How do you turn a stack of prints into an interesting exhibition? BOZAR put this question to Kiki Verbeeck, who together with Yves Malisse runs architecture firm URA. They were asked to design the exhibition Prints in the Age of Bruegel. "A scenographer has to take the visitor by the hand, but make them feel like they are discovering everything for themself."
Is it the first time you have designed an exhibition like this?
It was new to us. We've designed sets for our own architectural exhibitions, which is a bit different, to be honest. But on a specific item, for an arts centre? Yes, it was the first time.
How do you even begin to work on something like this?
The sheer quantity of works to be accommodated was vast. How vast, we didn't really know until we started the drawings. The works are all presented in much the same way, too. The frames are all the same, and, generally speaking, they come in just three sizes - and that's it.
But then, there are a few exceptions among the works. We noticed this almost right away and said: let's allow these exceptions to be truly exceptional and turn them into specific pieces of furniture, in stark contrast to the imposing sight of all these frames hung traditionally on the wall.
It all started with a piece measuring 9 metres: the Family Tree of Emperor Charles V. It deserved a cabinet of its own, but we didn't want to just lay it out in a traditional glass cabinet. When we visited the Prints Department at the Royal Library to see the genealogical tree, it was laid out horizontally on a table. The curator lifted one end with two fingers to show us. My immediate reaction was to take a photograph – this was the spontaneous, instinctive reaction of someone who wants to show something off, and I knew right away that that's how it had to be. So we built a really long cabinet, which follows the same curve. That's the crux of it: turning the natural way we want to use things into architecture.
That same curve becomes a recurrent leitmotif throughout the exhibition’s furniture.
Exactly. We decided that that curve, that flowing line, that roundedness was a really nice element. Its frivolity and airiness, compared to the weightiness of tradition and the sheer abundance of frames, set up a tension that we find important. The pieces are displayed very lightly in those cabinets. We had the steel milled to the right curve; it was quite a feat actually, technically speaking.
We did the same with the books in the exhibition. Those are usually displayed on little lecterns, but we wanted to bring back that flowing line. We designed the curves so you can't see over the top of them. When you stand in front of them, it is as if you are swallowed up by the cabinet and isolated from the vast number of other works suspended on the walls. So many works, in fact, that they come at you in an almost hypnotic way. The furniture draws you into an intimate experience, where you are one-on-one with the book.
The exhibition has a dramatic look about it, with the pictures lit against dark colours. What made you go for that particular palette?
The furniture has red velvet upholstery. Red, because it is so typical of Bruegel's time. When we visited the exhibition spaces for the first time we were struck by the huge red settee at the top of the stairs in the Horta Hall. We began a little research with that old settee in mind. The red really had to stand out. It's like presenting a marvellous jewel, on a red cushion, to show how incredibly beautiful and valuable these pieces are, like pieces of jewellery.
Then we went to work on a few of Bruegels paintings on the computer. We knew we would be using red, so we concentrated on the reds and browns in his work. We wanted to capture as much drama as we could. The conservators had already set the light level at no more than 50 lux, due to the fragility of the works. It's a fairly intimate level of light, but it helps you focus on the works.
In other words, we went for the dark colours to accentuate the drama. We decided to use a colour gradient, which visitors don't notice until they experience the entire walk. Indeed, so weak is the light that many don't notice at all. If they did, they might be shocked: that first room is almost baby pink! The colours go from pink to brown along the walk.
What made you agree to do this particular exhibition?
Saying yes was completely in line with our instinctive way of working. In our architectural practice we never focus on a niche, and we also vary in scale: from furniture design to urban development. In other words, anything outside the usual realm of the traditional project will catch our attention. It keeps the thought process fresh. And it is that thought process, and the design process that stems from it that we consider to be the crucial element in the end result.
And what have you discovered about exhibition design? Have you had to adapt your way of working?
We have discovered that the strategy we apply to all our other design assignments also applied to this one. As architects, what we always do when designing spaces is take a long hard look at function: how will people actually use this space? How will they walk through it? What functions are needed? An exhibition is a temporary event, whereas in architecture we deal with things that stand for a long time. But the approach and the design production process are actually the same. The main considerations are always: movement, flow, the use and creation of atmosphere. The methodoly is actually the same.
Over the years we have noticed that the more parameters there are, and the more constraints we are given, the better for us. It forces you to confront issues, to take a stance. And that’s actually very helpful. In this case, the lighting was very specific and that genealogy print was incredibly determining, but these were the very things that defined the atmosphere and the furniture. It turns out that the exceptions actually set the standard for the entire exhibition. The same thing is true in architecture: you zoom in on the exceptions, because they provide tension, excitement. That tension produces a kind of dialectic imagery, which in turn colours the rest, all the other ‘ordinary’ stuff that is already there.
Has it given you a taste for more?
Absolutely. But, of course, it all depends on where. It’s important to mention here how amazing it is for an arts centre like BOZAR to seek out architects and artists for their exhibition design. Just like with architecture, the client has to be on board!
The Prints in the Age of Bruegel exhibition runs until 23 June at BOZAR. Next year, the architects at URA look back over their careers in their own retrospective of projects past.