Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions

En Esencia exhibition, via Yanko Design 

In October I participated in the “Multimodal Approaches to Learning” conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I had the pleasure of chairing a roundtable discussion on “multisensory exhibition.” I was also asked by the exhibition coordinators to write a chapter for an upcoming edited volume on the multisensory museum. What follows is an unedited first draft of my chapter:

Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions

Acknowledgments: I’d like to express my appreciation to Eva Franch i Gilabert and Paola Antonelli for making time to speak with me; and to Jim Drobnick, Johannes Goebel, Siegfried Saerburg, and John Weber for stimulating conversation on our “multisensory exhibitions” panel at the “Multimodal Approaches to Learning” conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October, 2012). Thanks, too, to my research assistant Alex Minton.

According to design theorist Malcolm McCullough, interaction design is defined by its concern with the embodied experience of technologies and the context of that experience.[1] “Activity in context,” he says, “is the heart of interaction design.”[2] Recent exhibitions of interaction design have sought, and often struggled, to capture within the space of a traditional gallery the multisensorial, often performative nature of the user experience and the richness of the contexts within which that experience takes place. In some cases the interactive object is reduced to either a static objet d’art, or a flat screen or graphic. Similarly, many architecture exhibitions have attempted to reinvent the place of architecture in the modern museum – to portray architecture not as yet another objet d’art birthed by a master designer, but as a multimodal, multisensory shaper of the material landscape that impacts people’s everyday lives. Yet, again, the “white cube” complicates curators’ and exhibition designers’ efforts to go beyond traditional materials – blueprints, renderings, models, and photographs – to convey the dimensionality and material richness of built space. In this essay we’ll examine how interaction design and architecture, both experiential fields, present unique challenges to the exhibition designer. But we’ll also consider how these fields, by virtue of the distinctive qualities of their designed objects, offer unique opportunities for us to rethink the relationships between the contexts and contents of exhibition.


Interaction design, according to designer Jonas Lowgren, “is about shaping digital things for people’s use.”[3] Fellow designer Jon Kolko expands on what form that “shaping” might take: interaction design, he says “is the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, service or system.”[4] This notion of a “dialogue” between people and designed objects was central to “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects,” a 2011 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Much of the following discussion is drawn from my review of the exhibition, which appeared in Design and Culture in Fall 2012.[5]

“Talk to Me,” via MoMA

Curators Paola Antonelli and Kate Carmody chose the show’s nearly 200 “objects” from among 1500 suggestions solicited since Spring 2010 through a “Talk to Me” public blog. And while they may have initially planned to organize these objects into format- or genre-defined clusters – computer games, data visualization, interfaces, installations, etc. – they ultimately settled on five categories that emphasized the scale, nature of, and directionality of the objects’ communicative process or content. Objects focused on things that talk to us about themselves; Bodies examined objects that interact with humans’ physical selves; Life highlighted designs that find patterns in, and help users navigate through, everyday existence; City featured designs that facilitate urban communication and encourage citizen engagement; Worlds looked at designs that can alter humans’ perception of, and help us to comprehend, global phenomena that are beyond empirical observation; and Double Entendre addressed how designers can “script,” or design for, misunderstanding and complexity in an attempt to call critical attention to the ethics and aesthetics of our communicative practices.

The curators suggested that the various categories represented different ways of characterizing who’s talking to whom – but the non-parallel structure of these categories (they’re not all of the same rhetorical register or ontological category) and the tremendous diversity of works on display suggested that the exhibition was actually posing a much bigger question, one of McLuhanesque proportions: what does it mean to say that people and objects “communicate”? What is happening when we interface with an ATM machine, when a sensor monitors traffic flow and alters the timing of our traffic lights, when we implant or ingest sensing technologies into our bodies, or when we rely on Gerard Rallo’s Devices for Mindless Communication, on display in the show, to recognize patterns in our everyday conversation and feed us lines of banter, sparing us the burden of engaging in small talk?

Because visitors weren’t permitted to interact with most devices – a necessary but unfortunate limitation, given the nature of the show – the exhibition itself turned into an object lesson on the complexities and complications of human-object communication. In a November 2012 conversation with me, Antonelli explained that one of the exhibits in the show – Sissel Tolaas’s “Berlin, City Smell Research,” in which the artist “worked in various Berlin districts to distill an essential scent for each one, creating an olfactory map of the city” – presented an exhibition challenge.[6]  The scents, which Tolaas conceived of as a source of “information that enhances and subverts the physical and symbolic boundaries of the urban ecosystem,” were bottled. We “wanted to let people smell,” Antonelli said, “but then realized that it would be difficult; we would’ve had to use pieces of paper” – similar to those used at the perfume counter in a department store – “but then where do you throw them [away]?” Antonelli had at one time proposed a “smell” exhibition at MoMA, but eventually realized “it would’ve been impossible to isolate scent” in the gallery.[7] Using scent is feasible only if “you have the luxury of space and isolation from other spaces.”

