While 2007 was something of a transitional year that looked to the past with big, largely traditional exhibitions on Le Corbusier and Cuypers, the NAi is definitely looking to the future in 2008. In addition to the NAi’s institutional tasks of informing and conserving, the new director Ole Bouman also – perhaps more so – envisages an agenda-setting role for the institute. This is most clearly apparent with the ‘To Do’ event in which the future spatial agenda will be presented. Starting in October, each of the next seven months will focus on a particular planning issue such as water, mobility and the landscape. The event comprises workshops, gatherings and lectures and should culminate in a broad discussion about the future of the country between the public, market parties, institutions, government and designers.
Perhaps latching on too easily to the forthcoming Olympic Games, an ‘exercise in big thinking’ will take place through ‘numerous activities’ that address the question: ‘What would it mean if the Netherlands were to stage the 2028 Olympic Games?’
Events and activities. The word exhibition certainly seems to have been scrapped from the NAi vocabulary for 2008. That is most clear in Happening, an architectural installation designed by Wiel Arets combined with a series of cultural activities that take place in and around the installation. Concerts, dramatic acts, interactive video projections, debates, dinners and performances – there’s a busy programme ahead in the Main Hall of the NAi on Thursday and Friday evenings and during weekends. The installation survived the baptism of fire when more than 5000 visitors came on the recent Museum Night. Happening is already a successful party venue.
But does anything happen on an ordinary weekday? Is there anything for the average museum visitor to experience? Is this really a space for encounters as the brief ‘explanatory text’ on the wall tells us?
Encounters with other people weren’t a factor as I wandered around the space alone on a recent weekday afternoon. Taking time to take in an exhibition on your own is usually welcome, but here it suddenly becomes a disadvantage.
An encounter with architecture then perhaps? Of course. The installation by Wiel Arets is very much there; you simply can’t escape it. Comfortably Strange is what Arets calls the installation, a ‘project about imperfect precision and encounter’. Beauty, says Arets, isn’t the issue. This is an installation that ‘can take up as many stories as you want…a pragmatic answer to a non-existent question.’
There’s no denying that the installation architecture possesses an interesting strangeness. The high-gloss black walls, floors and ceilings intrigue, especially because of their reflective surfaces and their combination with mirrored glass. The effect is undeniably disorienting. The spatial arrangement, however, doesn’t surprise. It’s a central atrium-like space with, overhead, a route through a glazed ‘bridge room’. The space seeks to engage visitors in dialogue through light and sound effects and video projections. Not all the equipment was functioning properly when I was there in the opening week. I can only hope visitors will experience more than those familiar squeaky scratchy sounds and rumblings here and there accompanied by surfaces that illuminate and fade again slowly.
To some extent the Wiel Arets installation follows on from earlier NAi exhibitions (those on Morphosis and Daniel Libeskind) in which architecture itself at one-to-one (in the guise of an installation) forms part of the exhibition (drawing, models) about architecture. Happening, however, is expressly not an exhibition on the work of Wiel Arets. During the daytime the installation is an independent architectural object, an experience machine that acquires meaning through interaction with the visitor. In the evening and weekends it forms the backdrop and podium for a series of different activities.
The visitor learns nothing about the architect himself while all this is going on. A real pity, because Wiel Arets of all people is one of the most interesting Dutch architects around today, and his work (wonderful drawings and models, extremely carefully styled photography) lends itself ideally for exhibition in a museum. Now the visitor has to make do with a few Arets-designed items of furniture placed throughout the installation. The only difference is that, unlike in conventional exhibitions, they are not just for looking at but are meant to be used. No doubt it was a deliberate decision not to present the work of Arets, but the fact that a corner somewhere or separate gallery couldn’t be found for a modest Arets exhibition is a missed opportunity. His work deserves more attention.
So Happening has to rely largely on staged events and on interaction between the architectural space and those attending the events. It is, for that matter, a rich and varied programme. If the main aim was to attract a new audience inside the walls of the NAi, then that’s undoubtedly going to succeed. Whether there really will be a degree of mutual influencing and/or interaction between activities and architecture, or whether the installation really will foster a better understanding of the relation between the architectural object and how it is used, that can only be judged at the end of the programme. But NAi evenings will in any case be a lot livelier over the coming months, if only because the hall boasts a real bar (designed by 2012 architecten from the leftovers of the Arets pavilion).
The NAi is venturing to experiment with this and coming events. It is posing questions without having immediate answers. And with this new policy the institute hopes to play an active role in thinking about architecture and contributing to the spatial future of the Netherlands. This is an important task, and one perhaps that’s been neglected in the past. The ‘new’ NAi therefore deserves the benefit of the doubt.