Co-curators Níall McLaughlin and artist Rana Begum bring an exhilaratingly fresh approach to this year's architecture rooms, which invited examples of positive action to tackle global heating
‘It was a hoot,’ says Níall McLaughlin, of his experience co-curating the architecture section of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition 2022 with artist Rana Begum, who is equally enthusiastic about the collaboration.
Certainly the creative energy of the process shines through in their presentation, which was the first time that an architect and artist have worked together to jointly select architecture and show it together with artworks across two galleries.
From an elephant-dung structure to a giant lemon encrusted with mould-like beads and stones, the result is exhilarating, bringing architecture into the main drag of the exhibition and turning what is often the problem child of the annual show into one of its most successful focal points.
The show’s overall curator, Alison Wilding, set a theme of climate in all its manifestations. McLaughlin and Begum were keen to challenge fatalistic attitudes to the climate emergency by inviting work that showed how exhibitors were changing their material practices in response to the crisis. In this way, the curators aim to show ‘telling examples of positive action signalling hope’.
Certainly the theme pervades far more strongly than usual in the architecture exhibits. And while work by the usual suspects of august Royal Academicians are all well represented, they seem in many cases to be more attuned to the theme than has been the case before. Foster + Partners' Spencer de Grey, for example, has submitted research on 3D-printed recycled glass, while Norman Foster’s contribution includes a drawing of 270 Park Avenue, billed as New York’s largest all-electric tower with net-zero operational emissions. This is nicely teamed with adjacent artworks by Francesca Simon that explore similar geometry.
Nor does work by the academicians dominate, thanks in particular to the curators' decision to include several 1:1 exhibits among their 10 specially invited exhibitors. Visitors entering the first gallery can surely be in no doubt that they are entering the art/architecture zone – stretching the length of the gallery towards a piece by Tracey Emin is a huge, pre-stressed beam exhibited by Webb Yates, made from stone recycled from London building sites. McLaughlin hopes it will raise awareness of the potential for greater use of this low-carbon material.
Visitors are lured into the Weston Room – all too often bypassed by general visitors – initially by Kathleen Ryan’s striking aforementioned Bad Lemon, but also by the full-size form of Khudi Bari (Tiny House), a flood shelter. Designed by Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, this is a self-built bamboo emergency structure for use in areas of Bangladesh that are regularly flooded – what McLaughlin describes as the ‘front line’ of climate change.
Across the room is another fascinating installation, Elephant Dung Brick Tower, created by Thai architect Boonserm Premthada, winner of the Royal Academy Dorfman Prize for Architecture in 2019. The structure showcases Premthada’s innovative use of dung bricks as a low-cost, sustainable building material.
With the curators keen to avoid transporting these two structures long distances for the exhibition, both of these installations have instead been built in the UK for the show. For the elephant dung tower, McLaughlin and his team worked with Guan Lee of the Grymsdyke Farm research facility and workshop and Webb Yates Engineers to produce cylindrical and rectangular bricks from local elephant dung (from Colchester Zoo) mixed with hydraulic lime. These were pressed into a mould sent over by Premthada, whose team put the finishing touches of gold paint to the five-column installation during varnishing day. Similarly, the flood structure was built in London using local and reclaimed materials using key connection nodes provided by Tabassum.
Material innovation is a strong thread running through the exhibits. These include the Sara Cultural Centre in Skellefteå, one of the tallest towers in the world, by White Arkitekter and Grafton Architects’ timber research centre at the University of Arkansas. As well as the dung bricks, the exhibition includes Bennetts Associates’ Earthcycle, which shows earth blocks made from subsoil. There is also innovation of approach, whether it be a commitment to retrofit such as that demonstrated by Barcelona practice Flores Prats Architects and Ouest Architecture, whose joint exhibits included the rehabilitation of the Théâtre des Variétés in Brussels into ‘an international laboratory for artistic creation’; or to inclusive design, as shown in the work of Brasil-based Estúdio Gustavo Utrabo. The latter’s projects include community centre buildings at the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brasil.
Landscape is often at the fore. In Coppin Dockray’s Woodland House, the structure takes a backseat to the fresh-looking verdant woodland setting. Nearby, Studio JZ’s British Museum of Decolonized Nature depicts the museum largely vacant and taken over by nature. Outside in the Annenberg Courtyard, an installation by 2020 Royal Academy Architecture Prize winner Cristina Iglesias, seeks to evoke a mini labyrinth refuge of vegetation and water in the city.
Throughout the shared architecture/art rooms, there is the usual abundance of beautifully crafted models, some simple, some complex and many eye-catching, including THISS X Issi Nanabeyin's mammoth-like A Resilient Monument. Created using coconut fibre, this proposes a new kind of memorial structure, one that ‘records the living, not the dead,’ and defines resilience as ‘impermanent, incremental, organic and optimistic’.
There are also nice homages to eminent academicians Richard Rogers and Chris Wilkinson following their deaths at the end of last year.
Both the curators enthuse about the collaboration and opportunity to juxtapose art and architecture, and there’s no denying the success of the approach, in tandem with a compelling theme and 1:1 exhibits. It will, thinks McLaughlin, be hard for architecture presentations at future Summer Exhibition, to go back to anything else.