Curator Piers Gough’s focus on models proves a winner with the public at the Summer Exhibition
Engrossed, a group of elderly women enthusiastically discuss a large, populated model of Google’s new Californian campus. Nearby, a small child runs delightedly through a cut-through beneath another display plinth. Elsewhere, a teenager is talking to her friends about whether to study architecture. Never have I seen the architecture room so crowded, or so full of engaged general visitors, as at this year’s Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.
Curator Piers Gough has cracked it – this year’s architecture room is a joy.
It’s quite a contrast with many a previous year, when visitors seemed more likely to quickly retrace their steps once they realised they’d accidently strayed into the architecture zone.
It helps that the architecture exhibits are in a prime spot within the main circulation route of the show, as does a more sensible numbering system. But what really works is Gough’s decision to concentrate on models, an antidote to last year’s less-easy-to-love focus on construction coordination drawings. And what an eclectic bunch of models these are, created in card, wood, concrete, plaster, resin, perspex, metal, even brick. They range from flights of fantasy such as Nic Clear’s Chthonopolis subterranean city to familiar, real, recent, ongoing and proposed projects plus diverting oddities such as Ron Arad’s hand-blown glass Where are my Glasses series. Sauerbruch Hutton’s colourful beehive is shown both at full scale and as a cluster of models.
Gough’s aim was to show as many architectural models as possible at eye-level to evoke the ‘intense and quite jumbled experience of going around the city’. This works particularly well in the high-level plinth of high rises across the centre of the room, where exhibits include KPF’s China Resources Headquarters, PLP’s timber Oakwood Tower and Tonkin Liu’s Tower of Light energy centre, the latter a biomimetic single-surface flue structure. On either side of this plinth are tables packed with more models, with further exhibits on the perimeter tables and walls.
Heatherwick Studio and BIG’s eye-catching sectional model of Google Bay View in California’s gets a lot of attention and for good reason. This is sliced through to reveal a highly detailed workplace interior, full of tiny figures walking around the various settings. Look carefully and you can spot a group of Heatherwick’s Spun spinning chairs and, elsewhere, an area reminiscent of his Materials House contoured wood installation at the Science Museum.
There is so much to engage. Peter Barber’s plaster model of 100 Mile City configures a future city just inside the Green Belt around London. Jestico + Whiles’ terracotta-infused plaster models of the Marrakesh Resort Hotel and Groupwork +Amin Taha’s claybrick, acrylic and laminated timber Barrett’s Grove model both have an appealing materiality.
Athough models dominate, Gough has found room for paintings and drawings. While some are in danger of being rather overshadowed by the three-dimensional exhibits, this is not the case with CJ Lim’s extraordinary Emergency Habitat for Sea-Level Threatened Nations. However the quiet, understated nature of some of the drawings, including those by veteran architects Trevor Dannatt, Paul Koralek, Edward Cullinan and others, are a pleasingly calm counterpoint to the visual noise of the models. There are also couple of paintings by Will Alsop, which together with a model form a mini-homage to the late architect.
As well as the many Royal Academician architects and well-known names, Gough also sought exhibitors who are at an early stage in their careers. These include Matthew Bloomfield, whose Rethinking Democracy in God’s Own Country, which imagines an independent Yorkshire, won the £10,000 Turkishceramics Grand Award for Architecture at the exhibition.
Gough hopes that visitors will spend all day at the show. While that might be a little optimistic, this intense display of creativity is a real tonic, and more than holds its own within the joyous, Grayson Perry-coordinated overall show.