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Climate change takes the floor at the RA

Hugh Pearman

High tech, low tech – different routes to sustainability compete for attention at the Summer Show

Peter Barber ultradense Thames Estuary settlement.
Peter Barber ultradense Thames Estuary settlement. Credit: Hugh Pearman

The Royal Academy Summer Show has been a fixture of The Season since 1769. So yes, a quarter of a millennium. This is the selling art exhibition where anyone can send one or two works in for a modest fee and if they are lucky, get them selected by a panel of RAs – who are also entitled to enter up to half a dozen of their own works. Since the RA includes architects as well as artists of all varieties, and there is a dedicated Architecture Room selected by a different architect RA each year, it’s quite the event for a profession which likes to rub shoulders with artists – as Soane RA did with Turner RA – and even sometimes pretend it’s a bit of an artist itself (spoiler: it isn’t, see also Venice Biennale, get a grip).

Anyway, art critics often like to sneer at the summer show but the RA doesn’t care because this cluttered garage sale of a show keeps the cash tills ringing and the Academy – specifically, its art schools where the fortunate few chosen students pay nothing – afloat. It receives no state funding, remember. Visitors flock to it and all those ticketing and spin-off purchases plus the commission on sales made by the artists (30% plus VAT) swell the Burlington House coffers. And besides, I think it’s rather glorious in its ramshackle way. I even bought something from the show this year. But not the Banksy in the first gallery (immigrant rat forcing the padlock on a roller- shuttered EU entrance portal from Heathrow) which is not for sale and might be a bit pricey if it was.

This year’s architecture room is curated and designed by Spencer de Grey RA of Foster and Partners. And it is a very designed space. My first reaction on approaching it was – oh no, he’s done that thing of over-stuffing it, way too much crammed in, he needs to edit it down. But then after living with the space for a while and seeing how people use it – I was there on a teeming Friends day – I came to appreciate the design intent. The room is a miniature city, complete with mini central plaza – it even has a couple of real silver birch trees in it. Drawings and movies are pushed to the perimeter walls and stacked up high, almost to the cornice, as is the Summer Show way. The rest of the room is given over to models, displayed on two-tier plinths. It is all very hugger-mugger, almost casbah-like, and the fact that there are pinch points in the circulation, planned or not, gives a sense that something important is happening as people pause and knot on their canter through the galleries. You have to slow down here.

  • Barber ceramic model of ultradense settlement made from estuary clay.
    Barber ceramic model of ultradense settlement made from estuary clay. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Shelter made from waste plastic bottles by small.
    Shelter made from waste plastic bottles by small. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Card tube model of Thomas Heatherwick's Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town - carved out of grain silos.
    Card tube model of Thomas Heatherwick's Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town - carved out of grain silos. Credit: Hugh Pearman

And something important IS happening. De Grey has made this Sustainability Year in the architecture room, as befits someone from the squad of 17 Stirling Prize winners who a week earlier had jointly launched the ‘Architects Declare’ initiative against climate change and species extinction. Everyone included was asked to take a ‘holistic view’ of the projects they submitted, particularly considering the embodied energy of the materials and construction processes used. In consequence there are a lot of projects in timber and other crop materials including thatch, some using recycled products, some re-using existing buildings, most with light energy-in-use footprints.

The responses vary, of course, from the vernacular (BDP contributed a single thatched panel of the kind its engineers designed with Architype for the University of East Anglia’s Enterprise Centre) to the high-tech (Grimshaw’s use of photovoltaic shading canopies and water-capturing condensers for its 2020 Dubai Sustainability pavilion for 2020). Somewhere between these extremes comes Lord Foster, who has contributed a nice little model of his project to reinvigorate London Zoo’s listed Snowdon Aviary – by Cedric Price, Frank Newby and Lord Snowdon – as a Colobus monkey habitat. His additional building there will have a structure of laminated bamboo.

While Alison Brooks’ Exeter College Cohen Quad building in Oxford manages 20% better than building regs, energy-wise, one does wonder slightly at the message given out by some of the megaprojects here, especially the towers (even though there is a model of a projected all-CLT tower in the Hague by PLP). A low-rise green and watery new city such as de Grey’s own Amaravata masterplan in India is more like it. More like it still is Peter Barber Architects’ charming small glazed ceramic concept model of an ultra-dense Thames Estuary settlement which proposes using clay dredged from the bottom of the river as a building material.

  • The UK isolated and divided - detail of Babel Britain by Emily Allchurch in the general show.
    The UK isolated and divided - detail of Babel Britain by Emily Allchurch in the general show. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • More Brexit Britain imagery, this time from Banksy.
    More Brexit Britain imagery, this time from Banksy. Credit: David Parry - Royal Academy of Arts

Then there is Eleanor Derbyshire’s Passive Winery project, present here in a sectional model, rather differently sustainable to Katie Cunningham’s nuclear submarine reactor removal building, which is conceived as a public promenade in which the sub in question is dramatically held vertically. Finally, the matter of the ocean’s plastic waste emergency is tackled by small’s beach model of a shelter made from salvaged plastic bottles: waste as building material.

As Thomas Heatherwick observes of his converted grain-silos art gallery in Cape Town, Zeitz MOCAA, ‘The single most sustainable thing is to reuse rather than demolish a building.’ His large cardboard-tube model of his cutaway design approach there has quite some visual impact.

Outside the architecture room, Gallery VII, curated by Anne Desmet and Barbara Rae, is dominated by the back-illuminated ‘Babel Britain (after Verhaecht)’ by Emily Allchurch. The famous Tower of Babel image is transformed into a collage of an isolated, divided island and I think we know what that is all about.

It’s good to come across excellent work by the old codgers too. Peter Cook RA’s latest colourful drawings have taken on something of the character of batik while Ted Cullinan RA includes a wonderfully Ted-like drawing ‘Straight from the wood’ of people congenially living and making buildings in a forest. Which is where we all started and, for all I know, may soon return.