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Co-curators bring diverse perspectives to Heinz Center

Thursday, February 20, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Tracy Myers grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, in a postwar suburb of Lancaster.

Tracy Myers and Raymund Ryan, the new co-curators of Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, tour the museum's Hall of Architecture. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Raymund Ryan was raised in a series of cities and towns in predominantly rural western Ireland, with the moves dictated every few years by his father's job with a bank.

Myers' interest in architecture came late; she embarked on careers as a Wall Street researcher and as an art historian before establishing a reputation over the past five years as a hard-working, community-oriented associate curator at Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center.

Ryan knew at an early age that he wanted to be an architect, a career he expanded through critical writing and teaching to become one of the most important voices in contemporary Irish architecture.

Today they are the Heinz center's separate-but-equal co-curators, each bringing to the position complementary strengths and experiences that could establish a higher profile and more ambitious exhibition program for the center, which opened in 1993.

"That's the department that has to produce nonstop," said museum director Richard Armstrong. "They have a dedicated space and they're obliged to keep it moving ahead at all times. I came to realize we needed two very gifted people."

In the past, the center has had a hierarchical arrangement of curator and associate or assistant curator. But Myers, who is 45, capably led the center through two periods as acting chief curator, and Armstrong didn't want to lose her. In time, he found a person whose education, abilities and global perspective dovetail nicely with her broad background and museum experience.

While Myers has focused on bringing the architectural world to Pittsburgh in the form of exhibits and programs, Ryan has been out in it. Teaching at University College Dublin for the past 10 years, Ryan, who is 43, also found time to organize Ireland's exhibits at the past two architecture biennials in Venice. As a critic, he's a frequent trans-Atlantic traveler, writing for some of the top journals in England, Europe, Japan and America. He has contributed text and catalog essays to exhibits on the work of contemporary Irish architects and is the author or co-author of two books. "Building Tate Modern" (Tate Publishing 2000) documents the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron's transformation of the former Bankside power plant into Britain's national museum of modern art. Ryan's other book, "Cool Construction" (Thames & Hudson, 2001) examines the work of four modernist firms in New York (Williams and Tsien), London (David Chipperfield), Kyoto (Waro Kishi) and Lisbon (Eduardo Souto de Moura).

Armstrong hopes Ryan will contribute to "a bigger and more robust bibliography from the Heinz center. That's where it becomes a more important center on the international stage."

Crisscrossing the pond

In 1981, Ryan's first job out of architecture school was in Los Angeles with Kevin Roche, who won the Pritzker Prize the following year. Roche, who had grown up with Ryan's father in Mitchelstown, County Cork, had worked with and inherited the practice of Eero Saarinen, completing St. Louis's Gateway Arch and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport. In partnership with structural engineer John Dinkeloo, Roche became known for large corporate headquarters, but also for innovative solutions, like the firm's 1960s terraced design for the Oakland (Calif.) Museum, with rooftop gardens that brought parkland to the densely built city.

"I was quite young when I was there," Ryan said. "We worked through models -- enormous models -- and I hadn't been exposed to that in college." From Roche, Ryan also absorbed "some sense of professionalism and doing something very well."

Ryan left Roche-Dinkeloo to pursue a master's degree in architecture at Yale, then returned to Los Angeles to work for Arthur Erickson for three years, notably on the Fresno City Hall. Then it was back to Dublin for the long stint of teaching.

He sees the Heinz center job, which he didn't seek out, as "the next chapter in professional development. Ireland is a very small place and the idea of coming back to the States is very exciting."

But he has no plans to sever his umbilical tie with Ireland, where most architects, he said, are producing modernist buildings "tailored for an Irish mentality."

For the 2000 architecture biennial in Venice, Ryan chose Dublin architect Tom de Paor who, with 23 tons of Irish peat briquettes, made a cube-like building with a chambered interior suggesting the confessional and recalling a small, stone, medieval monk's chapel in County Kerry.

Last fall, with biennial curators invited to consider what might be the iconic buildings of the future, Ryan chose the young Dublin firm Bucholz/McEvoy Architects, who represented their Limerick County Council Headquarters building by extracting elements of the construction process -- designed, Ryan said, to "give some sense of the complexity and decisions made in realizing a piece of architecture."

In Pittsburgh, Ryan wants to "develop the profile of architectural culture within the city. In New York or L.A., they are mega-cities, but in a city the scale of Pittsburgh or Dublin, it's possible to come to terms with the entirety of the city."

He has some ideas for future exhibits, making connections between Pittsburgh and other American cities, but isn't ready to talk about them.

Broadening the HAC

Myers, who studied government and economics, was working on Wall Street and planning to get a master's degree in public administration before a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art changed her life.

Although it was only the second time she had been to a museum, she knew instantly she wanted to have something to do with art. After taking courses at the New School, she homed in on art history, eventually earning a master's degree from Hunter College. A graduate seminar from architectural historian James O'Gorman on Richardson and Wright triggered a second epiphany, and she narrowed her focus to architecture and urbanism.

With her broad interests, Myers thinks it's important for the Heinz center to be "a little more liberal in what it shows." She wants to expand the public's notion of the built environment to include the temporarily built, and may organize an exhibit on the work of theater designers.

In spring 2004, the center will mount her first original show, on the visionary architect and theorist Lebbeus Woods, whose complex, unsettling drawings and constructions haunt the borderland between art and architecture. It won't be a retrospective but will include examples of recent projects as well as a site-specific piece responding to conditions in Pittsburgh. Myers will write the catalog essay.

"His work causes one to reflect on what it really means to inhabit the planet and the consequences of that," Myers said. "It's something that I admire and think is absent in a lot of architecture today."

Myers, who carried a heavy work load as acting curator for almost two years, also is looking forward to having time to finish her dissertation from the University of Delaware, on the 1950s public school buildings of TAC (The Architects Collaborative), founded in Boston in 1945 by Walter Gropius and a group of young Harvard grads.

In November, the center will open "Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life," which Myers booked and which reflects her interest in broadening the center's exhibit range. Organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, it draws from architecture as well as product, furniture and graphic design to question assumptions about the design of contemporary objects and spaces.

In June, the Heinz center opens "Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind," now at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which juxtaposes the Swiss firm's architectural models with natural and art objects that have inspired their extraordinarily artful buildings.

Also on the center's calendar, tentatively for 2004 or 2005, is an exhibit on the buildings of Henry Hornbostel, guest curated by architectural historian Charles Rosenblum.

Most immediately, the curators are preparing to install two exhibits that open March 1, one documenting the design process for Windshield, Richard Neutra's summer house on Fishers Island, N.Y., for the John Nicholas Brown family. The other, "TransModernity: Contemporary Austrian Architects," presents six projects by three firms that take a contextual approach to modernism.

Myers and Ryan, who have known each other for only a couple of weeks, are optimistic about their new roles. Armstrong, for his part, hopes they will protect and inspire each other and help sustain each other intellectually.

As for those inevitable co-curatorial disagreements, "Richard [Armstrong] already told us we'll have to work out our differences between ourselves," Myers said, smiling.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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