CMU’s Miller Gallery: Imperfect Health, Sept. 15, 2012 – Feb. 24, 2013

Imperfect Health at the Miller Gallery

We are the engineers of our own decay. In altering the environment to sustain ourselves – our food, our refuse, the air we breathe – we have introduced a host of new frailties to the human body. Imperfect Health at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery attempts to do more than elucidate the details of this unfortunate situation. The exhibition presents solutions drafted by architects and designers, sometimes questioning whether these ideas might do more harm than good. Each floor of the Miller Gallery addresses one of three broad problems of industrialized society: food production and disease control, atmospheric pollution, and the accommodation of a growing elderly population.

This is not an art show, per se. Reams of data, research, and blueprints spread across walls and tables on all three floors of the gallery reflect a clinical, quantitative mood. Key terms and phrases on the show’s informational placards are highlighted in a manner resembling hyperlinks. Theoretical plans and proposals abound. Q-City by Front Studio Architects imagines the creation of a parallel infrastructure for use by functional citizens placed in quarantine, in doing so discussing the problematic idea of quarantine as segregation. Pig Cityby MVRDV outlines a solution for livestock raising in overcrowded regions through vertical urban animal husbandry – while pointing out that more people could simply switch to vegetarianism. Medicalized architecture is shown to be a powerful management tool for the symptoms, if not the causes

Art acts as a corollary to this, rather than the main attraction, reinforcing just how much our current architecture does not take our health into account. Bas Princen’s Mokattan Ridge (Garbage City) depicts vast piles of garbage bags spread across one of Cairo, Egypt’s neighborhoods. It is telling that the pigs that feed on this garbage are hard to differentiate from the garbage itself.Speleotherapy by Kirill Kuletsky dreamily captures the winding corridors of a salt mine, filled with people sleeping on beds. The air of the mine is used to treat severe asthma. These works provide an emotional anchor in an exhibition that, due to information overload, can be fatiguing.

Imperfect Health does not suggest that architecture will save the world. Instead, it is a way to channel our environment into something better than what we have now. With luck, some of the theoretical proposals the exhibition presents will be channeled into practical implementation, leaving us healthier for the experience.

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Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture, at the Miller Gallery

Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture, at the Miller Gallery.

Curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

Healthism is a term that describes the tendency of ascribing a health related undertone to every aspect of living.   Intimate Health, curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini and organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, serves as a visual essay on our health-obsessed society. Three floors of works categorized by topic provide for an extensive display of artifacts, architectural plans, advertisements, and artworks. While the first floor covers food and epidemics, allergies, cancer, pollution, and the dangers of the home are addressed on the second.  The third floor is dedicated to aging and obesity.  The exhibition is held together by a series of vinyl phrases, artfully but perhaps arbitrarily marked by ‘edits’ fabricated from neon.  While many of the phrases, such as “any type of vegetation, when overplanted, can cause allergies” or “hospital patients recover faster when they have views of plants and gardens” are oversimplified and perhaps at times somewhat pedantic, they provide a narrative structure and string together themes that would otherwise seem somewhat dissonant.

What becomes apparent walking through the gallery is that there is a fearfulness inherent in the way we perceive our environment and surroundings.  With current anxieties of ground pollution, safety of food, obesity, and air pollution, humans tend to see their imminent environment in terms of how much it threatens their own health.  Design is often seen as a source of comfort, as a way to prevent and protect. The built world should be viewed as a source of sanctity rather than fear.

This show has particular resonance in Pittsburgh, a city historically plagued by pollution. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Industrial Landscape photographs, taken from the mid ‘60s until about 1980, are of industrial towns throughout the world, taken with candid accuracy, a beauty resonating in their bleakness.  Narea Calvillo with C+ Architectos and In the Air create toxic topographies of Budapest, Madrid, and Santiago.  Clear and successful visualizations of air pollution in these cities, these photographic images are accompanied by vials containing colored sand proportional to the amount of toxic material present throughout the year in Madrid. These informative works are presented next to three projected videos by Susanne Bürner.   The videos show trees swaddled by urban environments, nothing discerning one minute from the next except for the presence of a light breeze. This pairing of a more poetic piece with a scientifically based visual display presents a dichotomy of artistic and scientific, involved and passive, observational and collected information.  This combination of objects and information from a variety of fields present throughout the entire exhibit comes together to form a harmony of data, visuals, and objects that can be easily related to the daily life of the visitor.

