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Architecture at the Royal Academy

Showy Summer Exhibition struggles with solid substance

The courtyard of Burlington House is just now largely filled with an installation by Chris Wilkinson RA. Entitled From Landscape to Portrait, it consists of 11 timber rectangles in the frozen stages of rotation from the horizontal to the vertical. Each is anchored to a snaking armature of steel panels which somehow does additional duty as seating for visitors to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

It is hard to know what to make of this. For a start, the courtyard was conceived as the august anteroom for the small village of learned societies that are housed around it. It remains one of those enclosed London spaces (Somerset House is another) that is at its best when left empty and, in such a context, any site-specific intervention tends to flatter neither the site nor the intervention. One has to question as well whether vernacular high-tech can ever sit comfortably with (slightly trite) narrative sculpture, or indeed with the quality of materials (or engineering) that come with the budget for any temporary structure.

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From Landscape to Portrait installation by Chris Wilkinson

We are told that this whimsical blurring of architecture with sculpture is merely an overture for this year’s architecture room in the exhibition, which has been curated on just this theme by Wilkinson himself and by Eva Jiricna. As always with the RA, institutional convention and politics make it hard for any curator to pursue a thematic idea but, to the extent that they succeed in doing so, the choice of theme raises some large problems for architectural representation generally, and for the status of architecture within the RA itself.

Rather than dismiss the room as just another bad year for architecture in the Academy, we should ask what they had hoped might really have been gained from approaching architects’ models of buildings as though they were sculpture (or indeed, an architect’s drawing as though it were an oil painting).

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View of Gallery II

As it turns out, when you are encouraged to look this way at presentation models, they suddenly seem very long on the overworked ingenuity of expensive executive toys. Perhaps this is not something that should surprise us about any object conceived with rhetorical purpose (or for the desk of a developer), but it does feel a little odd to be reminded of it by the RA itself. And, as we turn to the walls, the same set of problems is, if anything, compounded: we have to confront there in addition just how much architectural energy (and development value) is being expended now on making pretty patterns for two-dimensional facades. This is all the nearly perfect demonstration of the reduced role of architecture in the process of building, and it suggests that the architect is now lucky to play catch-up with painting and sculpture. If this is really true, he or she should avoid making submissions to the Summer Exhibition.

From here, the pervasive Law of Unintended Consequences leads in uncomfortable directions. If the representations of buildings have their own autonomy, what then does it imply about the buildings (both built and unbuilt) to which they bear some ongoing relation? Zaha Hadid’s submission asks these questions powerfully, with an extensive assemblage of images of the Heydar Aliyev Centre Auditorium. First among these is an acrylic painting by the architect that on examination can be neither quite the building she imagined nor, certainly, as it was completed; there follow a set of beautiful large photographs by Hélène Binet of the building still under construction.

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Photograph of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre Auditorium by Hélène Binet

What is this about? That here is a building on the shores of the Caspian that few of us are ever likely to see so, really, what the hell? That as a building it looked its best when half-finished, and that we have already missed the moment in Baku? Or, simply, that the construction programme (even perhaps the photographer’s travel schedule) fell inconveniently for the Royal Academy deadline?

Architectural representations are not works of art or, at least, are probably not best approached as works of art. To describe them, properly, as the notational record of a conceptual process, convenient for the moment (and in the inconvenient absence of the building) to the designer or to the public, is not to deny them a peculiar aesthetic of their own. Indeed, there are many fine architectural drawings and models − and even some good architecture − at the RA this year, but the uneasy format of the exhibition turns everything there to an exercise in advertising design; in doing so, all imaginative quality grows nearly invisible.

Summer Exhibition

Venue: Royal Academy

City: London

Dates: Until 12 August

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