Robert Adam pays a visit to this year's Royal Academy Summer Show.
This year at the Royal Academy Summer Show each gallery has a little card at the door. These tell loyal visitors why popular, minority and unusual exhibits, which were once the trademark of the Summer Shows, are gradually disappearing. Academicians, who are establishment artists already well-served by galleries, are very uncomfortable to be alongside the heresy of what they disparagingly call ‘send-ins’. Gradually mainstream art has taken over, gallery by gallery. The cards tell visitors why, whether they like it or not, this is good for them.
As it is with painting and sculpture so it is with architecture. Once one of the few places where the full gamut of architecture in Britain could be found, the Summer Show architecture gallery is run by Academicians as yet another display of professional orthodoxy. It is no longer the place where the craft of architectural drawing and the minority branches of the profession could have a rare outing alongside the big names. Now it’s given over to big names, models, photos and videos. This year there are only 20 or so architectural drawings by the hand of the architect; there are 55 models, photos and videos and the rest are artwork only coincidentally connected with architecture.
Gordon Benson, this year’s Academician curator, has included a few of his own pictures amongst the 30 or so straight artworks. They join some mixed-media works by Leonard Manasseh, a collage by Will Alsop and a number of other pictures and models that have no clear association with architecture except the name of the artist or their title. Ian Ritchie’s etching entitled ‘The Pearl of Dubai’ is such a minimal circular squiggle that it’s only significance can by that it’s by Ritchie. It’s also hard to see the relevance of a photo of an audio-visual installation and a live audio-visual of much the same thing by Mark Dorian and Adrian Hawker, unless Benson just likes them or they are friends from Edinburgh.
This is the problem with giving over a gallery to the tunnel-vision of a doctrinaire Academician. This is neither about architecture nor the Summer Show’s tradition of diversity; it’s about Gordon Benson’s idea of what architecture ought to be. This is not to say that the work on display is bad, it is just that it’s only about one thing. As an establishment display it’s quite familiar to architects as we all know about Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Richard McCormac and FAT. But it’s misleading to the public as there’s so much more to architecture than this.
The little card at the door tells us just what Gordon Benson’s on about. It’s Corbusier. On the card he says: ‘The last word in the display is the church at Firminy… It is the perfect setting for the “sermon on the mount”.’ This gallery is indeed a ‘sermon’ about the architecture of a man who died more than 40 years ago.
To make the point, there are a number of Corbusian pastiches around the gallery: one by Benson himself (no surprises there) and others by Trevor Dannatt, Adrian Friend, Sutherland Hussey and Richard McCormac. A very arresting time-delay video of the construction of pre-fab houses in Milton Keynes by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (the exhibit and its introductory title are masterful pieces of marketing) has clear echoes of Corbusier’s mass-production houses. There is even a deliberate juxtaposition of black-and-white photos by Hélène Binet of Corbusier’s posthumous Église Saint-Pierre de Firminy-Vert and Hadid’s Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion, as if to demonstrate that even wacky Hadid is just a late-Corbusian on CAD and steroids. To ram home the point that establishment architecture – or perhaps just Benson himself – has never grown out of the 1920s and ’30s there is a photograph called ‘Skyline of London’ by The Mobile Studio (an organisation interested in ‘pushing the boundaries of what is considered architecture’), that is a perfect pastiche of a well-known photograph of a Bauhaus fancy-dress party.
There is a double irony in the establishment takeover of one the last place where minority architecture could get a showing just through the quality of the exhibits. The first is that Modernism was once just such a minority. Then they argued against the complacency of the establishment and its traditions. Now that they are the establishment they’ve developed a messianic determination to suppress any minority architecture they don’t like. The second is that Modernism claims legitimacy in its modernity and radicalism. This display can be no clearer demonstration just how the architectural establishment is rooted in the architecture of the past. This is not, as Benson suggests on the card at the door, ‘the continuity of these ideas’, it is the stagnation of these ideas. Saint-Pierre de Firminy-Vert was completed last year, 45 years late – that doesn’t make it modern.