Case Study: Design Biennial Boston

Client
pinkcomma gallery, Boston Society of Architects
Project Title
Design Biennial Boston
Duration
October 2012–June 2013
Description

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

The Design Biennial Boston was initiated in 2008 as part of pinkcomma gallery’s efforts to initiate discourse among emerging designers and the public in Boston. The third installment appeared in 2012–13 at BSA Space, a gallery where the Biennial could reach a broader audience and benefit from institutional support. This event included an exhibition and archival book focused on the nineteen winners of all three Biennials. The exhibition housed site-specific installations by the four winners of the 2012 Biennial as well as an archival component of the show that mapped the overlapping interests of the larger grouping of practices over the past decade.

The team conducted a survey of all winners, exploring the changing nature of designers who live and work in Boston. Activist in nature, the exhibition combined archival methods of display with techniques to encourage audience engagement. The book and exhibition attest to the potential for homegrown critical and experimental design in a city where such activities have often been limited to academic institutions.

Project brief

The Biennial was created to provide a showcase and voice for emerging architects and landscape architects in the Greater Boston area. In an era where the largest corporate offices are increasingly getting much of the city’s building work, it is important that the public is exposed to these innovative design talents. There are very few mechanisms through which emerging offices have access to the decision-makers and clients who are shaping Boston's future. The Biennial attempts to address this inadequacy by placing lesser-known designers in the public realm. The exhibit’s design aimed to create a critical mass of work from a group of diverse designers, many of whom are challenging boundaries of traditional architecture and landscape practices, working as installation artists, public policy critics, urban designers as well as graphic and environmental designers. Collecting their work in one place demonstrated this spectrum of expertise.

Background

Boston is home to some of the world's top-ranked design schools. It hosts many emerging practices that are establishing unique voices via their commissions in Asia, Central America, Europe and the Middle East. Nevertheless, it has been challenging for emerging offices to find work within Boston itself. The city’s main regulatory agency, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, has institutionalized a system of developer/architect relationships that is very difficult to access without many years of networking. The goal of the Biennial is to provide a forum for celebrating emerging designers as well as fostering their practices to overcome these hurdles, in an effort to ensure that innovation flourishes in Boston’s design community.

Budget

Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: A retainer relationship
Production/execution budget: $30,000–$100,000
Source of funding: Client

Strategy

The practice of design is predicated on an unstable relationship between words and things. While some designers choose to speak through the process of making, others work within the modes and methods of discourse, speculating on the ways in which we see and interpret design production. Like the designer, the curator works in the space between these two, negotiating the presence of objects with the need for description and classification. This is especially true of a design biennial, which is both retrospective—a valuation of work already produced for other places and purposes—and projective, a platform for new voices to frame propositions for the future of practice.

The exhibition strategy is based on two traditional domains of the design exhibition: the archive and the installation. The archive houses a collection of previous winners and recent inductees organized under thematic categories to map overlapping interests. The intent is to continue growing this resource over time. Site-specific installations by this year’s awardees complemented the archive, describing four positions on the stakes of contemporary practice and its matters of concern, from cultural production to the properties of matter, the technics of geometry and fabrication, and the redefinition of accepted uses and forms.

Research

The project established a veritable census of nineteen architectural and landscape practices over the past decade. The firms and their principals were surveyed about subjects ranging from the specific (business practice and contracts, revenue and commissions, compensation, education and teaching and changes in marketing outreach) to the mundane (software and computational platforms, project locations, and the percentage of projects built). This information was used to generate visualizations that examined the relationships and distinctions among the offices, documenting overlaps in expertise and service, while highlighting the unique qualities of individual practices. The graphic treatment of this data, however, called into question the ubiquity and usefulness of the infographic format, which often parlays information without making meaningful connections between graphics and content. Through the removal of qualifying information in favor of amplifying the quantitative—and by further emphasizing the aesthetic drawing-like character of each graphic—the audience could be enticed to spend time making the connections embedded in the graphic.

Design solution

The project, conceived as an archive, was implemented in three forms: a wall-mounted display that followed the pattern of a card catalogue, custom archival "arks" which contained color images of all of the projects and a book that documented the entire exhibition.

