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When anything seemed possible

An exhibition in Basel of how we once designed the future reveals an unfettered optimism that now feels long past

Le Corbusier, Study Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, 1950-1955.
Le Corbusier, Study Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, 1950-1955. · Credit: © FLC-ADAGP

For some time now, dystopia has dominated our vision of the future. From Margaret Atwood to The Hunger Games, tomorrow has rarely seemed so bleak. Architecture’s confrontation with the future is simultaneously more direct and more discursive than these populist imaginaries: more direct, because architects are called upon to shape tomorrow’s built environment, and more discursive because the history of architectural design is littered with half-baked strategies and whimsical reveries. It is these untrodden paths that form the focus of This Was Tomorrow, a curious and arresting exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel. 

Le Corbusier, Model for Le Main Ouverte, Chandigarh, 1950-1965.
Le Corbusier, Model for Le Main Ouverte, Chandigarh, 1950-1965. · Credit: FLC-ADAGP

At its core, This Was Tomorrow sheds light on the various ways in which architects imagined the future in a different – perhaps less pessimistic – age, beginning in the 1950s with Le Corbusier and culminating in the work of Aldo Rossi and Superstudio in the late 1970s. Part of the Drawing Matter project, a family of activities overseen by Niall Hobhouse and grounded in his remarkable collection of architectural drawings and models, the exhibition sits within a broader network of workshops, seminars and teaching activities that seek to examine the practice of drawing and the impact of the designer’s hand on architectural discourse. 

  • Adolfo Natalilni (Superstudio), Study for the Continuous Monument, 1969.
    Adolfo Natalilni (Superstudio), Study for the Continuous Monument, 1969. · Credit: The architect
  • Álvaro Siza, Bouça Housing, Porto, c. 1972.
    Álvaro Siza, Bouça Housing, Porto, c. 1972. · Credit: Estate of the architect
  • Constant, New Babylon, 1963.
    Constant, New Babylon, 1963. · Credit: Estate of the architect
  • Hans Hollein, City, Communication Interchange, 1962.
    Hans Hollein, City, Communication Interchange, 1962. · Credit: Estate of the architect
  • James Gowan, Study for an Expandable House, 1957.
    James Gowan, Study for an Expandable House, 1957. · Credit: Estate of the architect

More than simply an archive of historical concepts and tastes, Drawing Matter approaches the notion of the architectural drawing from a number of critical vantage points. These circulate around the communication and evolution of ideas through sketching, the emotive power of the drawn image, and the physical space of the drawing itself: themes that surface in the exhibition. 

Assembling over 250 drawings, paintings, collages, models and printed works, the exhibition avoids a strict chronology, focusing instead on specific projects (built and otherwise) from 13 architects, artists and practices. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes sit between Ugo La Pietra’s urban follies and Michael Webb’s Sin Centre, while Louis Kahn’s ordered and monumental designs for Kansas City Office Building provide a counterpoint to Álvaro Siza’s frenetic sketches for various social housing projects. 

John Hejduk, Silent Witnesses The Extro-Intro House, 1975.
John Hejduk, Silent Witnesses The Extro-Intro House, 1975. · Credit: Estate of the architect

Not all these proposals can be considered ‘utopian’, but they are marked by an expectation of better things to come, whether in the form of innovative engineering solutions or – as in Constant Niewunhuys’ New Babylon – a life free from economic determinations. The refinement or otherwise of the drawings is not the main concern here, rather it is the power of the sketch as a tool of architectural proposition – a vehicle for conceiving, evolving and communicating ideas. Tomorrow was not just designed in this sense, it was worked through in concert with the very practice of drawing. 

  • Michael Webb, Sin Centre, 1961.
    Michael Webb, Sin Centre, 1961. · Credit: The architect
  • R. Buckminster Fuller, Study drawing for a Geodesic Sphere, 1975.
    R. Buckminster Fuller, Study drawing for a Geodesic Sphere, 1975. · Credit: Estate of the architect
  • Superstudio, Graz under water, 1971.
    Superstudio, Graz under water, 1971. · Credit: The architects
  • Ugo La Pietra, Immersione, 1969.
    Ugo La Pietra, Immersione, 1969. · Credit: The architect
  • Ugo La Pietra, La Cellula Abitativa, 1972.
    Ugo La Pietra, La Cellula Abitativa, 1972. · Credit: The architect
  • Walter Pichler, Study for the Underground City, c. 1963.
    Walter Pichler, Study for the Underground City, c. 1963. · Credit: The artist

Siza’s sketches are perhaps the most obvious example of this intention. Across one page several perspectives of a building might be explored, with the architect zooming in and out from masterplan to minute detail. Elsewhere, John Hejduk’s refined plans show how the simple reorientation of a drawing can expose new spatial possibilities, while Stirling & Gowan’s volumetric collage for Leicester University Engineering Building deploys various historic tropes to arrive at a distinctly modern outcome. 

Seeing the work of specific individuals or collectives clustered together in this manner draws out the special qualities inscribed through and by the architectural sketch. While all design drawings are to some extent aligned to the future – marking out what could or should be built – the domain of architectural representation also encompasses less stringent visual forms, from the preliminary sketch to the evocative presentation. It is these open-ended meditations that provide the central thread for This Was Tomorrow, and the wider Drawing Matter project. At the same time, however, the sometimes fantastical concepts contained in these drawings are grounded by virtue of their architectural – rather than purely artistic – authorship. This lends the works a political edge: a factor drawn out in the very staging of the exhibition. 

Aldo Rossi, Casa dello Studente di Trieste La Calda Vita, 1975; and 51 Aldo Rossi, Urban Fragment, 1977.
Aldo Rossi, Casa dello Studente di Trieste La Calda Vita, 1975; and 51 Aldo Rossi, Urban Fragment, 1977. · Credit: Estate of the architect

In his recent book Last Futures, Douglas Murphy suggests that architecture effectively gave up its role as a vector of change towards the end of the 1970s. Where the post-war years had seen urban planning elevated to the status of vital social endeavour, the cataclysmic predictions of subsequent decades found architects retreating into the relative safety of post modernism. 

Highlighting this political and aesthetic shift, the final section of This Was Tomorrow focuses on Aldo Rossi, displaying examples of work by the Italian architects alongside drawings by Mies van der Rohe, John Soane, Giovanni Montano and others. While this approach underlines the ongoing dialogue with architectural history established by Rossi in both his practice and teaching, it also retrospectively frames the preceding rooms, asking the visitor to reconsider the exhibition itself as an ‘imaginary historical landscape’. Echoing the wider ambitions of the Drawing Matter project, this curatorial manoeuvre shows how a collection of drawings may become an active interlocutor in the present and future of architectural practice. Such a deployment of the past goes beyond post modern pastiche to arrive at a critically engaged appreciation of the drawing as compass, showing not only where we have come from, but also where we might be headed. 

Colin Sterling is RIBA project curator – revealing the collections

This Was Tomorrow: Reinventing Architecture 1953-1978Swiss Architecture Museum, Basel. To 8 May 2016