Soane as you’ve never seen him before

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Studio MUTT’s Out of Character installations at the Soane Museum evoke aspects of the architect that he himself would recognise

The four characters designed by Studio MUTT for the exhibition Out of Character at the Soane Museum.
The four characters designed by Studio MUTT for the exhibition Out of Character at the Soane Museum.

Packed full of artefacts, Sir John Soane’s Museum is famous for its architectural fragments and curiosities. Now it has four more, albeit temporarily, in the form of the elements that make up Out of Character, an exhibition of personas created from architectural ornament by Studio MUTT.

For the young London and Liverpool-based practice, the commission was something of a dream project since the founders have been Soane enthusiasts since their student days and are also, according to one of them, Alexander Turner, ‘obsessed with folklore and myth’.

Their starting point was Soane’s odd text ‘Crude Hints towards an History of my House’, written in 1812 but never intended for public consumption. In it, he famously fast-forwarded in time to imagine his home as a ruin and speculated that anyone visiting might deduce that it had once been occupied by four characters: an architect, a lawyer, a magician and a monk.

Studio MUTT playfully takes this idea and runs with it, using ornament and colour to create an installation for each persona, positioned at appropriate locations within the museum, whether lurking in the basement near a sarcophagus or tucked away in the cell off the Monk’s Parlour.

According to Studio MUTT’s Graham Burn, rather than representations of a building, the characters are compositions of ornamental pieces and exhibit an ‘in between nature’ somewhere between a very small building or a very big model. A key reference point was the work of architect John Hejduk, who proposed a series of structures as characters inhabiting the city.

‘It’s an exercise in pushing our thoughts on what is ornament and personality in a piece of architecture,’ Burn says.

Images of each creation are displayed in a series of four wall hangings and a floor roundel in the Foyle Space, along with Soane’s original manuscript of Crude Hints. Here the characters are framed by borders embellished with quotations from the text, and motifs such as skulls, urns and architectural fragments, in a dream-like assemblage of imagery.

The characters are most effective in their individual installations around the museum, created as large, colourful vinyl-covered 3D assemblages embellished with various accessories made of metal, fabric and other materials. Although these are accompanied by some guidance notes, the idea is that visitors make their own interpretations of the assemblages and their many possible references and meanings.

‘We’re really interested in misreadings as well,’ says Burn.

  • The Architect, in the cast room at the Soane Museum.
    The Architect, in the cast room at the Soane Museum. Credit: French + Tye
  • Detail of The Architect.
    Detail of The Architect. Credit: French+ Tye
  • The Lawyer in the basement kitchen at the Soane.
    The Lawyer in the basement kitchen at the Soane. Credit: French+ Tye
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Studio MUTT’s favourite is The Architect, located close to Soane’s studio and surrounded by cast architectural fragments. Positioned to look both across and down, the character is imagined as voyeuristically keeping an eye on what’s going on all around. The practice describes The Architect as anxious and confused as it struggles to balance contemporary relevance with a desire for timeless historical reverence. The thumbs-up hand, which started out as a reference to Le Corbusier’s Open Hand monument in Chandigarh, could also be seen as the quest for approval. Is the inclusion of a blue sky with clouds a reference to the character having its head in the clouds?

The Monk, positioned in the Monk’s Cell to draw visitors’ attention to this often overlooked space, is created by raising a church floor plan vertically, with a cross dangling in front. Black and white ornament incised down the front of this form is intended to suggest self flagellation. Curator Owen Hopkins considers whether The Monk can be seen as a reference to the darker, more melancholy side of Soane’s character.

Installed on a mirrored base, The Lawyer adds interest to the basement kitchen, positioned looking up and out over Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This character appears well grounded and stable and is topped with scales in the form of a metal crown balanced by a somewhat floppy pink weight.

  • Out of Character installation in The Foyle Space, with the original Crude Hints text and representations of the four characters of The Architect, Monk, Lawyer and Magician imagined to have inhabited the house.
    Out of Character installation in The Foyle Space, with the original Crude Hints text and representations of the four characters of The Architect, Monk, Lawyer and Magician imagined to have inhabited the house. Credit: French+ Tye
  • The Magician in the crypt.
    The Magician in the crypt. Credit: French+ Tye
  • The Magician from another angle.
    The Magician from another angle. Credit: French+ Tye
  • The Monk in the monk's cell at the Soane Museum.
    The Monk in the monk's cell at the Soane Museum. Credit: French+ Tye
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In Crude Hints, Soane describes a lost staircase in the house, and refers to the idea of a magician lurking in the crypt. In response, Studio MUTT has created The Magician in the form of a staircase with arches. This structure, topped by a pagan cross adorned with feathers, appears to be referencing Egyptian imagery in acknowledgement of Soane’s interest in pagan rituals and masonic influences. The black and white staircase pattern plays with perspective and depth while the incorporation of a mirrored surface seems appropriate to the mystery of the character.

‘We’re trying to make an architecture that makes its own illusions,’ says Burn.

Studio MUTT hopes its installation will prompt greater interest in Soane and the Crude Hints text, and in particular encourage alternative readings of the house.

After its stint at the Soane, the exhibition will travel to Liverpool to go on show in the very different environment of RIBA North in early 2019.


Out of Character, A project by Studio MUTT, until November 18, 2018, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.