet. They want to deal with things like climate change, with depletion of resources, with costly, socially alienating sprawl settlements, with problems of transportation, with sustainability. They're less excited about using their computers to invent amazing but meaningless new shapes. They're less concerned with aesthetic philosophies.

The schools are going to have to change to meet these students' needs and desires. The sooner they do, the better.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at

New Trajectories: Contemporary Architecture in Croatia & Slovenia

At: Harvard's Gund Hall Gallery through Oct. 19.

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