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Room with a view

Next week sees the opening of the Royal Academy's annual Summer Exhibition. Gordon Benson's model of Benson & Forsyth's Battersea Power Station housing project picked up the £10,000 AJ/Bovis Award for the best piece of work in the architecture room, while a pair of models by Brisac Gonzalez Architects was awarded the £5,000 prize for best piece by a first-time exhibitor.

Kenneth Powell reviews the show

Year after year, a visit to the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition raises the same questions. Most obviously, there is the question: what is the purpose and value of this densely packed cross-section through the current architectural scene? Now that the Summer Exhibition is gaining increasing artistic respectability, the architecture room admittedly seems a less incongruous addition than it used to. It is both a reassertion of the place of architecture as an art and a good opportunity to present it to a large, non-specialist audience - far larger than any show at the RIBA could hope to attract.

That said, a further question needs to be asked: why isn't there more of an effort to explain the work on display and really engage the visitor? The unhelpful descriptions in the catalogue - labels are banned - do not reveal if a model or drawing depicts a built scheme, one that is going to be built or a pure fantasy, nor is there any indication of the location/context of the project. (Where is 'Arragon Mooar', for instance, the site of a house by Julian Bicknell? Presumably not close to Ilkley Moor?) And there is the inevitable and perennial pressure on space, so that some exhibits are hung so high as to be illegible. (In one or two cases, this is the best place for them. ) However, this year's Academician selectors (Eva Jiricna, Edward Cullinan and Piers Gough) have done a good job. There have been some duff architecture rooms in recent memory but this is not one of them.

The hang is dense but not uncomfortably packed, and the range of work on show is impeccably catholic. In years far past, Raymond Erith (the centenary of whose birth occurs this year) was the lone representative of the Classical tradition in the academy. His pupil and successor, Quinlan Terry, subsequently became a regular exhibitor at the Summer Exhibition. This year, it's the turn of Terry's son, Francis, who exhibits two stunning drawings of Classical details. If the vigour of this work could be translated into buildings, traditionalism might have a future. These drawings can be enjoyed as works of art in their own right, with no knowledge of the buildings to which the details might relate. Many of the exhibits, in contrast, were generated by purely practical considerations, principally for the purposes of the planning system or to reassure clients.

One of Erith's contemporaries and friends at the academy was Philip Powell, whose recent passing is marked by a commemorative display selected by his former assistant, Paul Koralek. Photographs of Churchill Gardens, the Skylon, Chichester Festival Theatre and other projects by Powell & Moya explain why the partnership's work is still so admired - and so relevant.

Academicians, of course, are entitled to show up to six works in the Summer Exhibition. Full marks here to the evermodest Piers Gough, who settles for just one small drawing - of the studio he designed many years ago for Allen Jones, one of the two RAs in overall charge of this year's exhibition. Will Alsop settles for a technicolour model of his startling masterplan for central Bradford. The academy's presiding heavyweights, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, provide us with a rundown on their current major projects - including the Smithsonian roof, Beijing Airport, the Elephant & Castle masterplan, Leadenhall Tower and Birmingham Library - but neither practice offers any surprises in terms of the fairly conventional renderings and models shown here. Foster's Beijing terminal is likely to be a fine building but will it really look so red?

Michael Hopkins' information-packed model of a masterplan for part of Nottingham is more than most visitors will want to take in. In contrast, Nicholas Grimshaw's series of models explaining the genesis of the roof for his additions to the Eden Project are both engrossing and beautiful, and a good example of how architects (and engineers) can communicate their skills to the public.

Unlike Roman Catholic cardinals, Academicians are neither forcibly retired nor obliged to take a back seat when they reach a certain age. Two senior figures, Colin St John Wilson and Leonard Manasseh, having stepped back from active practice, use the Summer Exhibition to display examples of their drawing and painting, in both cases to delightful effect. Drawing is the central theme of the exhibition this year, Allen Jones and David Hockney have decreed, and architects have responded with gusto (although it's not clear if the drawings of the Disney Hall, Los Angeles, by Honorary Academician Frank Gehry are originals or blown-up prints. In either case, they reflect an extraordinary talent). A series of sketches by Daniel Libeskind illustrates what some reckon a groundbreaking originality of expression, others a pursuit of form for form's sake. One of the lessons of this show is how important conventional drawing remains to architecture and how frequently misused, sometimes to bizarre effect, is the computer. Measured drawing is, however, represented here only by a rather lifeless record of a Wren tower.

