Sorry, Out of Gas

I rarely can muster enthusiasm for architecture exhibitions. In the past, I have occasionally admitted this to colleagues, and I am typically met with a look of mystified offense as I continue on to explain how elevations do little for me and how models, while often the marks of excellent craftsmanship, have never inspired profound revelation in my soul. This is not to say I do not define architecture as art (I certainly do). Rather, I most often consider the final building the masterpiece, rather than the plans. I had little interest in seeing Cezanne’s studio while studying in Southern France, and likewise, I find displays of building plans, scaled models, and architectural renderings equally less appealing than the final works.

That being said, Sorry, Out of Gas was one of the most fascinating exhibitions I have seen in the past several months. Rather than focusing on the smaller details of the architectural process, this show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture examines that process through the lens of the gas shortage in North America during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The relevance of this exhibition is portrayed most prominently through juxtapositions of building images and drawings against other artifacts, such as photographs of Jimmy Carter’s solar panels being installed on the White House in 1979, archival television footage from the era, and board games involving fictional business ventures within the oil industry.

The timing of this exhibition clearly far from incidental, Sorry, Out of Gas suggests an interesting relationship between the United States and the current “green fad” initiated by Al Gore and being seen now in low-flow shower heads, fabric grocery bags and the introduction of Smart Cars. While all such efforts are clearly advantageous, the questions Readymade magazine’s Editor Shoshana Berger poses to readers this month are worth considering:

“…how much ecotainment can people really take? Even we [Readymade] suddenly feel a little embarrassed about writing ‘The Green Issue’ on our cover (We didn’t)…after a while, people grow tired of hearing the same song, slogan or warning over and over again: Just as we’ve started shrugging off the Department of Homeland Security’s Code Orange, we are fast entering the era of Code Green. And it’s that green fatigue, we fear, that could move the needle from enduring cause to ‘passing fad.'” (Readymade Issue 34, April/May 2008-now available paperless)

American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels,
20 June 1979.
Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Image from CCA website

Sorry, Out of Gas is a highly relevant exhibition to consider in the time of the Iraq War and the U.S.’s current relationship with the Middle East while gas prices continue rising and the government assures us that everything will be fine. The presence of past American presidents in the exhibition, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan, and Richard Nixon almost makes it seem as though we are in an American museum attending to issues of utmost import to the American public. However, the show is taking place in Canada, while we are busy purchasing earth-friendly objects. Some interest and dedication to environmental concerns is certainly worthwhile, but the question remains as to what we are doing while the Canadians not only see the smaller picture of ways to live consciously but also engage with more thoughtful and theoretical questions. Such a comparison between the US and our neighbors to the north brings to mind the board games in Sorry, Out of Gas, and the question of who might be merely role playing in a time of such seriousness.

Image from