These approaches to the collection and storage of work—and its public display—initiated questions about the accessibility of knowledge in our current screen-obsessed world. They reflect an inversion of the standard museum setup, where archives are accessible only to scholars who divine which information should be presented to the public. Instead of the highly scripted and edited versions of complex content that typifies most exhibitions, the approach was to display the archive itself, and allow the viewer to engage with it as a researcher might. In other words, the complexity and thoroughness of the archive was placed in the hands of the public.

BSA Space is not a collecting institution. The gallery’s designers conceived its space to contain “an archipelago of program distributed within the flows of public gallery.” Any exhibit in the space rubs against the day-to-day functioning of the organization. However, the spaces of the gallery double as zones of circulation, making it difficult to have clear areas of content that are navigable from beginning to end. The archive format—as both a catalog and an unedited collection—solved the paradox of not having a beginning by allowing users to choose where to begin and how to freely navigate the content.

The four site-specific installations functioned as eddies in the flow of the gallery circulation, providing moments of calm amidst the variety of spaces and data in the archive. Each was developed by Biennial winners in tandem with the curatorial team to highlight aspects of their practice; they were located throughout the gallery as seductive forms to bring an audience together.

Challenges

The format of the exhibition was a direct response to the show’s primary challenge: to convey a deep and complex amount of information without hierarchy to a diverse audience. The choice to make an intelligible archive allowed the content to be organized, filled with potential surprises (moving panels, opening drawers), and addressed with different levels of seriousness or speed by visitors.

Effectiveness

The project:

  • Presented and promoted the work of 19 young emerging designers to a wide audience.
  • Included key players in academic, civic and regulatory circles.
  • Produced and delivered a document to influencers in the cultural, public and private realms.
  • Provided a high-profile venue for exhibition of a new generation of designers.
  • Encouraged the audience to discover connections between projects and firms.

The third edition of the Biennial was the most highly attended of all of the editions, and has set a high bar for the continued evolution of the project. The exhibit opening saw a collection of business, civic and architectural leaders in the community engaging in conversations about how design influences a city. Hundreds of copies of the book were sold and distributed to a wide-ranging audience.

Additional information

Can This Town Find A Home For New Boston Architecture?

Project Rorschach

Helix Staircase by Matter Design

Book Review: Archive

Fabricated at Michigan: Helix

“…There is something admirable in awarding and cataloging the achievements of those who decide to stay in and around Boston and take part in a growing and (from the outside) exciting architectural scene.” —John Hill

“Like the gallery—which ‘aims to foster and recognize a more creative and experimental scene that has grown out of one of the world’s most significant capitals of architectural education’—the book is a lever to pry open opportunities in this often hidebound city for young Boston architects.” —Greg Cook

Comments from the Jury

“This program is a great example of raising collective awareness for the diverse design talents that live and work in Boston. The seamless integration of vast amounts of design artifacts speaks to the designer’s ability to solve and house complexity within one brilliantly built environment. The exhibit and all its many parts work as one design statement–and that’s no easy task.” —Dana Arnett

“The installation is a creative use of space that showcases the work in a way that’s interesting to both designers and non-industry attendees. I love the way they packed a ton of information into a space that appears clean. The attendees have the choice to browse the inventive archival cards or go deeper for a more in-depth look at the work.” —Kate Aronowitz

“The Design Biennial Boston successfully promoted an active dialogue among multiple architectural perspectives and supported multiple narratives through a cohesive visual system.” —Cameron Campbell

“This classic exhibition design hit all the key points: materials, communication design and accessibility to a broad audience.” —Joe Gebbia

“The Boston Biennial was submitted in the category of "designer as activist," which made us take a second look. We were won over by the use of exhibition and publishing to bring experimental design out of academia and into commercial practice in Boston.” —Jennifer Kinon

“Design Biennale Boston used an unusual display system to give the public a memorable way to learn about the work of the local architecture community. Thoroughly considered from the print components all the way through to the environmental experience, the project deserves recognition for the way it balanced dynamic design with accessibility.” —Jeremy Mende

“The success of this project extends beyond that of its aesthetics. It organizes and expresses information with both clarity and a distinct point of view, creating an engaging series of experiences across media. It unites a varied and opinionated constituency under a single unifying principle, presenting a design retrospective in an active, forward-looking context. I was impressed by the consistent level of craft and thinking applied to the installation, environmental graphics, project, print catalog, etc.” —Christopher Simmons