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Jiřičná's right royal show

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Eva Jiřičná has been a ruthless curator of this year’s Architecture Room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The show is all the better for it, writes Christine Murray

The chaos of the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, a maze of esteemed galleries cluttered with artwork clamouring for attention, is a product of the show’s unusual selection process.

This long tradition, an annual event held without fail since 1769, sees thousands of works paraded in front of its curators who pick the best of the open submissions for their rooms. But the small print is that if you are a Royal Academician (RA), up to six pieces of your work are automatically included in the summer show.

The frenetic exhibition is borne of the curatorial team’s struggle to meaningfully combine the mandatory RA work with exciting discoveries from lesser-known talents.

The challenge with the Architecture Room is how to stop the RA work from dominating this space – the smallest gallery in the exhibition – to make room for exhilarating work from emerging architects and students. Curators often cope by hiding uninspiring commercial models (presumably submitted by RAs to flatter clients) in the centre of plinths, bookended by interesting work, or by climbing the walls, hanging them far above eye level.

The challenge of the Architecture Room is how to make space for exhilarating work from emerging architects and students

The curator of the Architecture Room this year, Eva Jiřičná, took a more radical approach: If the RA work didn’t suit the room, she phoned up RAs and asked them to withdraw work and submit a different piece.

‘It’s always difficult to reject any work that is submitted. It’s so much easier to spread good news rather than bad,’ Jiřičná says. ‘At the end of the day there is only one relatively small gallery, so something has to give.’

Jiřičná also managed to trade some architecture pieces into other galleries, such as the enormous David Chipperfield model, to save on space. Zaha Hadid’s sculpture also features in another room.

The Architecture Room is stronger for it. There are notably fewer pieces exhibited, and these are of more uniform quality. There’s still plenty of work on show, but it’s a slightly less confused experience than usual. The inclusion of occasional pieces of sculpture or art in the Architecture Room emphasises, rather than blurs, the distinction between the arts – object-making versus the making of space.

There are some fun juxtapositions: Richard Rogers’ star-shaped steel cross-bracing next to starfish-shaped sculptures by Ikuko Iwamoto, an Amanda Levete Architects model of the EDP Foundation near a stainless steel sculpture by Margarita Trushina. Standout pieces include the winners of this year’s AJ/Lend Lease Awards: two models by Heatherwick Studio, which picked up the £5,000 prize for Best First Time Exhibitor, with Mina Gospavic commended in this category, and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Southbank Centre models, which scooped the £10,000 Architecture Award, for which Spencer de Grey’s models for the Foster-designed Einstein museum in Jerusalem and Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects’ Brewster House were commended.

The canary yellow walls are intended to make the drawings stand out

As for the canary-yellow walls, Jiřičná explains that they were intended to make the drawings stand out. They are a bit garish, but what architects might prefer (white walls) matters less here – this show and its awards are about engaging the up to 60,000 visitors. ‘My secret dream is that people will enjoy it,’ Jiřičná says. I certainly did. The overall impression is of a profession engaged in ‘making’ and that architects are a playful, inspired bunch. It may inspire new recruits into the profession.

Comment from Eva Jiřičná

‘I sincerely hope visitors to the exhibition will notice that architecture is interesting, inspirational, very serious, though at the same time excellent fun. There is a large selection of sketches, built and unbuilt projects, ideas, abstract composition – you name it and you’ll find it.

‘Architecture is seen in juxtaposition with art, of both well-known and emerging artists. That is to show that architecture can be an integral part of a very famous art show and not, as it has been for a long time, completely separated from the mainstream.

‘My secret dream is that people will enjoy it, find little jokes here and there and leave with a smile – hence the yellow colour on the walls, to bring the sunshine in.’

Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, 10 June - 18 August, Royal Academy of Arts, London


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