The Hidden Horizontal. Cornices in Art and Architecture

25 August – 14 November 2021

Cornices are everywhere. Once you start looking, their ubiquity is almost irritating. Windows, doors, ceilings, mirrors, wall panelling from across the centuries sport elaborate profiles at their edges. The skyline of any city street is a ragtag procession of cornices in various states of materiality, refinement and maintenance. It does not stop there. Cars and clothes, furniture and household objects feature their own cornice-like elements. Strips, bands and lines of paint act like cornices by framing or crowning almost any kind of artefact. Still, cornices hide in plain sight. They attract far less attention from architects, critics or theoreticians than, for instance, columns or the architectural orders. In response, a reappraisal of this underrated element will be presented in a new exhibition at Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich, where the cornice will make its long overdue grand entrance. The presentation, jointly organized by the ETH collection of prints and drawings, Dr. Linda Schädler, and the chair of the History and Theory of Architecture ETH Zürich, Prof. Dr. Maarten Delbeke, will focus on the many incarnations of the cornice in art and architecture.

The cornice, once an essential part of any classical composition, incurred the wrath of modernists at the beginning of the 20th century. It has, at various times, been identified as the most expressive part of architecture, as well as the most problematic. It has drawn attention to itself in drawings, etchings and works of art. Hence, a history of the cornice in many ways offers a new window onto the multiple histories of architecture and its representations.

To reveal these histories and uncover the complex role of the cornice in architecture, urbanism and art, the exhibition will unite a unique selection of over 150 drawings, prints, books and objects from the 15th century to the present day, some shown for the first time in Switzerland. Authors and artists exhibited include Francesco di Giorgio, Gottfried Semper, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, amongst many others. By bringing works from earlier centuries from the ETH collections—prints, drawings and rare books—into direct dialogue with loans from important institutions in Switzerland and abroad, including the Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, the Louvre, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, the Drawing Matter Archive UK, the Berlin State Museums, the Rietberg Museum Zurich, and more, the exhibition will expose the “hidden horizontal” at the centre of five centuries of art and design thinking.


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