As well as architecture exhibitions targeted at a broad audience, there is a vital role for ones that develop the architectural discourse
It may rank as one of the best architectural retrospectives of recent years, but the Barbican’s The World of Charles and Ray Eames, enjoys the significant advantage that its subjects designed a lot more than just buildings. This is not simply a show about architecture but also furniture, graphics, sculpture, multimedia presentations, textiles and toys. Architectural curators usually find themselves facing a far narrower range of material: principally models and photographs, as plans tend to be considered a turn-off for a general audience.
I confess, I have rather come to dread these exhaustingly encyclopaedic blockbusters - almost invariably concluding that I would have been happier just to read the catalogue - but the major public institutions seem to struggle to present architecture outside this familiar format. With its 2014 exhibition, Sensing Spaces, the Royal Academy made a brave attempt, inviting half-a-dozen international architects to create full-scale environments in its galleries. It proved a popular success but left one wondering whether, shorn of function and urban context, the contributions deserved to be considered architecture at all.
The problem is ultimately one of scale - a few honourable exceptions aside, a good architecture exhibition is a small one. It may have launched with the embarrassingly jingoistic The Brits who Built the Modern World but the recent run of exhibitions at the RIBA’s Architecture Gallery has been exemplary in this respect. The current Palladianism show is the best yet, elegantly choreographing five centuries of diverse material on a happily compact stage.
Yet the curators of this new venue do face one major limitation, namely the RIBA’s expectation that every show should seek to secure an audience outside the profession. The kind of experimental - not to say unabashedly esoteric - exhibitions that the Canadian Centre for Architecture regularly supports are not likely to form part of the RIBA’s programme anytime soon.
Unencumbered by a permanent venue, it is proving fleet-footed and responsive
The recently launched charitable foundation, Drawing Matter, therefore represents an exciting new arrival within the field of UK institutions concerned with the display and discussion of architecture. Focused around an archive of architectural drawings to which it is actively adding, it operates across a range of platforms including exhibitions, workshops, a website and, as of next year, a twice-yearly magazine. Unencumbered by a permanent venue, it is proving fleet-footed and responsive in a way that larger institutions rarely are. Within a month of James Gowan’s archive entering its collection, it had fully digitised his sketches detailing the development of Stirling and Gowan’s 1956 Expandable House (pictured), publishing them online to coincide with a talk that Tony Fretton and I gave on Gowan’s work last week. Next spring, the same sketches will feature as part of a group show Drawing Matter is staging at the Swiss Museum of Architecture in Basel.
A central ambition of its activities is to broker a conversation between architectural historians and practitioners. One of its workshops, which I attended at John Soane’s Museum last year, considered a range of 18th-century material but invited contributions, not just from experts in the period, but from architects including Alvaro Siza and 6a. The conversation around a series of drawings detailing the development of Soane’s Bank of England lent the material a thrilling immediacy.
There will always be a need for architecture programmes targeted at a broad audience, but there is a vital role too for those directed at developing the architectural discourse. These remain in short supply in the UK, but Drawing Matter is already making an important contribution to that mission.