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London, UK – David Chipperfield cleans up at the Royal Academy's summer show

Chipperfield curates the architecture room of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition

Over the last 242 years, the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition has become a unique landmark in the British calendar. In 1996, author John Morgan observed that it used to be the ‘unofficial opening of the summer season’ - a period when upper-class families descended on London, essentially to launch their daughters onto the marriage market.

While to this day there’s a lingering impression of poshness, one of the show’s defining contradictions is that its founding principle is entirely egalitarian. Anyone may make a submission to the selection committee. The result is that the creations of unknown amateurs sit alongside world-famous superstars; and to ascertain the authorship you have to grapple with a dense little catalogue.

As such a wonderfully peculiar gallery experience, a code of behaviour has emerged specifically for the occasion. Writing an etiquette guide for elitist publisher Debrett’s, Morgan maintains ‘gossiping gaggles’ as a solecism but for once encourages ‘aspersions on the works’. After all, he adds, ‘that is part of the fun.’

With over 1,200 exhibits to cast a critical eye over this year - mostly wall-based media, but with notable pieces of sculpture and film - there is, as always, a huge diversity in subject matter and quality.

This year’s curators, Royal Academicians (RAs) David Chipperfield and the painter Stephen Chambers, have notionally chosen the work on the theme of ‘raw’: although if even one visitor identified this word after a thorough look-round, you’d suspect they’d cheated.

The architecture gallery is for the first time in the Lecture Room, a much larger, grander volume than its previous home. This move is hugely beneficial to the work.

The extra breathing space combined with Chipperfield’s rigorous eye has brought a legibility to the curation that has sometimes been lacking in previous years.

Other architects with RA status - such as Will Alsop and Peter Cook - have a guaranteed slot. Cook unveiled his idea for a multi-purpose high-rise. The elevation drawing merges structure/skin with vegetation, the two languages shifting between each other so at moments it almost appears as a landscape plan. Produced in ink and watercolour, it has a gorgeous quality.

Alsop has contributed a concept model of his Edessa museum project. Made from paper, wire and clay, its disarming primitiveness for a moment eclipses the clarity of its tectonic vision.

Where Chipperfield had discretion to choose, he has done so with a commendably broad mind.You can imagine him greatly admiring projects such as 6a Architects’ timber-framed Mines Farm in Cambridgeshire. Represented by a stunning model, the relatively simple massing belies a much more complex sequence of interior spaces, demonstrating the assuredness of this young London practice.

But elsewhere Chipperfield has picked projects (which he loosely categorised to me as ‘organic’) that, to put it mildly, you wouldn’t say were particularly to his taste.

Two examples are Tobias Klein’s Inverted Syncretism and recent Bartlett graduate Margaret Bursa’s New Local New York. These exuberant models are especially deserving of attention.

The John Madejski Fine Rooms, where the work of RAs who’ve passed away in the last year is displayed, are also of great interest this year. HT ‘Jim’ Cadbury-Brown, who died in July 2009, was the Academy’s professor of architecture for 13 years. He made sensitive adjustments to a number of its public rooms in Burlington House, among other accolades too numerous to list here.

Stretching from those fresh out of college to recently deceased old masters, the Summer Exhibition’s idiosyncratic curatorial policy make this really the only place you can find such a vivid cross-section of the British architectural profession’s output. For that reason alone, it is well worth a visit.

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