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Imperfect Health

Giant neon signs announce the theme of the gathering – health. Diagrams and blueprints line the walls, describing the newest integration solutions between architecture and health-care. Photographs give pictorial representation to problems such as that posed by Mokattam Ridge in Cairo, Egypt – a portion of the city nearly overflowing with garbage. Is this a convention on the confluence between medicine and design? A forum on the issues relating to health care in the twenty first century? No, it is an art exhibit.

Imperfect Health: The Medicalazition of Architecture occupies three floors of the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University and features work by a variety of artists, architects, and designers, all centering around the relationship between architecture and health. As Giovanna Bosci and Mirko Zardini, the curators of the show, state in their own words, the exhibition “is not a comprehensive survey of the relationships between health, architecture, cities and the environment. On the contrary, these projects for buildings, interiors, and open spaces are meant to highlight uncertainties and contradictions present in the ideas of health that are emerging in Western countries today, particularly in Europe and North America.” The curators are accurate in their description – while the show is certainly not comprehensive, it comes dangerously close. The exhibition, on the whole, overwhelms the viewer. It functions best on the first floor, which incorporates several visceral pieces in a compact format. The upper two floors rely much less on this sort of immediate impression, and instead place a much greater emphasis on the accompanying text. Works like Handicapped and Elderly, diagram 3b from Humanscale 1/2/3: A Portfolio of Information, for example, require the viewer to read the adjacent description to even begin to make sense of what he or she is looking at. After a time, the whole experience becomes more akin to an expedition to the library than an art exhibit. This impression speaks both to the incredible amount of research that must have gone into preparing the show, as well as perhaps the need for greater discretion in deciding what and what not to include in an exhibition.

For a show, too, that explores the relationship between design and health, I found it intriguing that the design should be so plain. Perhaps this is to give greater credence to the old saying, that there’s good reason good health and sterility go hand in hand.

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The Human Variable: A Review of Imperfect Health at the Miller Gallery

A dim reality is illuminated by curators Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini inImperfect Health, a survey of the medicalization of architecture at the Miller Gallery. Polluted cities filled with diseased and obese people, their health affected by the toxic environment and allergens. A growing elderly population, whose need for support and care poses a constant challenge for society. The unmanageable accumulation of waste, the result of unprecedented levels of production and consumption worldwide. All these trends represent a facet of humanity that goes largely unmentioned, but looms menacingly like an intractable problem. Imperfect Health surveys the diverse approaches of architects, urban planners, theorists, and artists to the consequences of rapid modernization, which have thrown architecture into flux. It spotlights tentative solutions to the complications mankind faces as it industrializes and populates urban centers.

The three-floor exhibition is vast and informative, offering almost as much to read as to see. Architectural models, photographs, sketches, videos, and sculptures fill the galleries, bolstered by educational placards and large text that pops up recurrently on the walls. In a straightforward tone, the wall text includes stylized phrases like: “The design of every environment, private andpublic, is affected by the aging population.” This strong phrase hovers above photographs that depict neat houses and lawns, which register immediately as the sort of homes found in a Florida retirement village. The text is thought provoking and even prescriptive as it guides its viewers to a particular conclusion. Overall, the interaction of the text and work produces a strong political voice, which resonates throughout the exhibition. It is a voice that questions humanity’s treatment of itself and of nature, and a voice that implies the need for radical, collaborative action.

