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Architects intending to communicate

Architects and Exhibition Design At the RIBA Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1 until 7 March

'There is always an underlying desire [for an exhibition] to present to the viewer a comprehensive picture of a particular activity, ' writes the recently deceased Edward D Mills in the catalogue to this Heinz Gallery show.

Exhibitions, in other words, are about communication, and it is probably no coincidence that the 100 years from 1851 - the high point of architects' involvement with exhibition design - also encompass the greatest confusion over architecture's potential to communicate. It is certainly true that architects whose work tended towards the abstract were quite happy designing stands where labels, and other advertising or exhibits, leavened austerity under the guise of being functional.

If exhibition design satisfied an unrecognised gap in the modern architectural subconscious, there were more pressing reasons why its practitioners took such commissions, as this show makes clear. The first was that exhibitions were a source of work. Product manufacturers, notably Jack Prichard at the Venesta plywood company (who gave Le Corbusier his only British commission), had a hunger for new design. A fine example is Valentine Harding and Godfrey Samuel's 1937 scheme for the United Steel Companies: neatly planned and imaginatively incorporating an I-beam as a cornice, it prefigures a Brutalist obsession with using everyday products in a way which exploits their inherent qualities. It is hard to believe that Maxwell Fry's design, which was eventually chosen, could have been so elegant.

Wartime, too, brought a need for exhibitions, to explain various aspects of increasing state control in private lives.

Another reason for becoming involved in exhibition design, as Neville Conder says in the catalogue, is that mistakes are thrown away after two weeks. Transience is inherent, and this quality was almost equally redolent for progressive architects in the 1950s as communication. These ambiguities underlay the schism which arose as a result of the Festival of Britain; that worked as popular communication and was temporary but, thought the Smithsons and their friends, it was not architecture. They responded with 'This is Tomorrow' at the Whitechapel, where popular culture and high art mixed with a self-consciousness that the festival avoided by being naive.

But it was not always so. In the first third of the twentieth century an important strand of exhibition design was for the numerous national fairs, or, when located in Britain, Empire exhibitions (as at Wembley in 1924 and Glasgow in 1938).

Robert Atkinson, AA principal from 1913-20, had a tidy sideline in knocking out Neo-Classical pavilions, such as the British pavilion at Paris in 1925. No doubt the intention, as with the British Empire exhibition at Wembley the previous year - concrete structures with Classical cladding - was to suggest the permanence of imperial power. With Oliver Hill's design for Paris in 1937, though, Modernism had arrived, even if relieved by a Swedish-style window which looks as if it were liftSpence's Montreal Expo pavilion: 'it makes Knightsbridge Barracks look beautiful' ed straight from the RIBA. The kindest thing which can be said about Sir Basil Spence's pavilion for the Montreal Expo in 1967 is that it made the Home Office and Knightsbridge barracks look beautiful.

The exhibition makes a clear distinction between temporary stand design and permanent halls for short-life exhibitions, such as the NEC designed by Edward Mills. Yet Mills' far more elegant British Industry Pavilion for Expo '58 in Brussels gives the lie to this: a neat glass box with minimal structure, it prefigures the Pompidou Centre without the frills, and after the Expo finished, it was re-erected as the Expo Hall in Hilversum, Holland - a happier end than Grimshaw's Seville Expo pavilion rusting in packing cases off the North Circular Road.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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