The computer has yet to make the conventional model redundant. It remains an invaluable medium not only for presenting projects to clients and public but equally one used by architects to envisage and develop their work. In this respect, the working model by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of its Schloss Velden project (what? where? ) is another highly instructive exhibit. One hopes that the project, if it has moved forward to being built, retains the inventive force shown in the model.

Terry Farrell's colourful model of his unsuccessful masterplanning proposals for the Lea Valley Olympic site is a very different proposition, but genuinely useful in the way it relates the site to the wider context of the Thames and East End. Adam Richards' little model of the Flinthouse in Wiltshire - exact location and status of project, again, unknown - is a finely crafted piece of work on a small scale. I was also impressed by Simon Conder's model of a scheme in Cornwall, involving the refurbishment of an old house and a new-build element, and look forward to the finished product. In a different vein, M3 Architects, a real ideas practice, shows a tiny model of a beach-side hotel, resembling a giant light bulb - this is a project about which one really longs to know more. John McAslan's large-scale model of the remodelled Peter Jones store, on the other hand, tells you everything you really need to know about this mammoth, five-year reconstruction of a '30s listed landmark.

The architecture room is, or should be, a place to check the pulse of well-established practices and also to spot new talents.

Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, well past its 40th birthday, seems to be in good shape judging by the competition-winning scheme for a new development on the seafront at Bexhill-upon-Sea. The furore that this proposal seems to have generated is misplaced, given that Eric Mendelsohn, no less, proposed substantial development adjacent to his now-iconic De La Warr Pavilion. And Peter Ahrends' scheme reflects the influence of Mendelsohn, without being in any respect a pastiche.

Ted Cullinan, who can certainly draw, has put in a drawing of Tiger Park, Castleford, that is, to use one of his own favourite adjectives, lovely. His practice, of like vintage to ABK, is also doing very nicely. Peter Cook, a recent recruit to the Royal Academy, seems to be on a creative high just as he reaches retirement age at the Bartlett, with some enticing renderings of the foyers for the Leipaja Concert Hall. There is certainly plenty of innovative thinking going on at MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP), judging from its outstanding - though sadly unsuccessful - submission to another concert hall competition, this time in Stavanger, Norway. MJP's Peter Hull, who is becoming an established master of the art, is responsible for a magnificent pencil drawing of the firm's West Cambridge project. And Allies & Morrison, which has moved on from the 'young lions' category to being one of London's larger commercial practices, exhibits a model of a development at Fulham Broadway that reflects its acclaimed concern for fine detailing.

It is appropriate in the year that Philip Powell, one of the creators of Churchill Gardens, is remembered that housing, as well as individual houses, features prominently in the exhibition. Among the younger practices showing really interesting work in this category are Tonkin Liu (certainly a firm to watch), Guy Greenfield (an apartment block at Westward Ho! ), and Peter Barber, formerly with Will Alsop. Barber is fortunate to have the space, with a sizeable model and drawings, to illustrate what could be an outstanding urban housing scheme. The architecture is shapely but practical, the integration of buildings and private and public open space excellently handled. For me, this project was one of the highlights of the show.

In contrast, the models illustrating a social housing scheme in Madrid designed by David Chipperfield suggest that abstract ideas are being pursued at the expense of the future residents of the scheme. The facades of the development will doubtless be well crafted but their monotonous regularity hardly raises the spirits. More disturbingly, the internal dimensions of the flats appear mean and cramped. Coming from an office that has produced some outstandingly beautiful private houses, this scheme, on the basis of what is exhibited, is disturbing and certainly less than user-friendly.

Given the years that London's Battersea Power Station has been 'at risk', a crumbling eyesore alongside the rail tracks into Victoria, the prospect that work will soon start on site to realise the masterplan developed by former Royal Academy president Philip Dowson is truly heartening. There were fears that the development of housing, hotels and offices on the huge site surrounding the building might be over-intense but there is now every hope that a credible piece of new townscape will replace industrial dereliction. The partnership of Benson & Forsyth is responsible for the major element of housing and, judging from what is shown at the Academy, it will be extremely good, developing ideas that have been present in the practice's work since the 1960s.

Benson & Forsyth's exhibit - winner of the main AJ/Bovis Award - depicts the scheme in considerable detail, so that the character of the development (soon to start on site) can be judged. This is a project designed - as housing should be - from the inside out, with the provision of enjoyable spaces for people as its priority.

Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, bestknown for their major museums in Edinburgh and Dublin, first worked together on housing schemes. It was an inspired move to recruit them as part of the Battersea team. Just across the river from Churchill Gardens, their scheme looks set to embody those quiet virtues - above all human scale and urban sensibility - that makes the gardens a desirable place to live nearly 60 years after it was conceived.

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