The augmented reality is fun but more explanation is needed at this refreshingly different exhibition, which explores the Swiss practice's thinking and brings the public right into the process of building
The Royal Academy of Art’s new Herzog & de Meuron (H&dM) exhibition tackles the perennial problem of how to display architecture in a gallery head-on. Rather than plumping for a retrospective-style, chronological canter through the Swiss practice’s 45-year, 600-project career, this exhibition is refreshingly trying something different, with mixed results.
There isn’t the reassuring structure of a thorough overview of the practice’s impressive oeuvre to hang onto, or even a timeline of key dates and works. Nor do we hear from practice founders Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron themselves (although there is a conversation with the former in the catalogue). The emphasis is rather more on the process and experience of architecture, with models and films in particular serving as the necessary ‘substitutes’ for the architecture itself. And don’t be alarmed at the sight of visitors waving their phones around – they’re just getting to grips with using Augmented Reality (AR) to conjure up additional imagery – a first for the RA.
While best known in the UK for creating the Tate Modern out of the Bankside power station in 2000 & 2016, H&dM’s prolific catalogue spans several continents and many sectors – including stadia, hospitals, concert halls, libraries and many more – without, as the RA notes, a signature style.
Architecture and Drue Heinz curator Vicky Richardson describes H&dM as being in a constant process of ‘questioning the world’ and the role of architecture rather than resting on its laurels. She hopes the exhibition will bring visitors right into this process of inquiry.
‘It’s part retrospective but more importantly, about architecture itself, and bringing the public into a process that might seem complicated, but is all about people.’ she says.
The exhibition’s three galleries offer very different experiences. Visitors enter into a recreation of part of H&dM’s Kabinett archive in Basel, which acts as a working resource and laboratory for the practice rather than simple storage. Here, on three tall, warehouse-style vitrines, are displayed models, materials and other objects relating to selected projects, some completed and some in progress. Models include process studies in foam, wood, plastic, wire and more, some showing multiple iterations of design development. It’s an arresting display, and may be fascinating for those already familiar with the finished design of key projects such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing (2008) and Elbphilarmonie Hamburg (2016). But it’s frustrating that it’s necessary to consult the gallery guide to find out even basic explanatory information, and insights into the design.
Some of these displays are AR enabled to offer another layer of visitor experience via a smart phone app. Once you’ve cracked how to access it, the AR is rather fun – who isn’t fascinated by how a services model of the Elbphilarmonie can seemingly pop up in a gallery aisle for you to step back and appreciate? But whether such technology always offers more in terms of understanding than the physical models in the vitrines is a moot point. The AR indicators also act as visitor catnip – it’s hard not to be naturally drawn to their novelty, perhaps at the expense of paying sufficient attention to neighbouring models without AR capabilities.
On the perimeter walls are stunning large-scale images by photographer Andreas Gursky and artist Thomas Ruff, which illustrate the practice’s interest in how architecture is perceived. Like the models, these could have been usefully supplemented with further explanation to aid understanding of the practice’s work.
The second gallery features two films showing H&dM’s work in use. One film scrolls through a host of buildings on three parallel screens. In contrast, filmmakers Bêka & Lemoine’s exhibit focuses on a single building – the REHAB Clinic for Neurorehabilitation and Paraplegiology in Basel. Here, the architects responded to the client’s wish for the centre not to look or feel like a hospital. The design is clearly playing an important supporting role – the building is described as ‘the most unexpected therapist of them all’ – although the architectural focus in the film is light touch. Instead, the emphasis is on a series of engrossing interviews with rehab patients on their journey towards recovery.
The third and final gallery explores a single commission in detail – something that’s usually lacking in more conventional architectural retrospectives, and is altogether more successful. The subject is a ‘live’ project the Universitäts- Kinderspital Zürich. This children’s hospital is on site and has been 12 years in the making. The aim of this gallery is to unravel the design process behind such a complex building, and it does just that. There is room to explore the design thinking in some depth, including consideration of the site and the rationale behind the concept for a low, horizontal form punctuated with courtyards. We learn how the organisation of the 2500-room building was informed by the Zurich streetscape, with 35 different ‘neighbourhoods’, a main street, squares, side streets and gardens. There is detailed consideration of the design of the wood-lined children’s rooms, plans, visualisations and REVIT models explaining facade elements, internal layout and servicing. I wonder if the RA has previously exhibited a plan identifying all the electric sockets in one room in any of its big architectural shows. Footage taken just a few weeks ago shows the recent state of construction, and here, there is more fruitful use of AR, which can be navigated to move between how the spaces look under construction, and how they will appear when completed.
And there the exhibition ends. Just a little sprinkling of more regular retrospective content might have greatly enhanced understanding of HdM’s work. But this unconventional presentation is clearly not aiming to be that kind of comprehensive show, for better and for worse.