Exhibition Design: Clive Wilkinson Talks Never Built

Architect Clive Wilkinson talks to us about the ideas behind his design for the A+D Museum’s Never Built: Los Angeles show. Image courtesy A+D Museum.“Our concern was how to tell the story of so many different artifacts,” Clive Wilkinson, the president and design director of his eponymous architecture firm, says of the driving idea behind the design of the Never Built: Los Angeles exhibition, on view now through October 13 at the A+D Museum. New to the exhibition-design game, Wilkinson, who worked with Jenny Myers, Mathew Moran and many others, initially drew on his retail-design experience to underpin his concept for the space.

“What’s unique about retail is that it’s often a limited experience of only one room,” he says. “The emphasis on how you use the space and map information to enhance the user experience. When a show’s well-designed, it’s like good retail design in a sense—but you’re communicating a product that’s more interesting than retail.”

The plan called for opening up the space of the museum (he and his team avoided building walls). Two existing columns were wrapped with tower elements, effectively taking them out of the spatial equation. To preserve light-sensitive exhibition materials, “we closed off the storefront,” says Wilkinson. “It turned into an advantage, so the experience didn’t leach out on to the street and made it more of a cohesive experience.” The floor features a 1938 map of the city “to locate everything geographically and emphasize the urban nature of these schemes,” he says. 

While the map was chosen in large part because of expediency—it was difficult to get ahold of a high-enough resolution map of the city—it proved serendipitous. “It was the chronological midpoint of the show, and the map of the city as it was known to the people coming up with these ideas,” says Wilkinson. “The city was in transition, a set of towns coming together. If we’d used a map of the city today, it would be much more developed with no empty patches on the map. Permanent infrastructure would be there. That’s not the city that was the starting point of these ideas. Some of these projects were hugely naïve and optimistic and quite silly.”

As for the physical installation of the show, “there’s a lot of ambiguity around the artifacts,” notes Wilkinson. Details on sizes and shapes sometimes weren’t known until the last moments. “You have to have a lot of flexability about how you handle the artifacts,” he says. “We had to have casual and robust infrastructure so we could add 12 inches to a plinth. We realized this at the beginning and adopted it as the guiding principal.”

Beyond adding exhibition designer to his already jam-packed portfolio, his work on the show caused him to reflect on the state of architecture in general. “If you’re true to yourself,” he says, “the 1950s and 60s more fun period to be an architect. There was a greater appreciation for the new and modern.”

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