These five short essays were installed on the walls and window of the exhibition Display Nature: Silvanum

Terence Gower


1. Display Nature: Silvanum

Forestry had long been one of the principal industries of Sweden when a number of public and private organizations combined their resources in 1961 to build the Silvanum, a museum dedicated to the forest. Gunnar Aagaard Andersen and Arne Malm planned the museum’s displays to explain to the public the natural processes of the forest in order to better understand the business and science of its management and exploitation. A large part of the museum was thus devoted to the scrutiny and observation of nature; of how trees grow and reproduce, and the complex interrelationship of the forest’s flora and fauna. The exhibition designers used samples, models, and photography to bring nature into the museum, while the Silvanum’s architects, Erik Herløw and Sven Wranér, found ways to incorporate the study and display of nature into the building’s architecture.

The Silvanum building is a low box whose roof is supported by an even grid of columns. This structural system creates a “free plan” in which internal elements—walls, furniture, (and exhibits, in this case)—can be arranged freely with no structural or load-bearing requirement. This system was developed in the early twentieth century by German architect Mies van der Rohe, who headed the design school Bauhaus. He moved his practice to Chicago in the 1940s and designed some of the best-known modern buildings in the US. In Mies’ building system, the columns carry the weight of the roof and a building’s outer walls can be clad in any material. The architects of the Silvanum used the exterior of the building to feature products of the forestry trades such wood shingles and log-section paving. But it was their strategic introduction of floor-to-ceiling windows that put nature on display in a new way.


2. Silvanum as Vitrine

Vitrines like the ones seen in period photographs of the Silvanum are the principal display supports used by most museums. In separating the natural artifact from its surroundings, the vitrine both protects it and focuses the viewer’s attention. The glass wall of the vitrine finds its architectural correlative in the floor-to-ceiling window that offers a view onto nature. Similar to the vitrine, these windows frame and direct our view at the landscape while separating us from it.

Mies van der Rohe evoked this same sensation of detachment—of nature removed and protected behind glass—in the collages he created for his Resor House project in 1938. The Resor House, though never built, was one of the commissions that brought Mies to America. The house was to be built for a wealthy couple on a plot of land in Wyoming with views of the Grand Teton Range. Both of these images share the thin steel columns placed back from the floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the view beyond. But the interiority of both of these images begs a reversal of the vitrine paradigm in which we as viewers feel we might be standing inside the vitrine while nature is looking in on us.


3. Silvanum as Theatre

Mies van der Rohe added two rectangles to his second Resor House collage representing a partition and a built-in furniture element. Suddenly the landscape seen through the window became a flat backdrop to this tableau. The view took on the role of a cyclorama and the free-plan partitions and furniture took on the role of scenery. The actors on this theatre set were the Resor House inhabitants, going about their lives.
The vitrines and other furniture of the Silvanum were likewise arranged adjacent to the floor-to-ceiling windows as if against their own natural cyclorama. The actors on this set were the museum’s visitors, playing a similar role to the visitors to the Konstcentrum today. The present tableau recreates Mies van der Rohe’s composition using panel displays of traditional Swedish joinery and cladding that might themselves be artifacts of the Silvanum.


4. Silvanum as Camera

The open observation and focused gaze proscribed by the vitrine brings to mind an optical device. The camera, descended from the room-sized camera oscura is an apparatus that literally focuses on the subject. It is this kind of active scrutiny that is encouraged in a museum so that when we lift our gaze from the exhibits to the windows it is as if we as viewers are standing inside a camera looking out through the lens. Either standing in the former Silvanum, or gazing at the collage of the Resor House a viewer can see how modern architecture, with its open interiors and glass walls becomes the ideal apparatus of observation. The architect, in bracketing and framing the view like a landscape photographer, teaches us what is beautiful.


5. The Archive

Conceptual art emerged in the late 1960s as a critique of commodity culture in the arts. Artists rejected traditional artistic values and sought to incorporate an “anti-aesthetic” that would be harder to absorb by the market. One of the predominant strategies was to incorporate the neutral forms of the archive into their work. But in a process that has accelerated enormously in the intervening years, this counter-cultural movement was incorporated into the mainstream and its production was commodified and aestheticized. Art lovers suddenly found the beauty in the neutrality of the archive. Thanks to the selective, specialist gaze of the landscape photographer or painter we are made to appreciate the beauty of nature. In the same way, conceptual art has trained us to find beauty in the archive.