Spot the difference. The following images are either from:
a) the Bartlett School of Architecture summer show or,
b) the popular US TV schlock sci-fi potboiler 'Heroes', at the point Hiro and Ando enter a carefully-constructed faux-NYC-loft laid out with a physical timeline constructed from string by a future iteration of Hiro himself.
Still with me? Can you tell which is which?
I don't wish to denigrate the Bartlett show by comparing it to 'Heroes', or vice versa. The architecture and design of TV shows is just as important a subject as the latest Zaha or Rem for an architecture blog to study. If not more so. The production design of 'Heroes', as with many films and TV shows, can tell us a lot about architecture and cities – a subject expanded upon by James Sanders at Postopolis! recently.
However, I was certainly disappointed with the Bartlett, which you'd expect to have the time, space and remit to shoot a little higher than a single episode of 'Heroes', whose motives are elsewhere. For an institution generally considered to be the top British architecture school, I found the summer show strangely one-dimensional. Actually, it was extremely three-dimensional, which was part of the problem.
Before I go on, I should note that I may not have seen the whole show (but I'm pretty sure I did), and that it was difficult to engage too deeply with some of the themes of the work – a problem I'll return too. Nor do I wish to suggest that the students aren't smart, capable, talented, and I've no doubt a few will turn out to be brilliant.
Yet the summer show made it almost impossible to discern that. The format didn't lend itself to either displaying the work, or explaining the thinking behind it. Having recently co-run a very different kind of architecture show, I can't help but think that these traditional 'gallery/atelier'-style shows are hopelessly ill-suited to conveying contemporary thinking and practice in architecture and urbanism.
The entire exhibition space was crammed with stuff – you really couldn't see the wood for the trees as a result. It was impossible to discern any overriding themes, or pick out much explanation of the work surrounding you. There was no rhythm or pacing to the presentation, nor any moments of respite or difference.
To paraphrase an Ice track, it was trapped in three dimensions. Hand-built sculpture seemed the order of the day, with paper and wood to the fore. A fourth dimension of time was rarely articulated. Other sensory dimensions generally ignored. It was also trapped in discourse – the roots of Deleuze and Guattari all too visible in the ground; the heavy weather of post-structuralist thought in general forming an oppressive, brooding canopy overhead.
There seemed to be one aesthetic order to the organisation: a kind of anachronistic unruly gothic cyberpunk: gothic as much in the Tim Burton/Sisters of Mercy sense of the word as in late-Victorian or High Middle Ages. This combined with an apparent hyper-complexity, but in the limited sense of what could be built by hand rather than by system. Every wall was covered with drawings, paintings, and a few screens. The floor strewn with models; the ceiling strung with wires and cables. It was quite overwhelming, and not in a sense that lent itself to understanding, enlightenment or enjoyment. There was little sign of the students themselves, or of their tutors. Small plaques provided a little context, but not much.
Stylistically, it all seemed one note. A kind of over-wrought classical, baroque and gothic melange. Mulitple motifs of ruined cities, the buildings overgrown and tumbling over, things sprouting up in-between. Some of it nodded towards Lebbeus Woods, but without that distinctive imagination.
In terms of references, little escaped beyond Borges, Calvino (several suspended building clusters), Piranesi. Maybe the operatic histrionics of Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg. Max Ernst's Europe after the rain, some Duchamp/Tinguely metallic constructions, maybe Anselm Kiefer's Monumenta. A dose of Joseph Beuys and some Da Vinci sketchbooks. And inadvertently, 'Heroes'.
Imagine an episode of Scrapheap Challenge with that lot as opposing teams and you'll get the idea. Not that the styles are relevant as such, but the lack of variation was surprising.
There was little that could be recognised as a practical architectural solution to a problem. College is a place to play, certainly, before the crashingly mundane reality of much architectural work hits hard. Many of these students may end up doing little more than laying out buildings to Tesco pattern books, so let them have fun. But it's hard to imagine that this will prepare architects for their future career. Perhaps sessions on dealing with clients and real-life problems don't make for a good show.
So if there were too few practical exercises on display, there wasn't that much conceptual or multidisciplinary either. There was very little film or sound work – only maybe three or four screens or projections dealing with that medium. Little that seemed to approach from an engineering background, say.
Equally, there seemed to be a real lack of interactive work on display. They do this as an institution, as I know smart cookies like Tom Carden graduated out of the Bartlett, and they have the fascinating MSc in Adaptive Architecture and Computation, but it's odd to see almost none of that thinking here. There was no interactive architecture that I could see – though again, you have to ask how it would be presented at something like this. I think that needs to be performed, rather than pinned like a dead butterfly in a glass case.
There were very few CGI or 3D models – I'd half-expected to see the distinctive artifacts of SketchUp or 3ds Max everywhere, results of a creeping benevolent virus. Admittedly, if I'd seen rooms full of screens, I'd probably have walked out muttering about the need to engage with physical models and traditional craft skills. Occasionally you'd stumble upon a rich visualisation, smartly altered so as not to be obviously CGI. But generally, as a practice, it seemed lacking.
Further, there was very little at the scale of city; or looking at systems and movements within the city, or between cities. Very little around different models of cities – statistical, historical, legislative, strategic, geopolitical, imaginary – that could be put to practical use.
I did see some lovely work. Some gorgeous drawing and sculpture work, akin to Joseph Cornell boxes without the surrealism, with scenes spiralling out of their frames.
Also an acoustic space, modeled in one of the curious small buildings in the main courtyard. A series of sprung wires and metal blades, mic-ed up and tuned, such that your footsteps and movements reverberated beautifully throughout the small room. This was the strongest piece, for me, perhaps as it providing something experiential and sensory, in terms of exploring space and building, and was carefully engineered to work within this particular location.
I was quite taken with a model of seaborne architecture; reminding me of how influential WWII was on Archigram, Cedric Price et al (Maunsell Forts; Hobart's funnies; acoustic mirrors &c.)
There was a film speculating as to future arcs for London which looked fascinating, and one of the sole representatives of urban thinking. And a few other things for sure. As I said, I've no doubt there's some great students there, doing some great work. (You know who you are). It's just they're lost amidst the apparently careless, unhelpful presentation.
In the end, you walk away recalling a show determined by a handful of aesthetic reference points and by the technology at hand; or even of the hand: essentially paper, wire, wood. It's certainly right to learn these craft skills but I was amazed – and a little shocked – to find so little evidence of contemporary digital craft skills.
Rather than leaving this piece with an overly sour taste in the mouth, it's worth pointing out that most summer shows have basic variations on this format; it's hardly unique to the Bartlett. And let's see if we can't come up with some constructive suggestions for alternatives …
Having just experienced Postopolis!, I'm interested in different formats for presenting this work. The semi-public form of the degree show is appealing, but perhaps we need to work harder at making it work for both public engagement and private study. It can't be enough to just put on a show as part of a local programme of education, and then just say the public can turn up. Engagement is something to be worked at; take the best work in the marketing or media industries as reference points. Perhaps a series of free presentations, then filmed, recorded, uploaded. Back this up by bespoke publishing across multiple formats in the form of digital or analogue pamphlets, with the quality of Actar's Verb series, say, or dialogue afforded by Archinect's school blog project, where the 3 active blogs from Bartlett students were immediately more informative and personally engaging than the show.
Would these be a better way of conveying some of the great ideas that were otherwise buried here? I'd be interested in hearing about other formats being explored by colleges and other institutions elsewhere. Post a comment below if you have suggestions to make.
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