Sometimes it was the objects themselves, rather than the conventions of the space in which they were exhibited, that thwarted their ability to communicate. Few objects in the exhibition were able to “talk to us” formally, to tell us, through their shape, size, and materials, what they do. This communication failure was due in large part to the fact that most of the exhibited objects were typological innovations. A display case full of iPod-esque gadgets, metal canisters, and expressionless plastic toys – all “black boxes,” affording no glimpse of their internal mechanisms – easily could have been reduced to a case full of “stuff” if the curators hadn’t made available a variety of textual and audio-visual support media to interpret what those objects are. Each exhibit had its own substantial label, and many objects were also accompanied by monitors that showed the object in action. Some projects, particularly those that were performative, or that didn’t lend themselves to representation through material artifacts, existed solely in video form (the exhibition included roughly 80 flat-screen monitors).

In keeping with the interactive spirit, all objects were assigned their own Twitter hashtag and QR code, featured at the bottom of their wall labels. Smartphone-equipped visitors were invited to scan and save the codes for later reference on the media-rich exhibition website created by Stamen Design. For me, the comprehensiveness and cross-media integration of the website contrasted with the live gallery experience, where I found myself code-switching between wall text, flat-screen video, and QR code in the gallery, and, all the while, dealing with myriad sources of gallery “noise”: other museum-goers blocking my view of wall texts that required a significant investment of time and attention, guards shooing children away from artifacts that begged to be touched.

The making of the Wilderness Downtown. from B-Reel on Vimeo.

Yet in our conversation a year after the exhibition, Antonelli revealed another way of conceiving the relationship between the mediated exhibition and the live, in-person experience. One of her favorite pieces was “The Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive music video by Chris Milk for the band Arcade Fire. The video, shown on a monitor in the hallway leading into the main gallery, “gives you shivers,” Antonelli said. It embodies the “very intimate experience you need to have in the middle of a big crowd.”[8] She drew a parallel to the rationalist architectural concept of existenzminimum, or minimum dwelling, which she described as “taking a volume,” like a small apartment or a boat, “and fitting everything in”; it’s “designing from the outside, in.” Antonelli prefers to think of her work, conversely, as existenzmaximum – designing spaces from the inside, out; creating metaphysical spaces, like those you experience “when you’re in the middle of people and you put your headset on, and all of a sudden your space is much bigger than the bubble.”[9] She advocated for the creation of “several parallel sensorial universes within [the] physical space” of the gallery, and for the use of technology “in whatever way possible to make that happen.” In an exhibition, you can “create several bubbles that are communicating with each other” and thereby create a context for experience that is “at the same time separate from social space and also shareable.”

Of course pragmatically this isn’t always so easy. Antonelli cited particular artists – Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, James Turrell, Tino Sehgal – whose work, for various reasons (e.g., its loudness or brightness, or, conversely, its vulnerability to visual or sonic “infiltration” by nearby exhibits) requires that “we…create a whole chamber around them.” Performance, too, creates interesting problems for exhibition. The various sensory dimensions of artworks or design objects present sense-specific challenges. Antonelli offered a brief “state of the senses” run-down: Sound works fine in the gallery when you can provide appropriate acoustic buffering. “Sound cones don’t really work, but headsets do.” Touch is often impermissible, “but if you’re allowed to touch, you can do whatever you want. The problem at that point is maintenance” – keeping things in working order. Smell is “still really complicated.”[10] Taste is of particular interest to Antonelli; she’s been working on a book on design and food for the past 13 years. “It would be fantastic if we could eat in the exhibition,” she said, citing Rirkrit Tiravanija’s food-centric conceptual pieces. While several objects in “Talk to Me” were activated through touch, and some took smell or eating (or consumption, as in the ingestion of medicines) as their subject, gallery-goers had little opportunity to touch, and no chance to smell or taste. When these “other” senses aren’t directly experience-able in the gallery, they have to be somehow mediated, or captured through synaesthetic references or metaphor.[11]

Tiravanija, via The Daily Beast 

“[T]he key to effective and elegant communication,” Antonelli writes in the “Talk to Me” exhibition catalogue, “is choosing the right [medium or channel], the right interpreter. The most recent technology, in other words, may not be the most appropriate.”[12] “Talk to Me” employed a variety of channels of communication that, in the end, might not have coalesced into the most “effective” interpreter of the works on display and the exhibition’s core concepts. The exhibition of course talked to us formally, materially. Only an on-site viewing of the concrete object – impenetrable black box though it may be – allowed us to perceive its textures and scale, to observe its blinking lights, to appreciate the visceral impact of its beeps and squawks. But all this was just stimulus until we knew what those textures and blinking lights meant. That’s where the “captions” – texts and videos on the wall and on the web – came in, but those captions didn’t always lend themselves to easy consumption in the gallery space.

Recall McCullough’s characterization of interaction design as being centrally concerned with “activity in context” and embodied experience. “Talk to Me” was itself an extraordinarily complex task of interaction design; its curators designed a context for visitors’ interactions with exhibits that in turn represented how objects created communication experiences. The exhibition’s various channels of communication – on-site and online; material, textual and audiovisual – collectively constructed its context for communication. But the “media mix,” as they say in the advertising world, cultivated a not-so-interactive experience. Visitors we able to touch a few objects’ control screens and play with a few robots, but for the most part, our “talking to” the objects was limited to tweeting and reading about the objects on the exhibition website.

Communication is an experience, a context – it’s “feedback or dialogue between the mechanism and its environment,” an “organic unity of interprocess,” McLuhan said – not a thing.[13] The “vitrine and wall-text”-centric museological culture lends itself to a focus on things. Perhaps a series of live performances or demonstrations of these objects talking, communicating, responding in real-time to user feedback and contextual cues, might’ve better suited the ethos, the experience, of interaction design. The challenge is to develop exhibition practices that provide appropriate contexts and experiences for art and design that emphasize multisensorial experience, the “activity in context,” over product.

Antonelli mentioned two past exhibitions at MoMA that prioritized the visitor’s multisensorial experience. Her first examples was Terence Riley’s 1999 “Unprivate House” show, which featured recreated domestic interiors. Second was her own first show at the museum, “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design” (1995), which placed, on a ledge near many of the exhibited pieces, “copies that people could touch.” Of course it’s one thing to allow visitors to handle samples of woods, fabrics, and plastics, and quite another to allow them to experiment with expensive prototype electronic kiosks and medical devices. But these concerns will become even more pressing now that MoMA has begun acquiring video games, and the museum staff is considering how to exhibit this interactive art form.[14] Depending on the duration and complexity of the game, users may be able to play a game in its entirety in the gallery, or they may need to engage it through an interactive demonstration or a guided tour; and depending on the condition of the original game cartridges, software platforms, and consoles, the user may need to experience a game through an emulator, which may result in slight changes in the embodied experience of play.

“Invisible: Art About the Unseen,” via Vogue

In our efforts to better facilitate these multisensorial, embodied experiences in the gallery, Antonelli suggests, we might also draw inspiration from recent “unsighted” exhibitions, like “Invisible: Art About the Unseen” at London’s Hayward Gallery (2012), which included works that use bathwater, chilled air, and electromagnetic waves as their media; and the “Dialogue in the Dark,” program, in which “visitors are lead by blind guides in groups through specially constructed dark rooms in which scent, sound, wind, temperature and texture convey the characteristics of daily environments.”[15] She recalled another exhibition in Italy, “where they gave you a flashlight” to explore in the dark; such a show would be “impossible” at MoMA, she admits, “because of regulations.” “I don’t think the public would have any problem” with being invited to use other senses, or their whole bodies, to engage with an exhibition. “The problems are all on our” – the institutional – “side, and they’re all pragmatic. Our [main] challenges have to do with the perceived safety of our audiences and our (gallery) spaces” and exhibited objects.  Curator-scholar Jim Drobnick agrees that the institution presents many barriers to multisensory experiences. At the “Multimodal Approaches to Learning” conference at the Metropolitan Museum in October 2012, on a “multisensory exhibitions” panel that I chaired, Drobnick acknowledged that curators and exhibition designers have to contend with HVAC systems, with ubiquitous deodorization, and with the fact that galleries’ open plans and permeable walls promote the intermixing of senses. Exhibition designers are thus commonly left to convey different senses through different technologies.[16]

But unlike Antonelli, he suggested that the audience presents challenges and poses resistance, too. He wonders how to pull museum- and gallery-goers out of their uncritical (and often unconscious) adoption of ocularcentric ways of encountering the world; and how to get them to recalibrate their senses, or to use them in different ratios, particularly when they aren’t likely to have either training in “controlled” sensation or a discourse to talk about it. Drobnick advocated, too, that we consider the critical possibilities of designing unpleasant sensation — bad smells, rough textures, etc. — that compel us to question our values and ideologies, including those embodied in our ocularcentrism. Exhibition designers also have to be conscious of visitors’ potential for “smell fatigue” or anosmia (inability to smell) — and of the ethical implications of sensory engagement; visitors usually come to a museum or gallery, he said, with particular expectations regarding how they’ll interact with the work on display, and with one another.


