A view from This Was Tomorrow exhibition, conceived and curated by UK-based charitable foundation, Drawing Matter.
This Was Tomorrow: Reinventing Architecture (1953-1978) is a survey of architectural representations produced by many hands but within a precisely selected time-frame. At its heart is the story of a twenty five year experiment in formal invention, initiated by the virtuosic late works of Le Corbusier and brought to a close by Rossi’s reclamation of the inherited grammar of the European City. Borrowed from the seminal exhibition staged at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1956 - but with a significant change of tense - its title emphatically announces its theme as one of lost innocence.
However, the road the exhibition follows is more circuitous than that railroad narrative might suggest. Over the course of four impeccably assembled rooms at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, we are presented with a series of encounters between twelve of the period’s key protagonists. The free relationship of ideas is consistently privileged over the exactitudes of chronology so while Le Corbusier does feature in the opening room, it is the work of two younger architects grappling with his legacy - John Hejduk and Stirling and Gowan - that we encounter first.
Alvaro Siza Malageuira Full
‘A standout exhibit in the first room is an early study model, dating from 1950-51, of the south wall of Le Corbusier’s Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp’
The very first exhibit is a series of offset lithographs dating from 1969 that describe one of the houses of Hejduk’s Diamond Thesis. Composed of circular section columns interspersed by free ranging partitions, its language is of Corbusian origin but the project is ultimately, and unapologetically, a graphic exercise. The 45 degree rotation of the building’s square plan to its structural grid is motivated more by the abstract possibilities of axonometric projection than by any consideration of practicality or spatial delight. The foregrounding of the project signals that This Was Tomorrow is as much a show about the reinvention of architectural representation as it is a show about the reinvention of architecture. Or, perhaps more accurately it might be said that the period under consideration was one when representation usurped building as the locus of the architectural project. It would prove a short-lived victory. Digital technology would soon sweep away this culture of pictorialisatation, replacing the hand-made and highly-authored view with the anonymous photo-visualisation.
A standout exhibit in the first room is an early study model, dating from 1950-51, of the south wall of Le Corbusier’s Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp. Fabricated in crudely modelled plaster, with apertures stabbed-in using a pencil, it shares the savage immediacy of Jean Dubuffet’s painting and sculpture of the period - examples of which Le Corbusier owned. This might be a remnant from the Palaeolithic era, or an object of mystical function in a science fiction story, establishing a mood of temporal ambivalence that the following room maintains and expands.
Le Corbusier Ronchamp
‘This was Tomorrow has been assembled with consummate intelligence but its logic is ultimately a poetic rather than academic one’
Louis Kahn Full
Here we find a gathering of international architects united in their determination to lay waste to 2000 years of western civilisation. Sketches by the young Hans Hollein describe vast urban clusters of a form indebted to the architecture of Mesoamerican civilisations while Mike Webb’s final student thesis, The Sin Centre (1962), envisages a free distribution of consumer activities over the spiralling circuit of a multi-storey carpark. Everything here operates at a supra-architectural scale, offering total solutions for a world which is threatening if not explicitly post-apocalyptic. How real and imminent that future is envisaged to be is often left open to question. Superstudio is represented by a 1971 project predicated on the flooding of the Austrian city of Graz. The collaged images describing this scenario are surreal and seemingly fantastical but draw on memories of the catastrophic flooding of the architects’ native Florence five years previously. While this is one of the more explicitly satirical visions to be features, its imagery is not ultimately so far removed from the overtly positivistic work of a figure like Buckminster Fuller, who is represented here by a series of European patents relating to his research into lightweight large-span enclosures.
The third room presents an encounter between two projects - Alvaro Siza’s Malaguerira Estate at Evora (1973-77) and Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Kansas City Office Building (1966-72). Both might be considered fantasies on Roman themes: Siza’s expanse of patio housing references the mat-like compositions of Pompei and Herculaneum, while Kahn’s tower - the floors of which are suspended from high-level arches - brings a Hadrianic monumentality to the wide plains of America’s mid-west. However, the emphasis is less on the finalised designs - no photographs of the completed buildings at Evora are included - and rather on the place of drawing in the working process. Both architects are shown grappling with the myriad requirements of a large and complex project. In a corner of one of the Malagueira sketches we even find Siza calculating the number of washing machines needed in the town’s laundrette.
The exhibition has been conceived and curated by Drawing Matter, a UK-based charitable foundation, which maintains a compelling website (www.drawingmatter.org.uk) and will soon launch the first issue of a journal. While the material in the exhibition’s first three rooms is drawn exclusively from its collection, the final one gives the narrative local resonance through its incorporation of a large, floor-mounted drawing borrowed from the collection of ETH Zurich. Dating from 1973, it represents a series of projects in Solothurn undertaken by students in the final studio taught at the school by Aldo Rossi, among whom were the young Marcel Meili and Miroslav Sik. Painted a funereal black, the room’s walls are dominated by Rossi’s own wonderful paintings of the period but interspersed by pre-modern treasures from Drawing Matter’s holdings, which evoke the lost urban tradition that he hoped to re-engage.
‘Sketches by the young Hans Hollein describe vast urban clusters of a form indebted to the architecture of Mesoamerican civilisations’
This juxtaposition of drawings made 200 years apart can also be seen as representing a positional statement by This was Tomorrow’s curators. The culture of architectural exhibition making tends to favour narratives that are contained, linear and more often than not monographical - an impulse led not only by institutional marketing considerations but by the research methodologies of art historians. This was Tomorrow has been assembled with consummate intelligence but its logic is ultimately a poetic rather than academic one.