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Ian Ritchie: 'I wanted to show how architects think beyond their projects'

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The curator of the Royal Academy’s 2015 Architecture Gallery, Ian Ritchie, talks about why he focused on ‘inventive landscape’, removing model cases and wanting to buy Kengo Kuma’s sketches

What was the first thing you did when you began the process of putting the show together?
Identify a theme - one that would offer a broader context for the public to appreciate architecture. Eric Parry focused last year’s show on the evolution of design. I decided on exploring the finished design in a broader, yet specific, context.

Why did you choose to focus on landscape and architecture?  
This year’s Architecture Gallery theme is ‘Inventive Landscape’. By showing landscape and architecture together, it affords the viewer an opportunity to rediscover their interdependence.
Regional planning and architecture’s relationship to nature - often the hidden dimensions - became a significant theme after Ian McHarg’s book Design with Nature was published in 1969. It parallelled Land Art - when artists ‘left the galleries’ as a protest against the ruthless commercialisation of art at the end of the 1960s. Their work, drawing inspiration from minimalism and conceptual art, provoked landscape architects to think afresh. After the oil crisis of 1974 a new ecological ethic encompassing both a moral and visual aesthetic emerged.  Architecture is about spatial pleasure - through form revealed by light – but more contemporary architectural design also mirrors our concern for the environment. With increasing concern for the well-being of the Galapagos Islands, tourist visits are now limited.  The idea of showing Norman Ackroyd’s Galapagos etchings as a reflection of man’s impact on a fragile ecosystem gave a foundation to the theme, and one may recall Darwin and his Beagle visit, which inspired him to write It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Will man adapt? Barry Lopez has expressed the present paradigm clearly: Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him, to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive…He must learn restraint….Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that for centuries he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer.’

Nature’s dynamic is intrinsic as well as apparent. What is less visible is the impact of our individual thoughts on that dynamic. As the quality of the environment and the earth’s climate are threatened by man’s increasing population and his social and economic behaviour, we face difficulties when trying to reassess the short-term design values we currently encounter and live by. As we rethink our ideas of what ‘progress’ means and work towards incorporating new patterns into the cultural flow of our lives, the ‘imaginings’ of architects, designers and artists offer glimpses of alternative realities in this show. I hope it will help visitors to be more aware that real progress for mankind and progress in design with nature can be synergistic – the conclusion is up to the visitor.

The exhibition showcases many schemes by many of the more established names and your own contemporaries. Was that deliberate?         Academicians are obliged to show work each year. There is an understanding by all Academicians that each will limit the amount to about 7.5m² to avoid dominating wall space, and not send in huge 3D work or several large models. Honorary Academicians also have a right to show, and the total is 33. This year, the Large Weston Room was selected for the display of architecture. It has about 170m² of wall space. Imagine if every Academician were to send in the maximum; that would total nearly 250m². As the curator you have no idea what will be sent in by the Academicians. There is also an opportunity for the curator to invite non-Academicians to show a work, and this I felt was vital to enable the theme to find a strong expression. I was also aware that no invitation has ever been extended to landscape architects/artists.

Having invited someone to show it is not then possible to reject their work

Obviously, having invited someone to show it is not then possible to reject their work. And finally there is the work sent in, and this year more than 300 architectural works were submitted, many from young architects, and these were seen digitally and a first selection made. A final selection was made once all the work was in the gallery and it became possible to visualise the display in the gallery, and how much horizontal surface would be required for models. There were some really exciting models from emerging practices, most responded to the theme as did, for example, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano and Kengo Kuma.

 

What do you think the output on show says about the state of architecture in this country in 2015?
Through this theme I was hoping to reveal how some architects are thinking beyond their own individual projects to integrate landscape and express wider ecological and societal concerns. The ‘Imaginings’ of architects, designers and artists offer glimpses of alternative realities, but often avoid considering ideas about what ‘progress’ means and the importance of social commentary, of being proactive rather than reactive.
There is some evidence of this, but the overall sense is that there is no dominant style – rather a design ‘free-for-all’ and that landscape is usually seen as a ‘filler’ to give a sense of ‘green’.

If you were to curate the exhibition again, is there anything you’d like to see more of?
There is a really good range of hand-produced mediums used to represent architecture - for example, Norman Foster’s and Kengo Kuma’s sketches, Chris Wilkinson’s drawings, Will Alsop’s, Gordon Benson and Zaha Hadid’s paintings, and there are prints from Farshid Moussavi, Louisa Hutton and myself. 3D printing is an area that’s developing very quickly, and there are some interesting examples from younger architects in the show.  Imposing a medium, or requiring that the work should be hand-made, is not in the spirit of the show. It is up to those submitting to choose.

Provided that there is enough material to choose from, one can orientate the feel of an exhibition through selecting a particular representational technique, such as works made by hand as against the machine-made examples.

What challenges did hanging the exhibition in the Large Weston Room pose – and does it give the architecture room a different feel to other years?
Having hung the Architecture Gallery twice before, I found this room offers much more space, though not a large amount of additional wall surface.  There are two arch entrances directly linking to other galleries, and three doors. These do have an impact on the layout as one is a fire escape, another provides access to the President’s office and the General Assembly, and the fifth is used for service  access enabling caterers to bring in a ‘field kitchen’ which demands a clear route and free space to set it up.

The visitor is not met by the usual sea of reflections

The classical proportions and geometry of the room are reflected in the way the work is hung on the walls, but to reflect man’s unbalanced relationship with the planet, the table-plinths were designed to introduce the diagonal - a dynamic counter to the classic. I wanted the exhibition to feel more integrated with the other galleries and certainly the extra space helped.  Permission was sought from exhibitors to remove the acrylic cases from their models - most agreed - and the visitor is now not met by the usual sea of reflections. This helped to bring in a tactile quality, one that is present in the work in all the other galleries.

How would you sum up the exhibition, perhaps to somebody who has never been to the Royal Academy?
The Summer Exhibition is the largest and most popular UK open art exhibition and held in the most beautiful day-lit enfilade of galleries in Europe, if not the world. Most works are for sale and the proceeds support the Royal Academy Schools - the only three year post-graduate course in art, and it is free. 

The exhibition is a wonderland of paintings, sculpture, prints and architecture, and every year there is a different structure to the whole show – sometimes appearing as more pandemonium than structured, but this year held together by three central galleries painted in magenta, turquoise and sky blue – the remainder all white – all to Michael Craig-Martin’s plan. 

The exhibition is a wonderland of paintings, sculpture, prints and architecture

The exhibition displays works by emerging and established contemporary artists. The works are selected and hung by Royal Academicians, and entry is open to all artists. The majority of works are by non-Academicians, and there is over £90,000 worth of prizes awarded, and the prestigious £25,000 Wollaston Award exceeds the prize money for the Turner Prize.

There are two for architecture: the £10,000 Turkishceramics Grand Award for Architecture and the £5,000 AKT II Architecture Prize for an exhibitor under thirty five.

If you were to buy any of this year’s exhibits yourself what would it be and why?
From the Architecture Gallery, Kengo Kuma’s charcoal drawing of ‘Chateau La Coste’ as it captures the spirit of inventive landscape – in his own words, ‘A cluster of wooden sticks floating over the ground like a cloud, filters the strong light to cast a gentle shadow on the landscape.’ And among the paintings on show I would choose Mick Moon’s painting ‘dawn fishing’ – which represents a composition of such stillness, and its representation has an enigmatic quality: is it leisure or work? If it were a piece of sculpture it would have to be ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap: an allegory’ by Michael Sandle, an emphatic statement about the history and duplicity of western man.

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