MoMA’s 2008 “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” exhibition gave visitors the option of exploring full-scale models of pre-fabricated housing, commissioned specifically for the show, in a vacant lot next to the museum. I visited the show one hot summer day, and I recall that, after exploring the indoor portion of the exhibition in air-conditioned comfort, some of my companions – particularly those with children – chose not to wander out to the side lot and expend the effort to climb the models’ multiple flights of stairs in order. They were willing to forgo an opportunity to engage with the exhibition in an “immersive,” “embodied” fashion.

“Home Delivery,” via Zimbio
“International Style” exhibition, via The Charnel-House / Ross Wolfe

Architecture exhibitions haven’t always been so physically demanding or interactive. Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, and creator of the “Home Delivery” exhibition, claims that “[A]ll too rarely in the history of architectural  exhibitions has the salonlike presentation of the seminal 1932 ‘Modern Architecture,’ the so-called International Style exhibition of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, been broken with in any fundamental way.”[17] Fellow curator Henry Urbach concurs: “architectural projects were sublimated to conventions of exhibiting art in order to enter the modern museum… Johnson placed the models on tablecloth-covered bases, as if small sculptures, and instructed the installation crew ‘to hang the photographs as if paintings.’”[18] The International Style show foregrounded the “individual genius” of the architects above the designs’ social and political contexts – and when the museum launched its Department of Industrial Art, later called Design, the existing Department of Architecture was further distinguished as being primarily concerned with “architecture as a fine art,” unlike Design, which concerned itself with “function, cost, and building.”[19] Through this museological “framing,” architecture’s “capacity to produce atmosphere” – what Urbach describes as a “vibe,” a multisensory spatial context for its embodied experience – “was lost.”

At the same time, though, even in the International Style exhibition, the museum’s “aestheticizing vision” was challenged, notably by Lewis Mumford, in a section of the exhibition that critiqued the current housing conditions in New York and thereby proposed the exhibition “as a form of social and political engagement.”[20] MoMA also began to “embrac[e] the technique of full-scale demonstration houses employed for so long in world’s fairs and building exhibitions and even – most pertinently – in the marketing strategies of home builders.”[21] In 1940 curator John McAndrew planned to exhibit a full-scale Usonian house as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective, and in 1941 Buckminster Fuller presented his Dymaxion Deployment Unit. In 1949 Marcel Breuer brought to the museum a model home, the first in MoMA’s highly influential House in the Museum Garden series, which, Bergdoll says, helped “to break down the distinction between the practice and the display of architecture” – and, I would add, allowed for a reintegration of what Urbach calls “atmosphere.”[22] Bergdoll regarded “Home Delivery” as a renewal of the House in the Garden legacy.

Breuer, House in the Museum Garden, via ““Architects Build Small Spaces,” V&A Museum

Since the 1960s, there has been a surge of scholarly interest in architectural exhibitions and in the number of such exhibitions. We’ve also seen the rise of dedicated architecture museums and the Venice Biennale of Architecture. With these increased opportunities for exhibiting architecture has come a reconsideration of the purposes and audiences of exhibition, and an exploration of various approaches to exhibition design. Curator Fleur Watson distinguishes between (1) exhibitions that “record” the work of individual architects or practices and tend to adopt a documentary style, making use of photographs, drawings, and other archival material; (2) those that “research” “the action and activity of designing and building,” and can make use of sketches, prototypes, models, samples, etc., to study the hands-on process of design; or utilize installations as a means for “testing spatial propositions”; and (3) those that “reflect” on larger conceptual concerns, global themes, or “movements,” frequently through the form of group shows or bienniales.[23]

These various exhibitionary functions, as Watson suggests, call for appropriate modes of presentation, which in turn encompass distinctive exhibition media. Jonathan Hale and Holger Schnädelbach propose a typology:

  • The “book-on-the-wall” model makes use of photos, drawings, and panels of text. While we have to acknowledge the “experiential limits of a mainly two-dimensional presentation format,” we can also appreciate the “benefit of graphical abstraction, allowing a specific focus on thematic issues without the real-world ‘distractions’ of the building programme, contents, and context.”
  • The “salvage yard” approach makes use of “full-size building fragments – material samples, components and constructional assemblies – in order to provide some degree of real-life spatial experience while also referring to the temporal process of construction.”
  • The “office/studio/workshop” model “tries to sidestep the problem of capturing experience of built space and instead focuses on the story of its creation.” It presents materials produced during the process of design – drawings, sketches, mock-ups, models.[24]

Felicity Scott, Director of the Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture Masters program at Columbia University, recognizes that there are “multiple operating platforms” for architectural representation, display, and engagement. She sees the exhibition platform in particular – in part because it’s typically removed from real-world practice and allows for a “’suspension’ from utility” – as “central to opening new lines of research, testing new formats, technologies, and programmatic investigations, and launching new polemics and conceptual claims for where architecture might head.”[25] The founding of Scott’s program in 2009 signaled the presence of much critical thinking about the architecture exhibition itself as a medium – or, rather, a meta-medium that incorporates other media, ranging from drawings, photos, and animations, to building fragments, scale models and even workshops or performances.[26]

