Wright to Gehry: Drawings from the Collection of Barbara Pine
Is the British public getting interested in architectural drawings? writes Matt Shinn. There are more opportunities than ever before to see them, with the RIBA's collection now having a home in Britain's first permanent architecture gallery at the V&A. That collection includes work of undoubted historical importance - architectural sketches, plans and elevations, which stand as proxies for the famous buildings that were made from them. But Barbara Pine's collection, part of which is currently on view at the Sir John Soane's Museum in a show curated by Neil Bingham, is not a huge, institutionally owned archive. It reflects a personal taste and, just as with private holdings of fine art, this is a collection with a character and coherence of its own.
Being seen in Europe for the first time, it has representative samples of most of the architectural movements of the last 100 years, with work by such 20th-century luminaries as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. More recent examples include three sheets of sketches by Daniel Libeskind for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and a design by Frank Gehry for a typically fishy table lamp. In many cases, Pine has had the advantage as a collector of knowing the architects and designers personally.
Some drawings are produced to a high level of finish - a moody rendering by Hugh Ferriss of the Municipal Asphalt Plant in New York, for example, would make a good cover for a Raymond Chandler novel.
But the collection focuses particularly on concept sketches, often made very early in the design process - the first scribbles that an architect makes, to capture the line of a roof or curve of a wall. In Pine's own words, what these designs reveal is 'the essence of an architect's work'. She is interested in the process of creation, in the way that architects think, as revealed in the first marks they make when trying to nail down an idea.
These are not just ephemeral bits of paper, then, to be swept away by the finished building; they have aesthetic and intellectual value in their own right. Some plans were never realised, such as Paolo Soleri's house in the Arizona desert, which looks like a spaceship that has landed on its way to Nevada. Other designs were only ever meant as fantasies, like Billie Tsien and Tod Williams' new setting for the Statue of Liberty.
With those drawings that did result in building, the contrast is extreme, between the solid, seemingly inevitable structure, and the fleeting thought that lay behind it.
This is a fascinating exhibition, which suggests new ways of looking at an old form of representation.
Matt Shinn is a writer in London