Monday, 27 June 2011

Architecture at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

The annual Summer Exhibition blockbuster includes a section on architecture, which reflects the fact that many prominent architects are members of the Royal Academy - the current president is architect Nicholas Grimshaw, who designed that peculiar hi-tech Sainsbury's in Camden Town. A room devoted to architecture does provide some diversity but it sits uncomfortably in a show devoted to pure visual arts. Dozens of models are crowded on low plinths and the walls are covered with framed illustrations, so there is plenty to look at, but it's hard work. Unlike a painting or even a sculpture, nearly everything on show requires some effort to understand what is going on, and raises questions: what's it for, and why is it like that? It it a real proposal or just an abstract architectural fantasy? Architects speak their own language and their idea of humour is a little specialised, which may be why a lot of the projects on show here are just not very interesting without some background explanation.

The star of the show is the Shi Ling Bridge by small practice Tonkin Liu - an organic, flowing perforated structure spanning a rocky gorge. It is rightly given central position in the room: at a glance you can understand the scale and the structural logic, and appreciate how it would enhance a natural landscape. Similar clarity is in evidence in the Hairy House by London architects Shiro Studio. Following a long line of one-off Tokyo architect-designed townhouses, this one is a simple rectangular slab covered in white astroturf, with a car-size indentation for parking and gloopy amoeba shaped windows apparently made of white perspex. At the other end of the scale, an elaborate model of part of Battersea Power Station imagines the interior as a sort of biological mutation. It's intricately built using 3D printing technology, and rather pointless.

Studio East by Carmody Groarke is a pop-up restaurant that was on the Olympics site last summer, built out of stretched fabric on a scaffolding frame. It's shown as a moderately impressive aerial photograph, one of the few images of a completed project. It's also probably the only project on show that has since been taken down. There are a couple of other photographs of oval structures in sombre black and white. FAT are showing a cartoonish but slightly dull birds-eye view of a suburban district in County Durham populated with their trademark quirky buildings.

Two architectural fantasies stand out among all the boring elevations and half-baked deconstructivism. An atmospheric black and white print elaborately titled Embankment, The Alchemic Plant, Tempelhof, Berlin, sits below a similarly elaborate print, The Reforestation of the Thames Estuary, River Elevation. The Alchemical Plant is an adaptation of Hunters in the Snow by Jan Breughel the Elder, with the hunting party and their dogs making their way towards a strange spaceframe structure in the valley, and a modern city beyond. The Reforestation is more original, a grim quayside scene (yes, in architectural elevation) with huge piles of lumber and cranes, again the modern city beyond, and some of those little Thames estuary Noddy houses off to one side.

So some exceptions do stand out - and please note I'm just mentioning a selection.

More information at Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

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