interview by michael darling

Michael Darling interviews Richard Koshalek, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, about “At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture,” an exhibition he organized with MOCA Curator Elizabeth Smith. The exhibition opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo in July 1998 and will travel to Mexico City, Cologne, and Sao Paulo before coming to Los Angeles in April, 2000.

Michael Darling: Richard, when you set out to do this show, what did you want the exhibition to achieve?

Richard Koshalek: MOCA, I think, has built an interesting track record in working within the area of architecture as a discipline. And when we looked at what we had done up until just recently, and as we approached the end of the century, we felt it would be worth the risk – and this is a very risky thing to do – to sum up, write a history of architecture in the twentieth century and what happened. Most of us who are involved in the discipline, or have an interest in it, understand something, or a considerable amount. But the general public doesn’t. And so we thought that this was the most appropriate time – the end of the century, MOCA coming up on 20 years – having had an architecture program since its inception, having done exhibitions on single architects or working with movements such as in the Case Study show, to give a much more comprehensive history to the general public. This exhibition is organized for the general public, in my mind, and we think that from our experiences in Tokyo, for example, that the general public is benefiting a great deal from seeing a much larger, comprehensive look at what happened in architecture in the 20th century. So that’s why we did it.

MD: Are there any parts of the exhibition that you think will shed new light on areas that even specialists will even be able to appreciate, areas of under-recognized activity that you think you have uncovered?

RK: When we first discussed this idea we felt that we should go to an established architectural historian who has been engaged with architecture for a very long period of time, who has been a teacher and writer and so forth, and we had a series of meetings with an individual who will go unmentioned, and they were very intriguing discussions, and for us very important discussions, but we felt that it was a point of view or perspective that was in a way, dated. And so we decided not to work with such an established architectural historian as a consultant, but to work more with the younger generation of architectural historians: Beatriz Colomina, for example, Jean Louis Cohen, and others. People who are looking at architecture from the 20th century, or aspects of it, and taking a fresh point of view. And I think that there are certain sections of this exhibition that are there because of the involvement of these advisors and consultants to the exhibition. So yes, we were trying to say, “yes this is a history, it’s a look back,” but if we take the younger, to a certain degree “emerging” architectural historians who are thinking anew about what happened that we would also be looking to the future. This exhibition would have something to say, not just about the past, but also about the present, and hopefully give some clues to the future and how we will read the history of 20th century architecture in future decades.

MD: Regarding the future, what is the role of contemporary architects within the show?

RK: This is the most difficult aspect of doing the exhibition, and that is: how do you write a history and deal with the historical aspects of what happened in the 20th century, and yet keep it contemporary at the end. My feeling, just from the first installment in Tokyo, and seeing the exhibition as a whole, [is that] we now have clues to what we need to do to continue to improve the exhibition as it moves forward to its next venues. We see this exhibition as a work-in-progress. I do. I never wanted to see it as a complete exhibition or statement. We, as a staff, will learn from this exhibition, not just the general public. We will learn from our experience in putting this exhibition together, and every time we come in contact with another city, another culture, with architects from different parts of the world, whether it be in Cologne, or Mexico City, or Sao Paulo, that we will learn from that experience, and constantly improve, enhance, and add flexibility with regard to what this is. I have a long list I made following our installation in Tokyo of areas in which can improve this exhibition as it moves next to Mexico City, and then Cologne. When it arrives in Los Angeles, we will have, I think, a rather interesting balance, in terms of a complete exhibition. When taking an exhibition like this to Sao Paulo, you become engaged with the architects in that part of the world, you have discussions with them, and you meet them, and you meet the architectural historians who are working there, and you gain a grasp of information, and you have this knowledge that becomes truly international. That’s what this is also all about, it’s an exhibition for the general public, it’s about giving a comprehensive look – one look, there are many different approaches we could have taken to the subject of 20th century architecture – but it is also a learning experience for us, as curators, as architectural historians who have worked on this. That, I think, is one of the great advantages of doing an exhibition such as this, is that we also can learn.

MD: Even as gigantic as the exhibition is – who knows how many hundreds of objects and photographs and every thing – you obviously had to make choices and present a certain history. Did you find it particularly difficult to justify some of the more contemporary choices against some of the more standard figures who had to be there, whether it was Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, or whoever it might be?

RK: Yes, it is much more difficult, and when you get to the more contemporary work you go more on instinct than anything else because the body of work is not as extensive as someone as say, Frank Lloyd Wright, and you do not have the perspective of time to look at it and study it and put it in context with the work of other architects of that period, and your knowledge. . . I mean there are so many contemporary architects working around the world that we are coming in contact with as we have worked on this exhibition, that you didn’t know about before you made the final decisions about what should be in the exhibition, but you learn every time. . . in Tokyo for example, we came in contact with a very young architect named [Kazuyo] Sejima and visited a home she recently did just outside of Tokyo, but we at the time we made the final checklist for this exhibition we did not know her work and now we do and its quite extraordinary.

I think the next exhibition on a large scale that I hope to work on after MOCA is an exhibition that deals with emerging architects around the world, and that is again, because of this exhibition and all of the artists we have come in contact with. I think that would a nice way to enter the next century, by doing a very large scale exhibition of the work of emerging architects from around the world that could also tour the world, moving us out of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century‰

As soon as we said we were going to be working on an exhibition of the complete twentieth century, [we knew] that people were going to say that it was wildly ambitious, there is no way that you can handle this material comprehensively enough so that it will make a strong statement, too many people are going to be left out, excluded, or you’re going to put in the wrong people or work that is not that valuable – everybody is going to have an opinion. But, I think it was a risk worth taking. The practicing architects benefit, the public benefits, hopefully architectural historians will benefit, even if they say “they did this completely wrong, they missed the point, I can do better than this, I am going to do a show on this period” – that’s what we want to encourage.

