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David Chipperfield Architects’ ‘mini-biennale’ of works-in-progress

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Although this exhibition of 18 schemes is beautifully presented, the displays don’t fully mesh with its stated intention, writes Jon Astbury

In an interview after the opening of the 2012 Design Museum exhibition Form Matters, David Chipperfield explains: ‘I realised that the one thing architects never want to talk about is form … it’s about structure, or it’s about process … very few architects have the courage to admit that it’s a fragile process.’

It’s a conversation worth returning to when considering recent presentations of David Chipperfield Architects’ work. In Vicenza, Italy, at the opening of David Chipperfield Architects Works 2018 at the Basilica Palladiana, it feels like form is something of an elephant in the room. 

The new exhibition focuses on 18 projects at various stages, from the just-completed Royal Academy of Arts and Seoul schemes to the under-construction West Bund Art museum in Shanghai and the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History. The schemes are set out among plywood partitions in the amazing setting of the Basilica’s Salone Superiore on its top floor. The exhibition marks the return of contemporary architecture exhibitions to this space, which was closed for extensive restoration 12 years ago. 

1220 10 SM 180524 N3

1220 10 SM 180524 N3

Source: Simon Menges

Installation view

Of course, as Chipperfield acknowledges in his opening-night lecture, many people expect to also see the ‘greatest hits’, and so the first room includes new renderings and a few models of past projects – the Hepworth Wakefield, Museo Jumex, and so on – along with the large Neues Museum staircase photograph that has done the rounds at previous Chipperfield exhibitions. These new renderings – incredibly flat with only a handful of line weights and pale colouring – are some of the first things you see, and are the starkest example of this odd relationship with form, each project distilled down to almost a silhouette of sloping rooftops, low horizontals or a tight colonnade. There is little sign of the aforementioned fragility here.

The basis of the exhibition, which Chipperfield describes as a ‘mini Biennale’, was for the studio team working on each respective project to decide how to present their work. On the whole this is successful, although don’t be fooled by the ‘in-progress’ status of the works and talk of ‘messiness’ in the catalogue’s introduction; this is as sleek and neat a show as you would expect, with the only hint at real ‘mess’ being some development sketches of the Lah Contemporary in Slovenia. Siloed as they are, each presentation plays down the myriad spatial and formal similarities that run throughout, opting instead for a narrative of an almost regionalist variety, emphasising a ‘deep understanding of place and purpose’, and an ‘explanation of the work of the architect’. 

By the end of it, you almost want to tell the studio that it’s perfectly fine to make things look a certain way

At times this is believable – at the Royal Academy, for example, or the Cavea Arcari performance space in a carved-out quarry, due in part to both being incredibly constraining sites. At others, things remain somewhat surface. Designs for a new store for fashion retailer Ssense in Montréal are summed up with a few cold concrete renders. Concepts for Brioni and Valentino are presented as spatial stone maquettes – beautiful, but again, they are more a celebration of material than of the design process. And as though it’s not enough that these materials simply look nice, Chipperfield has cited his 1983 project for Issey Miyake as being ‘the beginning of the [fashion] shop as identity’, which any visitor to Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX will tell you is not quite true. 

852 07 rd 180314 (1)

852 07 rd 180314 (1)

Source: Richard Davies

Valentino store concept

There is, however, a rewarding variety of scales, from the large model created to analyse winds for the Seoul project, which can be walked through and peered into; to smaller, simple grey-painted polystyrene models that feel more like massing experiments, or a delicate white model of the upcoming James Simon Galerie in Berlin. The Zurich Kunsthaus area, which constitutes one of the nicest displays in the exhibition, is a series of photographs taken of 1:20 scale models, blown up and printed at a large size and looking almost like works by Thomas Demand. 

For the refurbishment of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, also exhibited last year in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s Architecture Gallery, two books sit side by side, one showing the development of details by Mies and the other the development of DCA’s attempts to improve the thermal performance of this structure without ruining its delicate appearance. Again, there is development here, but it is so finely polished to the point of being at odds with the work-in-progress feel. 

Perhaps this is simply the level of obsessive neatness to which the office works, but something about this regional, siloed approach to architecture doesn’t quite convince. That’s not to say it isn’t a highly effective presentation of work; it is a beautiful array of models and drawings. But the displays don’t fully mesh with the intention outlined in the catalogue and introduction to each ‘zone’. There is a thread through all of this and it is a formal one, the idea of reduction, which remains relatively unexplored. By the end of it, you almost want to tell the studio that it’s perfectly fine to make things look a certain way (especially the glossy store concepts), and it can be all done while still responding to place. The best of David Chipperfield Architects’ projects are well aware of this.

David Chipperfield Architects Works 2018 is at Vicenza’s Basilica Palladiana until 2 September

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