This year’s architecture space at the Royal Academy makes the bold move of bringing construction drawings front and centre – but in doing so they lose some of their potential, finds Jon Astbury
‘I don’t think it’s difficult to exhibit architecture … but it’s not easy,’ says architect Farshid Moussavi, curator of this year’s architecture space at the RA Summer Exhibition. This statement comes with a caveat: that Moussavi’s space is not an architecture exhibition per se, but more an exhibition of architectural art.
The distinction may seem pedantic, but here it is a crucial one. As Moussavi states, ‘the physical scale and spatial presence of a building is something we will never be able to bring into a gallery … but we can take slices through architecture and discuss them through specific concepts.’
This is, in a sense, Moussavi’s characteristically deft answer to that age-old problem of how to exhibit architecture: that buildings cannot be exhibited (perhaps a reference to the RA’s Sensing Spaces exhibition of 2014) but architectural ideas can, and here the idea is of architecture as an ‘instruction-based art’, represented primarily by the construction coordination drawing.
It is a theme that on the face of it will seem relatively dry. The Summer Exhibition’s architecture room has something of a reputation for being a clear and sensible but nonetheless dull interlude to the energetic fizz that the other spaces always possess regardless of the quality of work. While this year’s architecture space doesn’t skimp on large, bombastic and technically complex representations (beautiful in their own way), it lacks much of the energetic potential that its theme of ‘instruction’ implies.
When the intention is to convey that ‘buildings are not just solid objects, but hollow conduits’ the model is too preoccupied with form and mass to be successful
Each wall roughly focuses in on a particular drawing type: planometric, plan sequences, 3D perspectives snapped from BIM models and more traditional working details, the majority bearing the vibrant colours familiar to any CAD user. All are static save for a slightly token-feeling VR headset displaying the SSE Hydro Arena. Gehry Partners’ coordination drawing for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi dominates the more three-dimensional depictions above the outstretched form of Foster’s Mexico Airport, while an X-Ray BIM projection of WilkinsonEyre’s Crown Sydney vies for attention alongside Battersea power station.
The concept of course lends itself to the high-tech, and Grimshaw, Rogers and Hopkins have all submitted predictable offerings. David Chipperfield provides what is by comparison the quietest display, opting for more conventional sectional details through the renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Here hangs the only photo on the wall, providing the opportunity for a more holistic reading from detail to real-life construction that would perhaps have provided some fruitful conversations if employed elsewhere in the space.
Models receive the least attention: Centre Point (modelled to show the new Tottenham Court Road Crossrail entrances) and a concept model of Stanton Williams’ UCL East Marshgate stand rather sheepishly against walls, perhaps due to Moussavi feeling they have little to bring to an exhibition of architecture.
‘For me when I see a model, frankly it doesn’t say anything to me,’ she says. ‘I see it once and I stop looking at it’ . This contrasts with the technical drawings that she feels reward re-looking. The models, along with some of the hand-drawn plans on the centre tables, appear almost too simplistic once surrounded by such technical drawings. This is somewhat the point; when the intention is to convey that ‘buildings are not just solid objects, but hollow conduits’ the model is too preoccupied with form and mass to be successful.
A paradox to the display (one that Moussavi seems to recognise) is the way in which the dynamism and messiness suggested by an instruction-based art comes up against the crispness of both the digital modes of representation (often a frozen view of 3D computer models) and their new context of hanging in the gallery.
It’s not necessarily about understanding the architecture; they are intriguing drawings in their own right
Many visitors also raise the question of how little the everyday visitor to the space is likely to glean from the exhibit. ‘I wouldn’t want anyone to look for an architectural lesson from them,’ says Moussavi. ‘It’s not necessarily about understanding the architecture; they are intriguing drawings in their own right.’
True enough, and the qualities of line and vibrant colour generate a link to the rest of the exhibition that was too good to pass up, but it somewhat dulls the energy of thought processes that have precious few chances to shine through, namely in Eva Jiricna’s spiral-bound sketchbooks covered in felt-tip and revision clouds. Here, along with the rest of the materials on the three tables in the centre of the room, we are greeted with more process, more instruction-in-action as it were, and frankly a little more joy.
There are odd moments here too, such as two highly produced books packed with details from Ian Ritchie’s Leipzig Glass Hall, but Gordon Benson’s hand-lacquered collages and Sauerbruch Hutton’s Naked City-esque print set off conversations with the details on the walls that end up feeling under-explored.
Authorship remains a point of some contention when works such as these are presented in this way, particularly for sale. While the exhibition shares Moussavi’s belief that a work of architecture is the product of a multitude of disciplines and ideas and not the product of individual genius – ‘if anyone tries to convince you that they were in full control of all the decisions they are lying, architecture doesn’t happen that way’ – the presentation of a coordination drawing attributed purely to ‘Lord Foster’ or ‘Lord Rogers’ along with what seems a somewhat inflated price-tag comes across a little on the nose.
And so we are left with a theme that feels at odds with itself, one that intends to display the multifarious forces that come together to produce architecture, yet one that in doing so compounds and flattens them. Displaying works that widen architecture’s scope is refreshing, and the bringing of such materials into this context is a bold one, but it is hard not to feel as though the space falls into the trap of leaning on an aestheticisation of technical complexity rather than an interrogation of it, and the celebration of a lone designer rather than a disciplinary cross-section.