Bulging archives had been bothering the RIBA for decades and with various knockbacks from other institutions an opportunity arose to pair up with the Victorian and Albert Museum. Both parties had their own issues; the V+A, since 1909 have displayed works according to material or country and an Architecture Gallery would go against this trend. Furthemore, the RIBA's own responsibilities towards the profession and the preservation of their archives take precedence over the interests of the gallery audience. So somewhat reluctantly a marriage, less driven by passion and more begrudging acceptance began between the two institutions.
The offspring has thankfully been a success. The crammed yet uncluttered room is divided into three sections paraphrasing Vitruvius’ call for Commodity, Firmness and Delight in Architecture, or as the curator put it to me in slightly less sexy terms: Function, Structure and Beauty.
Glaswegian architect Gareth Hoskins took on the task to design the display to hold the 165 models, drawings and other preciouses. While it lacks the timeless grandeur and generous tactility of, say, the crafted cabinets and drawers of Dublin’s Natural History Museum, it is clever in parts with flexibility to be re-arranged for future exhibitions. At present the temporary exhibition ‘Great Buildings’, is a truly exotic affair. Drawings of the Choregic Monument of Lysicrates or the Temple of Jaggannath sit quite comfortably with the Smithsons Hunstanton School and a lively lecture sketch of the Unite d’Habitation by le Corbusier in 1947.
The joy of seeing such contrasts is, through further study, enriched through the commonality running through adjacent pieces. A sliced section of wattle and daub constructed in 16th Century Worchestershire appears not only congruent but concomitant with the neighbouring full size wall section from Gropius’ Fagus Factory. Both are battered and scratched by the hands of hard working men, both laid out with attention to the structurally sensible logic of frame and infill.
But this is no gallery for purists; interaction and play time abound. A student soiree was in progress while I was there, complete with an architect-DJ desperately trying to play his techno house within the noise regulations. Others happily filmed the motorized Lloyd’s building onto their mobile phones or gazed hypnotically, free beer in hand, at Zaha Hadid’s latest fly-me-through animations.
These two institutions, through this great room displaying such great Architecture, have embraced the values we as architects should hold so dear. There is a great sense of optimism seeping from the works whether in the dear 1:14 model of a 1920’s suburban house lovingly made by a builder for his daughter or the high spirited model of Chermayeff and Mendelsohn's De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill.
Douglas Carson, London 2002
Published in Architecture Ireland, August 2002