An instructive quality pervades the exhibition, at times approaching the threshold of being overwhelming. And what’s more, the curators have unabashedly foisted a radical ideology onto their audience, as well as lead them to strongly humanistic conclusions. Fortunately however, these parameters do not detract from the individual messages of the works, but rather hone them into something manageable — meaningful. It is the curators’ careful combination of guidance and restraint that allows the individual pieces to retain their integrity yet unite into an articulate, intentional body of work. And from these works, which span the last century and come from across the world, emerges something we all understand: the desire for a more equal, healthy humanity.

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Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture, The Miller Gallery

Passing through gallery doors decorated with cheery, somewhat droopy get-well-soon balloons, there is a friendly, glassy-eyed barnyard gang to greet museum visitors. Andy Byers’ cut-paper forms of CowPig and Chicken are a blithe juxtaposition to the weighty afflictions they embody and the image of trash heaps and quarantine they share the space with. With the grime of industry still clinging to the architecture of this city that is now a center for medical research, the location and timing of this show, Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture,at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University seems particularly poignant. The clinically white walls of the gallery space remind one of a medical aesthetic, something that is all too familiar to our heath-obsessed population.

The show examines architecture’s shift towards comprehension of our own physicality and the potential for the substances we interact with every day to have a lasting burden on us, and future generations. By utilizing hypothetical and tangible architectural projects, this show opens a discussion about the debilitating effects the structures we build have on our health, and vice versa.

The second floor of the exhibit is a showcase of toxins that we live with, and how we have attempted to cope with them. This includes building techniques that range from asbestos to electromagnetic building surfaces that literally suck pollution from the air. In contrast, the third floor is delicate balance of reminiscence and ‘what-if’s. Next to Herman Hertzberger’s innovative retirement community in 1960’s Amsterdam, Smith’s photos of Sun City, Arizona from 1981-1982 are tinged with a certain banal shade of nostalgia. A suburban utopia for aging populations that replaces grass landscaping with stones, one ends up marooned in a place that appears to be a lunar landing site specifically designed to facilitate the sale of Tupperware.

The considerations these architects make for social and physical health are impressive, but can leave one feeling like one of the stock images, cut and pasted into the plans. Henry Dreyfuss’ The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Designshows us the average man and woman, laid out blueprint style, and physical space becomes equivalent for psychological space. Ultimately, this show opens a dialogue about our endless quest for efficient cures and solutions through structure and infrastructure, but, in truth, our humanity is our chaotic and unpredictable reality. Our health will always be imperfect.

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The Miller Gallery: Imperfect Health

As if we still can’t reconcile death or the inevitable deterioration of our bodies, humans are on an unrelenting mission to escape it. Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, present an array of projects predominantly by fellow architects, that envision the extent to which architecture can protect our health and that of future generations, but also bring to light problems that humans have created for themselves.

The Miller Gallery is divided into sections that dissect the flaws of our health, and how an environment can affect it. Epidemics are contained to the first floor; we’re immediately confronted by avian flu, swine flu and mad cow disease, represented by their paper animal counterparts, made by Andy Byers. Implausible concepts for buildings, whether designed to handle livestock with minimal space, or to incorporate an environment for quarantine, a parallel city that “grows and shrinks as needed” (Q-City by Front Studio Architects), is hard to take seriously – but perhaps that is not the point.

The second floor is dedicated to air pollution and allergies; seeing them in the same room, we realise that what gives us richer air can also harm us. Projects range from blueprints of air filtration systems, to plans to revive land from toxic material, to visualisations of scientific research like that of Nerea Calvillo, who illustrated toxic air profiles in tubes with cocoa flour, carbonate and pigment. The focus of the exhibition is broad, yet overwhelming with the amount of information to take in.

The final floor, quite appropriately, is about the end of one’s life and keeping one’s body maintained like a machine – an obsessive pursuit rooted in our culture. Max Wexler’s video “How to Live Forever” makes you question: what is so special about us as individuals that has to last forever and overcrowd the earth? Only future generations will see it take its toll. Architects show the importance of urban planning to health – designing hospices so retirement is less painful, aiding childhood obesity with bike and pedestrian friendly cities. The exhibition’s futuristic nature makes it seem as if it’s exploring what might be our last resorts, and making plans for the worst to come.

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