Exhibition Review | Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism (CCA)

Exhibition Review

Curated by Francesco Garutti, this exhibition explores and questions the ways science of happiness has started to shape the built environments by turning the politicians, architects and designers’ focus on intangible/subjective elements of well-being. Relying on the abundance of the textual information, this exhibition is heavily didactic rather than entertaining. And the main value of this exhibition resides in its rich intellectual content, which in my opinion outshines the formal display strategies.

The “handbooks of happiness” is the foundation on which the content of this exhibition is structured. Of course I cannot have an expert position in evaluating the inclusiveness and accuracy of this resource which is pulled out from the happy indices, world happiness reports and global liveability reports. But I found the whole effort in contextualizing the role of designers in relation to the “happiness agenda” very relevant. Besides, the whole theme was in perfect alignment with the prime aim of the museum which is to “increase public awareness of the role of architecture in contemporary society and promoting research in the field”1.

A good credit of the experience could be given to the architecture and landscape of the CCA which establishes the very beginning and ending of the journey. In fact the experience starts with encountering the provocative Slogans from Douglas Coupland2 printed on some fifty colored boards along the Parc Baile fence even before you even enter the open yard. They belong to another exhibition of the CCA, It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the modern Canadian Environment. However, as they are thematically connected to this exhibition, the visitor get internally prepared for what they are about to face.

The exhibition materials were displayed in a linear narrative fashion; three introductory rooms followed by four similarly treated galleries were set in a sequential row and ended with the last gallery which had a slightly different display scheme. The interior walls seemed to be permanent and hence were partly imposing the way rooms were organized. However, the high arched ceilings in all spaces with indirect lighting treatment were an inherited architectural feature that made the rooms feel spacious and proportionally balanced. This alongside with the use of low saturated color palette made the overall atmosphere relaxing but not necessarily happy.
Exhibition Review
I found the entrance lobby or the first act to be the climax of the whole experience; it draws the visitors’ attention to the presented media as they pass through a long corridor towards the exhibition. It also puts the visitors into a suspense and curiosity before inviting them to pass through the front curtain behind which the other rooms are hidden. The digital screens standing vertically on a pair of steel posts were dynamically reporting the UN happiness rankings of different countries and were a clear reminiscent of the currency exchange boards in the financial markets. This design strategy implicitly depicted the irony of the new capitalism’s drive for quantifying even the most immeasurable and emotional facets of the human’s well-being. It also resonated with the notion of “Emotional Capitalism” situated in the title. All the media presented in this space were revealing the status of emergency created after the 2008 financial crisis and the critical need of redefining the relationships between well-being and wealth. The video content proved the governments’ anxiety in guaranteeing a happy life to their societies when the indices such as GDP which were solely relying on wealth and involvement in economic growth are no longer as effective. That video content shown in the entrance lobby followed by a 22-minute documentary film projected in the next room in addition to the massive textual information were all calling for a long tour. Perhaps more engaging methods of data-visualization and interactivity could have made the overall experience less boring. I even started to doubt whether a virtual/web version of the exhibition could be more effective for this type and amount of content.
Exhibition Review
Exhibition Design
The third introductory room was perhaps benefiting the most from the physical/spatial components of a physical exhibition; The yellow exaggerated neon lighting made this room feel totally different; It almost blurred out the wall edges and created an infinite-like background for the eight art pieces beneath to shine. These artworks were an important part of the exhibition content as they illustrate the possible urban life scenarios in response to the guidelines suggested in the happiness report. A heavy shag covering all the floor was another unique design element of this room, but the piles were so high that I pondered whether the wheelchair users were considered at all.
Exhibition Review

The following galleries displayed the 25 case studies each with a unique subject on almost modular tables with the same height. The framed printed paragraphs on the walls were another repeating elements which could have been designed more creatively. But together, the walls were whispering the challenges and questions of the happiness, and the tables were suggesting the potential remedies. The dominant soft blue color of the walls created a healthcare atmosphere, and use of carpet floor except for the last gallery strongly insulated the rooms from the noise and made them visually soft and acoustically calm but a bit dull at the same time. Use of low volume local soundscape near the display tables complementing their contents could have been an effective way to mitigate the visual monotony and converting the galleries into more meditative rather than clinic environments.

Exhibition Review

Other than the excessive amount of textual information and plenty of modular elements, the absence of any openings to the external landscape was another reason why a break was felt needed. But this did not happen before the last gallery which took a slightly different content and formal design strategy; it concluded the exhibition by displaying three case studies from Copenhagen, Tampa, and Tokyo, which have become popular in branding themselves as the happy cities. Design-wise, the height of the exhibits were lowered from the display tables onto the floor which was no more carpeted. Despite all these strategies, the experience still felt unfinished and open and especially since you were left in the same corridor you started with, a very final space with some similar design elements as the first entrance lobby could have created a complete narrative loop. In the following interview, Garutti calls the provocative ending message of this exhibition: “Are the producers of rankings are the designers of our cities?”. This message could perhaps be isolated in an ending space with similar design strategy of the first entry space. To conclude, I found the method of communication in this exhibition slightly poignant and overwhelming with textual information. It rather left me with an ambivalent feeling, which seemed to be the main objective of the exhibition after all; Garutti declared in an interview that the aim was to leave the visitors with a series of doubts, questions and uncertainties. He also mentions that they plan to respond to these questions in the next year.

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