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Participatory City: A Conversation with Curator Maria Nicanor about the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s Exhibition

Maria Nicanor

Maria Nicanor, Curator, BMW Guggenheim Lab; Associate Curator, Architecture and Urbanism, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Christine McLaren

When co-curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer first conceived the BMW Guggenheim Lab, the idea was to take the discussion around architecture and urbanism out from behind museum walls, and into the street. Now, with the project coming to a close, Nicanor faces the exact opposite challenge: to shepherd two years, three Labs, and three cities-worth of ideas and conversation in the streets back to the gallery walls for the Lab’s final exhibition, Participatory City, which opens today at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

It’s quite a task—much like trying to write a book that captures every TED Talk ever given, or consolidate a master’s thesis into a tweet. So I caught up with Nicanor for a quick chat about how she approached the challenge.

The Lab was a project that involved thousands of people and months of experiences and ideas in cities all around the world. How has it been to bring all this into the museum?

It’s almost like trying to document a performance or a dance. Experiencing these ideas in an informal setting was what made it powerful. No one was telling you through walls in a white gallery space what the ideas were; you were coming up with them by yourself. You came into the space, perhaps by chance, and encountered people. You’d strike up [a] conversation, then suddenly a program would happen and you’d have an amazing speaker telling you about an amazing idea that you’d never heard before, or [you would] take part in an experiment that made you think differently. That is something that is difficult to convey in an institutional setting—to put into practice that idea of participation or conversation.

But it’s a very important exercise to give ourselves that closure and time for analysis. The exhibition is a little more of a solitary experience, so the process of discovery of information is very different in the Lab than it is here. In the exhibition, you’re left a little more to your own devices and your own curiosity. If you want to find out more by watching some of the videos, for instance, you can, but no one is going to prompt you to do it. The exhibition is designed in a way that can appeal to people who have been at the Labs, but also people who have never heard about them or never been at any of the Lab locations. It offers an overview of what the project was and who the people are that were involved in it, and the key ideas that were talked about. So hopefully, after even 15 minutes of being in the space, people will understand what this was about . . . and get a sense [of] the hundreds of people that were involved with this, especially the Lab Team members. At the end of the day, this is a documentation of their work and ideas.

What are you hoping people will take away from this exhibition?

It’s the idea of cities being built by people—how it is people’s ideas and people coming together that really builds cities, for better or for worse. I think many people will come in thinking they’re coming to see an architecture exhibition, or a design exhibition, but that’s not what they’re going to get. There’s very little design-y talk, and there’s very little infrastructural talk. I think that’s important in and of itself: that people can understand they’ve come to the Guggenheim to see an architecture show that didn’t actually show them any architecture, really, or much design at all. Rather, show them ideas to improve cities, or challenges that cities have, but they’re all very social, or economic. They’re more human challenges than infrastructural challenges.

Read more about Participatory City and its programs and events lineup here, and stay tuned, as always, for new thoughts and ideas from the Lab right here on Lab | Log.