Alex Ely finds Barkow Leibinger’s exhibition of material detailings profoundly flimsy
Barkow Leibinger: An Atlas of Fabrication. Closed 27 March. Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES
An exhibition entitled An Atlas of Fabrication makes a big claim, whichever way we might interpret the word ‘atlas’. Even before I arrive at the show I’m intrigued: this could be a catalogue of modern methods of construction, examining the inter-relationships of fabrication, form, structure, economy and function, in much the same way that a world atlas might bring together maps of geography, topography, climate and economics. Or perhaps an exhibition imbued with questions about representation in construction, like a piece carved in the form of Atlas, the mythological Titan who held up the pillars of the universe.
An Atlas of Fabrication, shown at the Architectural Association in London, celebrates Barkow Leibinger’s commitment to the material research that informs its buildings and teachings. Like a Bond Street shopfront, there are a number of beautifully fabricated items on display, where the fetishisation of surface is king and the evidence of meaning suppressed. The analogy with a Cartier display, however, is dispelled when we learn, from practice director Frank Barkow in one of the videos, that the experi-mental forms of construction are for ‘elevating everyday buildings into something special’.
The items on display include what appears to be a chandelier made of polycarbonate tubes. Each part is individually cut on a revolving laser-cutting machine to different lengths and patterns, leaving a sinuous end grain that gives the impression that this is a single piece of tightly folded transparent fabric. A table is covered with three-dimensional glazed terracotta tiles that project or recess like a tessellated piece of origami. Another table has half a dozen stainless-steel tubes with a CNC-cut pattern that allows them to bend and snake along the surface, while achieving a patterned surface that glows from the ultraviolet light inside.
The ambiguous scale and purpose of these items allows you to become absorbed by their tectonic, giving you the opportunity to invent your own ideas about applications – a 1:50 scale model of a piece of structure perhaps, or a 1:1 model of a building’s skin or a 1:100 scale model of an entire build? Ambiguity is this exhibition’s strength and its weakness – it gives you the scope to dream while denying you the opportunity to grasp the meaning of any of it.
This show gives you the scope to dream while denying you the opportunity to grasp the meaning of any of it
An examination of a number of architectural models on display reveals that, in the case of the honeycomb timber tubes hung from the ceiling, they are part of the roof pattern from Barkow Leibinger’s campus restaurant (2008) in Ditzingen, Germany. But unlike a Félix Candela building, for example, where the form is an outcome of structural investigation, spatial intent, economy and the potential of a material, here, with the campus building, the honeycomb is simply an interesting shape for skylights or acoustic panels. The structure itself is in fact a triangulated trussed roof, not a honeycomb net. Faceted metal panels on display are maquettes of a facade for the Trutec office building (2006) in South Korea. The beautiful and beguiling surface of this building is like a more complex version of Future Systems’ refurbished building (2007) on Oxford Street, London. But the complex form doesn’t seem to offer any benefit in terms of climate control, structural efficiency or even narrative. Unlike the roof of a house, whose pitch is governed by the double condition that the rain should run off and the tiles should not.
The digital fabrication and machined assembly of these components means that ornamentation is no longer ‘a wasted effort, a waste of material or a waste of capital’, as architect Adolf Loos once stated. But is it enough as an end itself? Like the Titan, ornamental fabrication cannot exist without narrative, and like world maps, it feeds off the synergy and the synthesis, of the range of influences that give meaning. Nonetheless, like a Bond Street store, I find myself drawn to it – even if it’s only to window-shop.
Resume: Barkow Leibinger doesn’t quite pull off the high claims of its exhibition’s title