Daniel Arsham/Snarkitecture’s Dig Performance Installation @ Storefront 

Curator and design writer Carson Chan points out a paradox inherent in the exhibition-as-medium: “How can architecture be at once the object and the context of display?”[27] Architecture exhibitions do, after all, exhibit architecture inside architecture. Equally confounding, notes architectural historian and curator Kurt Forster, is “the impossibility of showing what architecture is really like rather than merely elaborating the means of its representations.”[28] In other words, the architecture exhibition typically exhibits not architecture, but the many modalities through which it’s represented or mediated.[29] Hale and Schnädelbach say that this “absence of the work itself” – of architecture as it exists, whole and complete, in the world – means the “absence of the multi-sensory and dynamic experience of a real three-dimensional architecture space unfolding in time.”[30]

But if, as Chan acknowledged, architecture also serves as the context for the display of architecture, exhibition visitors can still enjoy a “multisensory and dynamic experience” as they traverse the three-dimensional gallery space. And perhaps exhibition designers can promote experiences that enable visitors to translate their embodied experience of the architectural gallery context into an understanding of the architectural objects on display. “The exhibitionary setting is,” after all, “both representation and experiential,” notes museum studies scholar Jennifer Carter.[31] She continues:

The appropriation of architectural tropes of maps and labyrinths in exhibition design, the heightened attention paid to creating immersive environments through installations, and the role of sensory aesthetics that transcend the visual to incorporate the olfactory or haptic senses within this practice provide these sites with the means to come to life not only as didactic exercises but as highly developed sensorial environments as well. Thus beyond fulfilling a certain documentary or informational imperative, when designed well, the content and form of the architectural exhibition are capable of expanding upon the didactic representation of material (such as wall texts and objects) to allude to what is endemic to the subject itself: building in space.[32]

In his own work, Urbach has consistently created immersive installations and attended to sensory aesthetics. Much of that sensory environment is provided by the architectural context, “the frame, the container” – in other words, the gallery and all its exhibitionary variables, which include:

the architecture of the gallery; lighting and décor; furniture; interpretive elements; the activity and comportment of people, including security guards and other visitors; the ideas and affects that fill the air; the museological, curatorial, and artistic practices that discursively support the objects; the interpretive practices that support the activity of the viewers, and so forth. Smells and sounds, too.[33]

Freecell’s Moistscape, via Architect’s Newspaper 

Together these elements construct the “atmosphere,” the “vibe” of an exhibition, which is “something to be felt and inhabited,” rather than merely looked at from a critical distance. Urbach regards the production of atmosphere as one of his jobs as a curator. In 2004, in his former New York gallery, he hosted Freecell’s “Moistscape” installation, in which a three-dimensional steel frame supported a garden of moss. Underfoot, a rubber floor created a particular buoyancy and generated a distinctive smell that permeated the gallery’s cool, damp air. The gallery’s final show, by Jürgen Mayer H., involved coating the room’s surfaces with heat-sensitive paint, which served as a record of visitors’ physical contact with the exhibition.[34] In this case, the architectural context of the gallery was simultaneously the architectural object on display.

Lina Bo Bardi, Museum of Art of São Paulo, via Afterall
Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, via 

Urbach identifies a number of additional precedents from which architectural exhibition designers and curators could draw inspiration: Lina Bo Bardi’s installation design work at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in the 50s and 60s; Philip Ursprung’s “Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2003; Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 “Weather Project” at the Tate Modern; and Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambú installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. In a similar vein, I would also add, are the Whitney Museum’s 2003 “Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio,” and the architects’ Blur Building, an inhabitable cloud of water vapor constructed for the Swiss Expo 2002.[35]

Herzog & de Meuron’s Rotterdam, via EssG on Flickr

Also instructive is 2005’s “Beauty and Waste in the Architecture of Herzog & De Meuron” at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. The exhibition contained design media in a variety of formats – all the “accumulated waste” of the architects’ design process. One of those material artifacts was a fragrance. Creating a scent, the designers said, enabled them to capture the “elusive emotions that define the aura of a place,” and which “pla[y] a role in our perception of architecture.”[36] On occasion of the exhibition the architects created a limited edition perfume, “Rotterdam,” with characteristic hints of Rhine water, dog, hashish, algae, vin chaud, fur and tangerine.[37]

