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Royal Academy Summer Exhibition taps into eco zeitgeist

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Khaki-coloured models, maquettes – and trees – flag up the green theme of this year’s show, writes Rob Wilson

The theme of sustainability was perhaps all but inevitable for the Architecture Room at this year’s Royal Academy Summer exhibition this year, which has been curated with quiet panache by Foster’s Spencer de Grey, although not quite the all-out pizzazz of Piers Gough’s version last year. The quietness is partly due to the Architecture Room having returned to the relative backwater of the Large Weston Room from having been centre stage in the run of the rest of the galleries last year, a position that created nice conversations between the architectural exhibits and the surrounding art.

Whereas last year’s dense massing of models on plinths formed a busy crossroads, the display this year is less packed, centred around a space in which two silver birch trees rather obviously flag up the sustainability theme as you enter. Described, rather optimistically, as ‘a grove’, they are intended for practical rather than just aesthetic effect: ‘actively absorbing harmful COemissions’. It would be interesting to see the stats at the end of the show to evidence this.

Summer 46

Summer 46

Source: Royal Academy of Arts / David Parry

The choice of projects ‘celebrates sustainability in its widest sense’ in what the introductory blurb describes as a ‘holistic’ approach – although ‘broad-brush’ might be closer to the mark, with the filter quite a loose one. A large highly coloured model of this year’s Dulwich Pavilion by Pricegore and the artist Yinka Ilore vividly catches the eye in the otherwise generally tasteful sea of green and brown models, but its sustainability message is unclear. Equally a large model of David Chipperfield’s AmorePacific HQ, its façades represented in touchy feely timber, has its inclusion weakly justified for having ‘a central courtyard bringing natural ventilation and daylight’. Clearly wellness and social sustainability are all part of the curatorial mix here too.



Source: 6a architects

6a architects: Charlotte Rampling, A Fox, and a Plate, No.7, Latimer Road, London

Several of the projects celebrate operational sustainability in an old-school bells-and-whistles way – epitomised by the photovoltaic-covered high-tech formations of Grimshaw’s Terra World Expo 2020 Sustainability Pavilion E-Tree; but it is lean, green passive projects and objects that predominate – focused more on reduced embodied carbon load, material use and sourcing. These range from straightforward model presentations, such as Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s carbon-positive Croft Gardens housing scheme in Cambridge and Eleanor Derbyshire’s passive winery, to more visceral and materially rich objects such as the piece of ‘Hooverbag Terrazzo’ by Farid Karim – flooring created from construction waste – and the sedum-covered piece of Elizabeth Gilligan’s bio-receptive concrete.

The latter is one of the few appearances of a material that has become more bête-on noir than béton brut over the last year in terms of carbon footprint. Even the huge concrete silos of Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz MOCAA –included because ‘reuse is the most sustainable thing’ – have metamorphosed into thick tubes of recycled cardboard in a striking maquette here. 

577 (updated)

577 (updated)

Source: Peter Barber Architects

Peter Barber Architects: Village VK 4A

Ethics doesn’t altogether trump aesthetics in the show, though, with the inclusion of more art-piece type works, such as 6a’s contribution: a rather Jeff-Wall-staged looking photo by Juergen Teller of Charlotte Rampling, a Fox, and a Plate, taken in the studio they designed for him. Another vivid photography piece is Steven Chilton Architects’ Mrs Xin, who is photographed in bright scarlet in front of the practice’s theatre in Wuxi, China – its eco message apparently coming from the building’s columns being inspired by a bamboo forest. 

But the show’s highlights are those exhibits that combine material, project and representation in one narrative – combining message with craft and poetics. Standing out among these are Peter Barber’s pottery model of a zero-energy estuary island village, fired from dredged river-clay, and a drawing by Threefold Architects of its Foundry Farm scheme, logging the harvesting and use of timber from ancient woodland.  



Source: Threefold Architects

Threefold Architects: From Forest to Façade, A Woodlands Survey

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 runs from 10 June until 12 August at the Royal Academy of Arts, London royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/summer-exhibition-2019


Ian Ritchie, director of Ian Ritchie Architects

However well-meant, the phrase ‘eco-zeitgeist’ trivialises the issue of sustainability in architecture, although it reflects a suspicion that ‘eco-’ and ‘sustainable’ have now become fashionable buzzwords after decades of wildly profligate architecture by some of the profession’s biggest names, many of whom now exhibit a new-found zeal for eco-credentials.

Sustainability has been a focus of our practice’s design ethos since the mid-70s, and realising it in a holistic approach to design through procurement, fabrication and performance always involves highly detailed and intensive site and specific research into environmental, materials and energy issues and performance. If any architectural concept is to be genuinely sustainable instead of just a fun idea or a nominally sustainable, greenwashed eco-fantasy, such research is indispensable.

Peter Barber’s social housing design research has been exemplary, however his model of an estuary island village fired from dredged river clay, cited in the last paragraph, perhaps needs a better explanation. There are obviously environmental merits to viewing dredged material as a resource rather than a waste. However, it would be interesting to know whether thought and research have been given to the technologies, practicality, cost, effectiveness and environmental costs involved in decontaminating such dredged material before using it as building material.

As for the other project mentioned in the last paragraph, it seems worth mentioning that according to their website, Threefold Architects’ Foundry Farm scheme used timber from a pine plantation on site, not ancient woodland which is protected and irreplaceable habitat.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • I absolutely agree that the phrase "eco-zeitgeist" is ridiculous shock jock kind of journalism, designed to illicit a response. This article has very little if any academic merit. Chopping down ancient woodlands? slowly killing beech trees in a heavily air conditioned gallery (with their root systems completely destroyed to fit in tiny boxes). All this does is point out that the leaders of our publishing businesses and big practices are hopelessly out of date and their positions as leaders have become unsustainable.
    Our industry is slowly becoming science and evidence based and these old school charlatans wont be able to keep bullshitting forever.

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