By Anthony Symondson SJ
If you want to prove that interest in architecture is not dead, consider the annual Open Doors scheme. Every year in the autumn, all over the country, buildings not normally open to the public admit masses of people drawn by an interest in what lies around them. Where I live in Wimbledon the most intriguing structures within a close radius that includes Putney, Wandsworth and Merton offer delight and surprise. In a day I saw the work of Sir Edwyn Lutyens, Sir Robert Smirke, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson, tiles by William de Morgan, Arts and Crafts houses by C F A Voysey and M H Baillie Scott, not to mention churches by E W Mountford, the architect of the Old Bailey, and I could have seen more. Not all these architects are well-known, but you became aware of them afterwards and the seed is sown to discover more.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington is another place where architecture can be discovered. Start with the shop, and lining the walls are relics of old London buildings, such as Sir Paul Pindar’s house in the City of London, and 18th-century door cases that otherwise would have long disappeared. Look above as you enter and there, on a gallery, is Sir Gilbert Scott’s great Victorian choir screen from Hereford Cathedral. The cast court has plaster casts of antique and medieval buildings, from Trajan’s Column to the porch of Chartres Cathedral, overwhelming in scale.
Then go to the Primary British Galleries and you will find in a social and historical context, from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century, not only architectural drawings and models, but entire rooms taken from vanished buildings, some of unparalleled magnificence. There is the princely music room from Norfolk House, furniture and metalwork by architects as diverse as William Kent, Robert Adam and Marcel Breuer, windows, ceilings, chimney-pieces, church fittings, panelling, railings and wallpaper. If you want to cross the Atlantic, you will find Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann office.
On the second floor is the United Kingdom’s newly opened permanent Architecture Gallery, a venture brought together by the V&A and the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is designed as an introduction to architec
ture for students and the general visitor, and the news release proclaims that it “displays 180 exhibits from across the ages featuring some of the world’s most famous architects and buildings”. Highlights include “a capital from the Pantheon, drawings by Palladio, Vanbrugh, Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe and a computer fly-through of Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre in Germany, due for completion in 2005”.
The V&A and RIBA collectively have the most comprehensive architectural archive in the world. The RIBA houses more than one million drawings and manuscripts from its archives collection and these, in conjunction with the V&A’s own holdings, represent every major British architect from the late 16th century to the present day, as well as many of the continental masters. The collections include artefacts, models, photographs and memorabilia. Add these to the V&A’s collections and what should be provided is an informed context for the rest of the museum’s architectural holdings dispersed throughout the galleries and a showcase for architecture as a living art.
It does not quite work out like that. The first exhibit you see at the entrance of the gallery is R B Brook-Greaves’s and W Godfrey Allen’s huge isometric projection of St Paul’s Cathedral, a triumph of early 20th-century draughtsmanship, finished in 1928, that took five years to complete. Here is monumental architecture that all would recognise dating from a period when Wren was seen as Britain’s greatest architect, rivalled only by Lutyens. Exaltation is quickly dissipated by the confusing, overcrowded mélange that greets the eye in a brilliantly lit setting, resembling at first glance an exhibition of predominantly modern architecture among which relics of the historic past sit uncomfortably, reduced to the margins.
Incongruously, it is not a modern masterpiece that holds centre stage but a scale model of a 1930s suburban London house. Is this the quintessential London house of the popular imagination? Surely the terrace is more representative of the capital? Perhaps it is intended to disarm the visitor and prepare him for a display based not on chronology and the evolution of architectural style, but an a-historical presentation divided into three themes, The “Art of Architecture” looks at architectural styles. Classical and neoclassical, Gothic and Gothic revival, non-western and Modernism presented side by side. The “Function of Buildings” looks at building types, from schools and houses to shopping centres and mosques, to show how function influences design. “Architects and Architecture” examines the design process from first conception through to developments, presentation and instructions to builders. There are some wonderful models, including a rare 18th century ivory model of Fort William in Calcutta, and objects, of which my favourite is a jewelled and lapis lazuli set of columns demonstrating the five Orders. But why did the label not mention that it had belonged to Marie Antionette?
These criticisms are more than quibbles because they point to the essential superficiality and confusion of interpretation that suggests a boost to the RIBA as an institution, rather than an exercise in education and appreciation that will help people to understand the fabric of their lives. Behind the glamorous presentation lies a hollow centre driven by a stylish, New Labour agenda. Architecture is presented as a private preserve and it demonstrates a divorce between what you find in the streets outside, in Europe and the world at large, and the commercial incentives of a self-interested profession.