Carter holds up the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s 2000 “Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937” as exemplary, too. She regards it not only a departure for the CCA from their previous shows, which kept with the “fine arts paradigm” of exhibition design; but also as an exemplar of immersive, engaging exhibition design in which form echoes content. With its modular, grid construction, “it was the infrastructure to an exhibition on infrastructure, borrowing in form, function, and materiality from that which it intended to exhibit.”[38] “One progressed through the exhibition in the manner of a promenade – stepping over steel bars, dodging between modular units”; the exhibition thus constituted “an itinerary…that unfolds as the visitors progress through the installation, and the sensorial effect of the environment as a whole.”[39]

This embodied, dynamic experience of an “unfolding” program also characterized a Fall 2012 exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, where I met with director Eva Franch i Gilabert. “Past Futures, Present, Futures” featured 101 “alternative visions for the present and future of the city,” each represented on an informational sticker affixed to the back of reflective panel in a curved wall of vertical blinds.[40] Franch explained that “the exhibition is breaking the entire site of display”; it deconstructs the visitor’s experience “conceptually, sensorially.”[41] The walls break up the gallery into various “rooms” (including one where visitors can sit and inscribe their own visions for the urban future), which one can access by passing through the maze of blinds. At the same time, the individual panels break up the wall plane – and the information it’s presenting – into discrete units. When you move through the space,” Franch explained, on each panel “you see a new fragment of the knowledge” represented in the show. QR codes on the panels allow visitors to “see in the digital space how all these things come together”; thus, what is sensorially and conceptually fragmented in the gallery, coalesces online.

Inside the gallery are also eight speakers that broadcast the titles of the 101 projects. The speakers aren’t synchronized; they’re meant to “work as a kind of [sonic] rainbow,” and the implied movement in the sound is compels you to move through the space. The sound is also “transgressing the inside and outside” of the gallery, which is known for its multi-paneled exterior walls that are often thrown open to the street. The sound – if not the sparkly blinds – pulls you in from the street. Franch proudly declares that “there is no code that tells us we cannot be shooting sound outside the façade.” She’s clearly inspired by sound’s – rather, any “sensorially based and physically disruptive” gesture’s – radical potential. The senses,” she says, are “more connected to our instinctual, basic devices or communicative processes,” than to our “educated, cultivated pleasures…. They are more radical tools of action than [those] in a space of rational action.”

Smell, for instance, has tremendous potential in “new spaces of radical marketing.” Franch discussed how KFC restaurants reach out into the street by strategically positioning their ventilation shafts to lure customers with the smell of frying chicken. What might be the “radical” potential for smell in architecture, and how might it fit into the architecture exhibition? Franch asked: “How do we architecturalize our own smell? Think about how new cars smell. That smell’s trademarked… Now, how does a new building smell, and how does an old building smell?” Furthermore, “what’s the smell of the [architectural] future?… Maybe the smell of the future is neutralization… There are already offices where you can’t wear perfume. Maybe the future is odorless.” Storefront is itself an interesting olfactory case study: “what is fascinating about this location…is that in itself is already provokes.” With the gallery’s permeable facades, the smells and sounds and weather of the street flow readily inside. Thus, the designers, speakers, and artists presenting their work know that it “needs to be a lot louder [and stronger], because this place is already loud.” Franch said Storefront is collaborating with folks from engineering firm Ove Arup (through the gallery’s tech committee) to develop an “olfactory laboratory.” She’s not yet sure what form such a project would take.

Paella Series @ Storefront 

Franch, who’s known as a skilled cook, has achieved Antontelli’s vision of integrating food – with its attendant tastes, smells, and sounds – into the gallery. Her “Paella Series” of events, which involve Franch cooking for her guests in the gallery, are intended to “introduce intense public conversations and debate into spaces of quotidian action, in this case cooking and eating.”[42] It allows participants to ruminate on “architecture in a state of distraction… When people are brought into the most visceral element of what we do as human beings – that is to eat and share – one can start thinking about things differently.” Debating over food also serves a critical function: “The idea of the sensorium has always been something [considered] much more feminine… The paella series for me is a ways to bring those [feminine] things more value.”[43]

Of course Storefront, with its history of experimentation and its flexible gallery space that literally opens itself up to the New York Streets, is perhaps more capable of taking risks than more traditional institutions. Yet Franch suggested that more “standardized museums” can perhaps use more “performance-based installations” – exhibitions that unfold over time – to better convey the multisensoriality of the architectural “object,” and to promote embodied user experience. Yet she cautions against regarding multisensoriality as an imperative: “The problem of big institutions is that they are interested sometimes in making something that is not tactile, tactile; making something that is not visual, visual… The important thing is to understand what is the real space of communication and action that each medium requires and demands.” There’s no point in gratuitously employing smell vaporizers or sound in the gallery if those media fit neither the space, the context; nor the content of the exhibition. Johannes Goebel, a participant on my “Multimodal Approaches to Learning” panel, agreed that designing exhibitions to engage as many senses as possible isn’t always advantageous, because it runs the risk of Disney-ifying the experience.” “One needs to always find the way,” Franch says, “not to thematize things without knowing how to bring them into relevance. Because if one just simply starts talking about smell, taste, [etc.]… then one just starts taking those things and codifies them…, capitalizes them.”


