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“At GSD, a tale of four cities”: Harvard Gazette features “Urban Intermedia” exhibition

Harvard Graduate School of Design main Fall 2018 exhibition Urban Intermedia recently earned placements in Architects Newspaper and Harvard University's Harvard Gazettein which the GSD's Assistant Director of Communications Travis Dagenais offers readers a look inside the project's motivations and outcomes.

“This is both a homecoming and an opportunity to raise new issues,” says the GSD's Eve Blau, adjunct professor of the history of urban form and one of Urban Intermedia‘s co-curators. “We see the exhibition as an experiment and the beginning of an ongoing discussion on new kinds of practices around the study of cities that bring together scholarship, design, and media. The open-ended aspect of the project is key to what it is all about.”

The exhibition synthesizes four years of scholarship on its subject cities — Berlin, Boston, Istanbul, and Mumbai — via animated digital narratives in a materials-driven installation. Four portals, each dedicated to one of the cities, invite visitors into miniature theaters in which the animated narratives are projected.

To tell the stories, the curators drew from a gamut of fieldwork and archival material, including photography, cartography, architectural drawings, digital data sets, film, and video. Viewers can watch each city unfold over time, but without written or verbal commentary, allowing freedom of interpretation.

During the exhibition’s Sept. 5 opening event, Jeffrey Schnapp, the Carl A. Pescosolido Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature at FAS, compared it to a city stroll: Visitors choose their own paths through the same setting, generating different takeaways from a common landscape.

The exhibit caps the four-year Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative (HMUI), which Blau co-directed with Julie Buckler, Samuel Hazzard Cross Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); Blau curated the exhibit itself with the GSD’s Robert Pietrusko, associate professor of landscape architecture. The exhibition was designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, led by Eric Höweler, associate professor of architecture.

“The idea of an exhibition that was global in its scope and global in its materiality was part of its conception,” Höweler says. “The idea to present the content in a way that allowed it to be present in each different context was to create the display system with a real material presence.”

The curators aimed to illuminate archival material and scholarship with new media, and then apply insights drawn from each city’s history to contemporary issues. Themes include the interactions and tensions between formal urban planning and random human behavior; patterns of migration, mobility, and how claims on space are made by — or denied to — different groups; and how nature interacts with human technologies.

For its curators, “Urban Intermedia” is as much a capstone as it is an experiment, and a gentle guide for future research. A principle behind HMUI, and one that undergirds “Urban Intermedia,” is that no one discipline “owns” a city; rather, urban research should be focused and site-specific while also comparative. Contrasting diverse scholarship can bring into relief so-called “blind spots” outside the scope of one discipline’s reach, and produce more complex and nuanced stories about societies than any single discipline could tell.

“‘Urban Intermedia’s’ methods evolved out of the complexity of the task we had set ourselves: to create a series of multimedia-animated narratives that are composed of the research materials we had gathered and produced in fieldwork and research in the four cities,” Blau said. “We wanted the materials of the research to carry the stories through the spatial and temporal relationships constructed by the intermedia narratives.”

Read the full Harvard Gazette feature on the Gazette‘s website, and visit Urban Intermedia in Gund Hall's Druker Design Gallery now through October 14.