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Things that make you go ‘oooh!’

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One outstanding, exquisite piece captivated the judges of this year’s RA Summer Exhibition Architecture Prize, writes Rory Olcayto

Kathryn Findlay has a mischievous smile. She’s walking towards me as I head into the adjoining gallery, which has some spillover exhibits from the architecture room. She stops me and says: ‘See if you can find the one which made me and Paul both go “oooh!”’.

We’re at the Royal Academy to find the best overall exhibit in the Architecture section, as well as best first timer, with prizes of £10,000 and £5,000, courtesy of Lend Lease, up for grabs. Design Council CABE chairman Paul Finch and the sponsor’s UK head of offices, Kevin Chapman, are also on the jury.

So I do as I’m told and look for something oooh!-ish. It doesn’t take long. In fact I find it straight away: Tim Parr’s Demolition, a hellish scene of a collapsed steel tower, naked bodies entangled within the broken building. It’s not great art though – more heavy metal album cover – but wait a minute, it’s exhibit number 911, and it does look a bit Twin Towers … oh. Is that what Kathryn meant?

No. What Kathryn meant was lot number 967: Book: Solar Topography, The Farnese Gardens, Rome by Ben Crowd, Thomas Hopkins and Sara Shafiel, an exquisite model of the ancient capital’s downtown, laser-cut into an open book of blank pages with details on the contoured landscape of Palatine Hill picked out with exquisite mathematical precision. It is really quite something. Oooh, indeed.

Earlier, discussing the criteria, we cite communication and craft – and beauty – as our guide to picking winners from the hundreds of exhibits, hung this year by architects Chris Wilkinson and Eva Jiricna. If we were judges in 1830, Joseph Gandy’s cutaway perspective drawing of the Bank of England as a ruin, exhibited by John Soane, would have been the clear winner, I say, half-joking, over coffee before we begin. ‘That’s the standard we should be looking for!’ Yet, while The Farnese Gardensis not quite in the same league, it is far and away this year’s very best in show. And it does have some of the strangeness of Gandy’s vision, the same ‘intricacy and richness’, making it ‘a poetic gesture of … timelessness and monumentality’, as the Soane Museum’s catalogue puts it.

Our other winner, Article 25’s model and kit of parts of a rainforest park headquarters, communicates craft, beauty and architecture, too. But it’s all about potential, rather than a past life. Kevin had his eye on this one but, when we crowd around it, the verdict is unanimous.

Our three commendations are all models, too. Carmody Groarke’s wooden and cast metal site plan of Windermere Steamboat Museum has the finely weighted, precision-cut feel their real projects have.

Peter Barber’s Model for a Decent Neighbourhood is rigorous, consistent, a curiosity – but with its own logic going on. And Allies and Morrison’s Olympic Triptych tells the story of the East London site’s development with pin-sharp clarity.

Elsewhere in the room, Hellman’s archi-têtes of Christopher Wren and Prince Charles catch the eye – because they are, put simply, quite brilliant, as the likes of Ralph Steadman, Gavin Stamp and Nicholas Pevsner have all said before. Good drawings, however, are hard to find this year. Oratorian City, by Luca Perricone, a kind of alternative map of London, is very funny: roads and stations and parks have been renamed and don’t always appear in the right places but I’m not even sure if it was part of the Architecture hang. The Dover Dichotomy I and II by Adam Hiles, presented as framed drawings that pop up from the surface like a children’s book and a clutch of classical studies by Julian Harrap, Trevor Dannat and Wesley Richards are crisp, if a little dull, while The Eternal City, a first time exhibit by James Redman, is the only computer graphic worth a mention.

Other exhibits the jury discussed include A House for George Orwell, a pair of cardboard models by Robert Mainwaring, Anna Liu’s Baku Sfera, an acryllic, hollowed-out sphere that looks very Logan’s Run or Barbarella and Allies and Morrison’s tiny model for a House in Mumbai, all of them beautifully made. Ute Zscharnt shots of David Chipperfield’s Folkwang, Hepworth and Turner galleries are the best photographs on show – they capture a little of each building’s essence – but this last batch aren’t winners. None of them make you go ‘oooh!’

Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2012, Burlington House, London W1, 4 June - 12 August 2012, £11.50

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