While distinct fields of design, interaction design and architecture both deserve to be represented in a way that does justice to their multisensory, dynamic nature. Traditional exhibition spaces complicate such efforts. But by examining these myriad exhibitions and learning from the experience of diverse curators and exhibition designers, we’ve identified a number of challenges and opportunities that apply to exhibitions not only of interaction design and architecture, but to exhibitions of all sorts:

  • The Exhibition Space: We need to ascertain and acknowledge – and, if possible, seek to overcome – the limitations our museums and galleries present to multisensory exhibition. We need to understand how various senses “occupy” space and design our exhibitions accordingly. Sound and smell, for instance, tend to “bleed” into nearby spaces, and therefore commonly require isolation or dedicated sensory “chambers.” We also have the potential to work with our gallery architecture, or perhaps even compensate for its shortcomings, by manipulating all the variables – lighting, furniture, security, didactic materials, etc. – that together comprise the “atmosphere” of an exhibition. Finally, when designing exhibition spaces, we need to take sensory experience into account from the very beginning of the design process. Acoustics in particular can’t be easily fixed after the fact.
  • The Exhibition’s Publics: We need to consider the capacities, desires, and limitations of our exhibitions’ various publics. What perceptual impairments might they bring to the gallery? How willingly will they accept our encouragement to think critically about their standard modes of sensation? What are the ethical implications of expecting our publics to engage exhibitions with their full sensoria?
  • Exhibition Modes and Media: We need to think about the wide variety of exhibition modes and media, and their unique affordances and limitations. How might we use technology to mediate various senses, particularly when those senses can’t be experienced first-hand in the gallery? How might we use these technologies to promote critical forms of sensory perception? What media and modes of presentation – e.g., full-scale models, manipulable copies of items on display, performances, demonstration of exhibition material – are best equipped to allow for embodied experience? How might we create dynamic spaces that “unfold” the curatorial “vision”? These questions imply that we also need to carefully consider the unique capacities of the exhibition itself as a medium….
  • Thinking Context + Content Together: How might we design exhibitions that embody the qualities – including the sensory registers – that we regard as central to the material on display? As Carter acknowledges,” the content and form of the…exhibition are capable of expanding upon the didactic representation of material…to allude to what is endemic to the subject itself.” In other words, our exhibitionary contexts and contents can better inform one another. We need to listen more carefully for echoes – sensorial, conceptual, formal echoes  – between the objects on exhibit, and the atmospheres in which we exhibit them.

[1] Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

[2] Malcolm McCullough, Invited Presentation at Usability Professionals’ Association, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 10, 2004.

[3] Jonas Lowgren, “Interaction Design” In Mads Soegaard and Rikke Friis Dam, Eds., Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation, 2008).

[4] Jon Kolko, Thoughts on Interaction Design: A Collection of Reflection, 2nd Ed. (Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2011): 13.

[5] Shannon Mattern, “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects” [exhibition review] Design and Culture 4:3 (2012): 369-373.

[6] Paola Antonelli. Personal Interview. November 8, 2012; Museum of Modern Art, “Berlin, City Smell Research,” “Talk to Me,” Museum of Modern Art (n.d.).

[7] MoMA collaborated with Parsons The New School for Design (along with International Fragrances and Flavors, Coty, and Seed magazine) on “HeadSpace,” a 2010 conference exploring scent as an “untapped medium that presents a remarkable opportunity for design” (Jamer Hunt, “HeadSpace: On Scent as Design,” Parsons MFA Transdisciplinary Design [October 2, 2010]; see also HeadSpace: On Scent as Design).

[8] I must admit: I found it difficult to experience that intimacy with myriad museum-goers jostling me and obstructing my view. I had seen this video months earlier, at home on my computer, and found the intimacy of that experience better suited for the nostalgic themes of the video.

[9] See the work of sound scholar Michael Bull.

[10] In a panel discussion at the Multimodal Approaches to Learning International Conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 2012, curator and sensory historian Jim Drobnick acknowledged the challenges of exhibiting smell and taste when the entire fragrance and flavoring company is controlled by a handful of major companies who jealously protect their recipes. The proprietary nature of this “raw material” complicates any attempts to integrate smell and taste into the gallery.

[11] See Shannon Mattern, “Silent, Invisible City: Mediating Urban Experience for the Other Senses” Mediacity: Situations, Practices and Encounters (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2009): 155-76.

[12] Paola Antonelli, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011): 9.

[13] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, [1967] 1997): 348, 354.

[14] Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for StartersInside/Out (Museum of Modern Art: November 29, 2012).