MD: So it serves in a way as a lightning rod for all kinds of discussions. . .

RK: And provides a framework and an overall structure for people to build on, I hope. But I know of no museum who would do an exhibition like this, I truly don’t. The Pompidou wouldn’t do this. . . and it had different titles as you know, it was “The End of the Century,” it was “The End of Our Sanity,” it was “The End of MOCA,” it had all kinds of different titles as we went forward because of the scale of it and what it took.

MD: Getting back to the statement you made about all the various envisioned angles of attack as you put this show together, so far the criticism you have received seems to me to be pretty mild compared to how many different ways that the show possibly could be picked apart, or for example, for Nicolai Ouroussoff [in The Los Angeles Times] to only mention a handful of people that he felt were unjustly excluded, it seems like you got off pretty easy. . .

RK: (laughter)

MD: . . .or that you covered your bases pretty well.

RK: Well, I think that it is all kinds of things, and we will get criticism as this show moves around the world, and it will come from different sources and we expected that and the architectural critics that respond to this exhibition do what they do and we do what we do, and sometimes we have different opinions. And that is perfectly all right, that’s what we want actually. We want that dialogue to exist and to happen. But so far we have been quite fortunate, Time Magazine International wrote very well about it, we know that there is a very positive article coming out in Architecture magazine, we know that the Wall Street Journal has taken a very good look at it, and as it moves there will be a lot more writing about this exhibition. But I tell you, oh boy, you can lose the whole ballgame with an exhibition, I mean you can come under very severe criticism, and everybody has a different opinion, so you take a lot of risks.

MD: Is there anything else that seemed to pose a great challenge in putting together this exhibition, or were there any areas in which you encountered a great deal of difficulty?

RK: I think one of the most difficult things, which will be even a greater problem in the future is loans. I think that if we had done this show, say, ten years ago, getting loans from whatever it is – museums, government institutions, archives, universities, and so on – would have been a lot easier. Now, the material has taken on a much greater value and so there is a great reluctance to lend. Not a great reluctance to lend to one institution and one venue – that’s not too much of a problem. But when you have a tour that goes to six different venues around the world over a three-year period, many lenders become very concerned about the materials, drawings being exposed to sunlight, and so on for that period of time. So the business of obtaining loans was difficult, more difficult than we thought, and will be even more difficult in the future. We wanted to reserve the very best, so that if a lender gave us only a limited number of venues for a loan, we wanted one of those venues to be Los Angeles. So in Los Angeles, when the exhibition comes here, it will be different from Tokyo to a certain degree because when people put a limit on the number of venues for the loan, we made sure that Los Angeles was one of them. So loans are a very serious problem.

The other one is that a lot of this material is being lost. And we just assume that it is being saved, cared for, and conserved, but there are places in the world like Russia where the material is in a way being threatened. And the loss is a real possibility. Because of the conditions within museums and archives, the lack of resources to preserve this material and care for it, and so forth. So, we’re losing, I think, almost everyday, very valuable material that’s going to make it even more difficult in the future to do exhibitions on this scale. So that’s another major problem that we still have to confront.

And then when you start to work in different parts of the world. . . I’ll tell you, dealing with museum officials in Japan is a very different experience than dealing with museum officials in Mexico City, or in Sao Paulo, or in Cologne, or in New York. And so to put together a tour such as this with six stops and to make it work and to get the schedule to line up, and to get them to put up the money necessary to make it happen – roughly $500,000 per venue that they had to fund to help support this exhibition – it takes a lot of negotiations, and it takes a lot of in-person negotiations.

And then, the whole business of time. When you work in academia time is important, but it is more of a long distance run. When you work in a museum and you say, “OK, I’m going to deliver this exhibition to Tokyo on July 10, 1998,” it becomes more of a sprint than a long distance run in terms of scholarship and making decisions and doing the research. So you have less time to consider the research, to consider all aspects of the research that would enhance this exhibition tremendously, but because of those deadlines. . .I mean if we had ten years to do this exhibition, or fifteen years it would have been different. . .but you set a date, you show up, you do it, and you get it done. And so it’s time, the loss of very valuable materials, the difficulty of getting loans, and the last aspect, the cost of doing something like this. If I gave you the statistics of how many crates were made, how many drawings were framed, how many photographs were taken, how many loan forms were done, how many hours of MOCA staff went into something like this, I think most people would be completely surprised. So, its the cost of doing something like this – the costs have gone up. Couriers, for example. Most museums will only lend material if it is sent by courier. And we’re getting very close to the situation where every museum will insist on every crate being air-conditioned and climate-controlled – I’m exaggerating to a certain degree, but this concern makes it very difficult to lend materials these days.

MD: So this show is really a great opportunity in many ways, and perhaps the last of its kind?

RK: I can’t imagine another museum attempting a show of this kind, considering the problems museums are confronting, the limited staff architecture departments have, and the demand for resources on the institution. But I think that it is a nice way for MOCA to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, and to celebrate the end of the century, and to look to the next century.