In his review of last year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Kenneth Powell lamented Nicholas Grimshaw's failure to use his position as president of the Royal Academy to secure a decent spot for the architecture room.
Either by pulling rank or by subliminal inuence, Grimshaw has put that particular wrong to rights this year, giving architecture pride of place in Gallery VI, directly on axis with the main entrance to the academy. But there is room for improvement in other respects.
To the first-time visitor, it will probably make a perfectly adequate impression. Towering models of monumental skyscrapers proclaim that this is Architecture with a capital A, interspersed with a pleasing smattering of back-of-a-napkin sketches and enigmatic concept models for those whose tastes extend to rather more literal fare. And there is some truly original work. The Bartlett's C J Lim, who won last year's prize for the best first-time exhibitor, wins the £10,000 AJ/Bovis best in show prize for a section, plan and elevation of Battersea Dogs Home. Part drawings, part models, part origami, they represent a merging of the role of craftsman, draughtsman, modelmaker and architect; an unexpected delight in an exhibition which can at times descend into an unseemly competition to hire the most expensive modelmaker or most accomplished draughtsman.
The £5,000 award for the best first-time exhibitor went to Lim's Bartlett colleague Patrick Weber for Journey Through Utopia, an enigmatic architectural-proposition-in-a-box with a Duchampesque quality more akin to sculpture than conventional architectural representation; so much so that the curators of the adjacent sculpture gallery bagged it for themselves. As one might expect from a show co-curated by Peter Cook, the room is awash with up-and-coming Bartletttypes. But if Cook's protégés and colleagues have done him proud, you can't help but feel that his more famous friends have rather let him down.
Mikimoto Ginza 2, the submission by RIBA Gold Medallist Toyo Ito, is frankly bafing (scale model of tower block? Full-size ornamental vase? Who knows? ) but is at least undeniably beautiful and lovingly executed. Tadao Ando's sketch of his 4 x 4 House, on the other hand, reminds us of the fine line between the charming sang-froid of an effortless hand-drawn scribble, and the veiled insult of simply not trying very hard. And the suspicion that Wolf Prix's sketch for BMW Welt is something he found lying in the back of a drawer is reinforced by the fact that it is dated 2001. Maybe it's time to revisit the convention whereby the curators (Cook, Grimshaw and Ian Ritchie in 2006) override the traditional submissions process by proffering invitations to suitably elevated international stars. It gets the big names, granted, but you have to wonder whether a brief which essentially boils down to 'we'd like to have you in our gang, why don't you send us some stuff?' is really going to yield the best work.
The same could apply to the convention that all work by Royal Academicians is automatically put on show.
As pointed out by most critics, most years, such unabashed elitism only serves to encourage repetition and inertia. This year, however, both Foster and Rogers have obligingly broken with the tradition of presenting accomplished but predictable work. Whether by accident or design, both practices have fielded a heterogeneous body of work, offering an intriguing insight into how a legendary studio grapples with the business of becoming a secondgeneration practice. All credit to Foster, who addresses the issue head-on by resisting the temptation to take personal credit for his practice's work, presumably as part of his wider strategy of allowing newer talents their place in the sun.
Hence the pen-and-ink Vision for London 2012 is credited to Narinder Sagoo, the Foster Partner and ace draughtsman reputed to sit at Foster's side in client meetings, sketching away as Foster holds forth. It is a shame that Rogers has not followed suit. It is certainly understandable that nobody has put their name to One Hyde Park, an uninspiring drawing of one of RRP's more lacklustre projects. But it would be nice to know the driving force behind, say, the multi-coloured plastic and timber model of East Darling Harbour in Sydney, which sugegsts an exuberant pop-art inspired dissension in the ranks.
In general, though, the submissions by the Royal Academy stalwarts imply that business is very much as usual.
Ritchie's etchings are exquisite, of course, but no more or less so than in any other year.
I have always had a soft spot for Leonard Manasseh's drawings, with their idiosyncratic rough-book aesthetic, and it would, of course, be churlish to query the AJ's very own Louis Hellman's apparently inalienable right to have his work on display every year. But a show which remains timeless and essentially nostalgic does seem rather inadequate for the task. There is little indication that this is a profession engaged in, say, reinvigorating cities, or exploring methods of construction; or looking at the way we educate and house our populace. And there is little evidence of excellence in the basic drawing skills which one might presume to be a prerequisite of a decent academy show. It's not often you come across this sort of remark in the AJ, but: thank heaven for Quinlan and Francis Terry. You can't help but feel that all is well in the world when there's a measured drawing of a full-size panel for a house in Knightsbridge (ah, Knightsbridge) hanging on the Royal Academy walls.
Those who visit the show every year will leave with the impression that architecture is pretty much as architecture always was: an engaging enough endeavour, but one which remains dominated by a few established names. I suspect that the exhibition would be infinitely more interesting were the selection procedure to be reversed, so that any piece of work by a Royal Academician was automatically disqualified, and anything else automatically put on show.
AJ/BOVIS AWARDS WINNER: BEST IN SHOW C J Lim Battersea Dogs Home
WINNER: FIRST-TIME EXHIBITOR Patrick Weber Journey Through Utopia Nicholas Grimshaw, RA Peter Cook, RA Isabel Allen, AJ Paul Finch, AR Jason Millett, Bovis