[15]Invisible: Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012e-flux; Dialogue in the Dark. Available on line at

[16] Multimodal Approaches to Learning International Conference, October 26-28, 2012, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[17] Barry Bergdoll, “At Home In the Museum?” Log 15 (Winter 2009): 37. Bergdoll also addresses the history of architectural exhibitions outside of MoMA, and prior to the 20th century. This deeper, more global history is beyond the purview of this essay. For more on the history of architecture exhibitions, see Barry Bergdoll, “Curating History” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57:3 (September 1998): 256-7, 366; Jennifer Carter, “Architecture by Design: Exhibiting Architecture Architecturally” Media Tropes 3:2 (2012): 32-33; Phyllis Lambert, “The Architectural Museum: A Founder’s Perspective” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58:3 (September 1999): 308-315.

[18] Henry Urbach, “Exhibition as Atmosphere” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 13. We find precedents in the late 18th century at the Musée des monuments français, where Alexandre Lenoir “dismantled the parts of buildings confiscated from ecclesiastical and aristocratic settings, deploying them as both picturesque and didactic fragments, but effectively elevating them to works of sculpture rather than dealing with the complex organism of the building of which they were so many momento mori” (Bergdoll 2009: 35). It’s important to note that some of these fragments were “the scale of buildings,” and thus potentially inhabitable (36).

[19] Urbach 13; Bergdoll 2009: 40.

[20] Bergdoll 2009: 39; see also Terence Riley, The International Style:Exhibition 15 and the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Rizzoli and Columbia Books on Architecture, 1992).

[21] Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008): 9-10. Bergdoll (2009) describes many historically significant precedents: Mies’s Weissenhofsiedlung housing estate, completed in 1927; the Werkbund’s exhibition of full-scale rooms at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1930; MoMA’s 1930 Bauhaus exhibition; and the Berlin Building Exhibition of 1931.

[22] Bergdoll 2009: 40.

[23] Fleur Watson, “Beyond Art, The Challenge Of Exhibiting ArchitectureD*Hub, Powerhouse Museum:

[24] Jonathan Hale & Holger Schnädelbach, “Moving City: Curating Architecture on Site” In Sarah Chaplin & Alexandra Stara, Eds., Curating Architecture and the City (New York: Routledge, 2009): 51-2.

[25] Felicity D. Scott, “Operating Platforms” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 66-7.

[26] See Jean-Louis Cohen, “Mirror or Dreams” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 49-53; Sylvia Lavin, “Showing Work” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 5-10; Aaron Levy and William Menking, Eds., Venice New York London Chicago: Four Conversations on the Architecture of Discourse (London: Architectural Association 2012); Felicity D. Scott, “Operating Platforms” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 65-9; Mirko Zardini, “Exhibiting And Collecting Ideas: A Montreal Perspective” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 77-84.

[27] Carson Chan, “Exhibiting Architecture: Show, Don’t TellDomus (September 2010).

[28] Kurt W. Forster, “Show Me: Arguments for an Architecture of Display” Log 20 (Fall 2010): 62.

[29] Of course there is much debate over what constitutes architecture, and whether architectural mediation itself constitutes a form of architectural practice. I discuss these issues in Shannon Mattern, “Click/Scan/Bold: The New Materiality of Architectural Discourse and Its Counter-Publics” Design and Culture 3.3 (November 2011): 329-354.

[30] Hale & Schnädelbach 52.

[31] Jennifer Carter, “Architecture by Design: Exhibiting Architecture Architecturally” Media Tropes 3:2 (2012): 30.

[32] Carter 31.

[33] Urbach 14.

[34] Urbach 15.

[35] Some museums have long offered special tours for visitors with various handicaps – e.g., Antonelli mentioned in our conversation MoMA’s special programs for visitors with Alzheimers – but the Newark Museum of Art seems to offer an early example of architecture-specific programming for the blind. In the 1960s the museum began to hold “Touch and See” exhibitions for the blind; the tenth edition, in 1974, was dedicated to “Forms of Architecture,” which explored, through various senses, the different available forms and materials of spatial enclosure (Sally O’C Townsend, “Touch and See – Architecture for The Blind” Curator: The Museum Journal 18:3 (September 1975): 200-205).

[36] Quoted in Philip Ursprung, Ed., Herzog & De Meuron: Natural History (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2002): 365.

[37] Also noteworthy is the wine “smell wall” in Urbach’s 2011 “How Wine Becomes Modern: Design + Wine, 1976 to Now” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

[38] Carter 41, 44.

[39] Carter 43.

[40]Past Futures, Present, FuturesStorefront for Art and Architecture.

[41] Eva Franch i Gilabert. Personal Interview. October 10, 2012.

[42]Paella 01 – Architecture on DisplayStorefront for Art and Architecture.

[43] Franch.

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