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Future imperfect

review

Fantasy Architecture: 1500-2036 At the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Fawcett Street, Sunderland, until 3 July An architecture exhibition in Sunderland - what will they think of next? Housed in the surprisingly spacious and pristine Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (otherwise known as the top floor of the City Library on Fawcett Street) the exhibition 'Fantasy Architecture: 1500-2036' has been organised by the Hayward Gallery in collaboration with the RIBA and is set to tour Salford, Walsall and Preston in the summer.

We're told that, in this show, the word 'fantasy' embraces 'all types of dreaming'.

Displays include film stills and computer images but generally are pen or pencil drawings of visionary architecture, primarily relating to unbuilt schemes. Here fantasy architecture has been commissioned simply to impress clients, or with the aspiration to push the boundaries of architectural design.

Unfortunately, a grotesque model of Alsop's proposed Fourth Grace in Liverpool seems to be the only realisable project on show.

Borrowing heavily on the RIBA's drawings collection - in itself reason enough for architects to go and see some of the superb material which is normally resident in London - the exhibition has been curated around a range of themes with titles such as Vertical Expression (towers), Private Worlds (domestic architecture), Megastructures, Appliance of Science, etc.

Such is the breadth of fantasy on offer that it incorporates work ranging from Voysey's wallpaper design The Dream, depicting a vision of hell as a 'rejection of his father's Theism', to Ernö Goldfinger's 1942 modern living room 'where the future seems bright and modern despite the war raging at the time'. From Claes Oldenburg's urban intervention shaped like a giant pair of legs (to celebrate the miniskirt), to BoulleÚ's simultaneously impressive and oppressive 1782 drawing for the Metropolitan Cathedral.

From NASA's torroidal space colonies to A Byett's 1933 perspective of Holden's vision for the University of London.

However, the incredible diversity of the exhibits meant that after spending an enjoyable couple of hours at the gallery - on a Saturday afternoon, unhampered by the 10 or so other visitors - I left wondering what the cohering purpose of the exhibition was.

Why 1500? Why 2036? There seems to be no real reason, and the experience remains at the level of a fascinating collection of drawings to fit generic themes.

Maybe that is it. But the Victorian sense of the future was different to Pop Art, while the late Renaissance had different motivations to the inter-war generation, and it would have been good to explore this a bit more, rather than just imply that futuristic architecture of any period conveys the same aspiration. But the captions fail to situate the displays in comparative context.

In the end, it seems that by encouraging the visitor to explore 'designs for buildings that might have changed our lives, or could still do so' the curators are promoting the populist 'what if ' school of history. Ultimately this intriguing, well-presented exhibition loses from this arbitrary sense of history.

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