History, casts of thousands and ephemera everywhere
I have been busy recently with a haze of architectural parties celebrating the subject in general, certain individuals and student work.
Somewhat jaded by discussions with planning and conservation officers, I staggered around the V&A, offering my take on the collection. My theme was that the relationship of the object to everyday life was lost; that the dislocated objects simulate the confused contemporary perception of cities; and that new buildings are viewed as non-functioning abstracts to be judged in terms of adjacency and form rather than delight in use. Or so it seemed.
I began at a Baroque choir in the middle of a great hall, blocking views and destroying space. It was sold in the 19th century by a Dutch church for exactly the same reasons - a nice example of history repeating itself. Contemporary reports suggest the congregation was happy to see it go, despite it being original with 300 years' service. It was sold and dispatched because it was no longer required. It all sounds very sensible, but can you imagine offering that solution today?
Next stop was the cast halls: admiring the technique of the casters, the scale of the castings, and finally the enthusiasm and wealth of the collectors, literally plastering Europe on their Grand Tour. How strange must much of 18th-century and 19th-century Europe have appeared as the early tourist souvenir business emerged - sheathed doors, interiors and whole towers in a scaffold of dripping plaster.
It made brilliant business sense: to see what you had traveled to marvel at you were forced to admire and buy the reproduction; an early illustration of the value (or not) of 'authenticity'.
These casts, which record a random moment in history - when tourism first met antiquity - are now being used in the restoration of the originals, which are all damaged by pollution.
Restoration is not to an original state but to a previous, earlier, better condition. As such they represent the unanswered question of conservation: to when do you return and why?
Should we rip out the Gothic arches of our ancient cathedrals and restore them to the first three rows of the original Romanesque arches, or their original Norman foundations?
After the emotion of the cast halls, we passed the original casts of Andrea della Robbia, the inventor of mass-produced architectural ornament - all manufactured at least 450 years before the Arts & Crafts romanticised the notion of 'working on the tools' and Loos' later condemnation of ornament and brogues. Passing a religious icon, Jesus on an Ass, I was introduced to early sculpture; misscaled objects trundled around ancient streets striking the fear of God into the populace.
Admiring Jock Kinnear's transport signs, I noticed that the greatest current assault on the physical and visual delights of the environment is the plethora of traffic signs, streetlights, CCTV cameras, railings and estate agents' boards that dominate all views. These supposed ephemera are, in fact, permanent, as are the hoardings of the new urban vernacular of plastic sheeting, plywood and dodgy art: mobile facadism.
Tower cranes are another manifestation - unseen by planning officialdom because of their continuous relocation, they are actually a permanent intrusion into supposedly sacred views.
I concluded at Paxton's train-ticket sketch for the Crystal Palace. It is difficult to assess what has been more influential: his invention of an integrated glass and steel construction system; the architecture of frame and infill; the idea of mobile building; the transformation of the temporary to the permanent; or the iconic power of the back of an envelope sketch. I cannot be sure. What is worth noting is that this great inventor of architecture was manager of the Duke of Devonshire's estate, and never set foot in a school of architecture.