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Vanishing point

The latest RIBA exhibition - Disappear Here - offers a new perspective on the optical illusions and precious architectural drawings of the past

We all need a bit of perspective, do we not?  We all like old drawings and optical illusions? If the latest RIBA exhibition Disappear Here - curated by Marie Bak Mortensen, the RIBA’s head of exhibitions, and designed by Sam Jacob Studio - at first comes across as a bit thin, at least it does not suffer from the curse of clutter. It’s spare and lean, perhaps. And besides, the point of this is that the design is part of the exhibition, not just an armature for the displayed objects.

These objects are very precious, including Sebastiano Serlio’s Seven Books of Architecture from the RIBA’s rare books collection. This was the starting point: how to take that book and derive a whole exhibition ‘on perspective and other kinds of space’ from it. The resulting show uses a selection of various original drawings from both the RIBA’s collection and that of Niall Hobhouse’s Drawing Matter collection in Somerset.

  • Playing with your mind: RIBA's Disappear Here exhibition is designed by Sam Jacob Studio.
    Playing with your mind: RIBA's Disappear Here exhibition is designed by Sam Jacob Studio. Credit: Andy Matthews
  • Questioning the notion of a neutral wall.
    Questioning the notion of a neutral wall. Credit: Andy Matthews
  • Foregrounding the blind alleys and rabbit holes of false perspective.
    Foregrounding the blind alleys and rabbit holes of false perspective. Credit: Andy Matthews
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It starts well visually. The view into the gallery from the doorway is of a false-perspective sequence of gradually smaller portals in shades of blue, tempting you into the gallery to see if it leads anywhere (don’t try, it doesn’t). Once inside the gallery proper, the installation continues to play with your mind, the flat walls turned into seemingly 3D abstract architecture with painted lines alone. Various perspectival drawings are themselves made to play their part in the painted false perspectives, connected by their internal vanishing points. This tricks the eye a bit and makes you question their actual size: you realise how we take the neutral wall for granted in galleries normally and it’s disconcerting to find that gleefully subverted.

Mirrors play an important part in the design, here used like low wainscoting to give the impression of other rooms beyond the room you are in. In one corner the mirrors coalesce into an optical illusion, puzzling you about the depth of the structure you gingerly step into, in my case with arms outstretched. What is solid and what is air and light? It’s another example of looking into a space that does exist, but in a collapsed state, much of it being reflection.

Surrealism plays a part too. There are two curious infinity wells in the floor that turn out to be physical manifestations of drawings in a book of Serlio’s, which sets out how you draw octagonal 3D objects - the well-heads - in perspective. One is a regular octagon, the other develops two points that turn out to be Serlio’s perspective lines made solid.

  • Design for a ceiling with columns and coffered arches, Italy c 1700, unknown designer.
    Design for a ceiling with columns and coffered arches, Italy c 1700, unknown designer. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Malton James (1765-1803). Examples of perspective delineation.
    Malton James (1765-1803). Examples of perspective delineation. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Drawing by or after Galli Bibiena, 1755. Design for stage set of Clemenza di Tito in the Opera House, Lisbon.
    Drawing by or after Galli Bibiena, 1755. Design for stage set of Clemenza di Tito in the Opera House, Lisbon. Credit: RIBA Collections
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There are two actual rooms in the show: one containing a row of the precious books (mirrors again making us think at first that there are many more books than there are); the other contains a film installation in which objects and fragments derived from the old books on perspective come flying towards you from their vanishing points as if exploding outwards. This ought to be better than it is: as realised it is a bit anaemic, feeling unfinished, not really communicating what it’s about satisfactorily. 

The drawings are relatively few but exemplary, ranging from Boullée’s famously colossal and unbuilt immaculately geometrical ‘project for a metropolitan cathedral’ to Lutyens’ rough sketch of an unbuilt version of his Memorial to the Missing in France - a worm’s eye perspective done freehand. There are early perspective drawings from John Smythson and one from Superstudio and another of a tower block by HT Cadbury-Brown and Erno Goldfinger. There are interiors, fragments and a startling and puzzling Hawksmoor perspective of Wren’s Royal Hospital in Greenwich on fire. And there is a Max Clendinning design for a conservatory that moves away from strict perspective into the field of art.

  • Hans Vredeman de Vries, from his book Perspective (1604-5).
    Hans Vredeman de Vries, from his book Perspective (1604-5). Credit: RIBA Collections
  • John Smythson, Design for a house with a castellated wing, perspective view, 1600.
    John Smythson, Design for a house with a castellated wing, perspective view, 1600. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Edwin Lutyens, 1918, A record sketch of the unexecuted design for the Memorial to the Missing at St Quentin, Nord.
    Edwin Lutyens, 1918, A record sketch of the unexecuted design for the Memorial to the Missing at St Quentin, Nord. Credit: RIBA Collections
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It need not detain you long, this show, if you just want to absorb the feel of it. But if you start to look with concentration into the various drawings, picking up similarities or divergences of approach or just bravura talent, it will reward you. You can lose yourself in some of these imagined worlds.

Disappear Here: On perspective and other kinds of space - to 7 October 2018, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD