A richly designed exhibition of drawings from Palladio to Superstudio ultimately lacks a key focus point, finds Rob Wilson
This new exhibition at 66 Portland Place is a serious attempt to sex up what might otherwise seem the slightly dry subject of architectural perspective.
It contains just 21 drawings from the collections of the RIBA and Drawing Matter. These drawings – selected by Sam Jacob at the invitation of the RIBA – are by the great and good of architecture and architectural representation – Superstudio, Andrea Palladio, Edwin Lutyens, Galli Bibiena and Étienne-Louis Boullée. There are also the not-so-good – at least in terms of skill at perspectival drawing – like the 17th-century drawing of John Smythson, which awkwardly describes a basin with two statues pissing into it – which is Jacob’s favourite work in the show.
Design for a ceiling with columns and coffered arches, italy circa 1700, unknown designer (c) riba collections
Source: RIBA Collections
’Bad perspectival drawing is almost more instructive than good,’ he says, pointing out that unlike other representational conventions in architecture such as the plan, perspectival space is designed to fool us into believing it’s a simulacrum of reality. So when it goes awry, it shows its mechanics, uncovering its hidden power as a system both to represent and to fool the observer – be it nowadays in the deracinated version of developers’ CGIs. Jacob – who conceived of the exhibition with Marie Bak Mortensen, RIBA Head of Exhibitions – also designed it. The series of trompe l’oeil murals of perspectival shapes that line the gallery – some purposefully using wrong perspective – also underline this point, scrambling the perception of its space with the help of mirrors.
Disappear here (1) riba exhibition designed by sam jacob studio (c) andy matthews
Source: Andy Matthews
This thread of perspective being used as a tool to manipulate perception of reality in the real world is also developed in the hang itself. The drawings on one wall were all chosen specifically for having a vanishing point located beyond their frames. The position of each of these vanishing points has then been used to place each neighbouring drawing, their perspectival lines picked up in the graphics of the murals behind. This conceit makes for a slightly mad hang which is playful and fun – recalling Jacob’s FAT heritage – but it doesn’t do the drawings any benefit, distracting from really studying them.
The idea of perspective being used to help represent and support the systems of power – in particular state power – that have planned and managed our world over the centuries is nicely developed on another wall. Here there is a telling pairing of two birds-eye perspective drawings. One is of the design for a symmetrical 17th-century fort in Italy, the other of a concept by industrial designer Raymond Loewy for NASA for a wardroom in a space station, dating from around 1970. ‘Drawings are not innocent’ as Jacob puts it succinctly.
Crop riba18974 malton james (1765 1803) examples of perspective delineation
Source: RIBA Collections
It is a pity that this fascinating thread – the use of perspective as a form of representation to extend control – is not developed as the key to pull the show together and help cut through the enormous theme of perspective – explored in what is a relatively small gallery space. The show is brought up to date, at least representationally, with a somewhat bloodless film of platonic architectural shapes shooting through space, which Jacob made working with game developer Shedworks. Perhaps some representation of drone footage and its projection would have presented a more telling bookend to the show. Offering parallels with the figures seen scanning the world through their individual cones of sight in the 18th-century treatises on display, it would have more effectively made the point about the ongoing importance of perspective – and its use and misuse in systems of representation and power today.
This is an exhibition that is rich in ideas and material but one that feels, amidst all the vanishing points, to be missing a key focus point.