Artists as Architects

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When you’re having a bad day in London, I’d like to recommend my own, personal remedy, handed down from my design-obsessed hoarder of a mother: the V and A.

There’s always more marble-lined nooks to explore in the place, more odd and exotic objects to discover. After gawking at some questionably-acquired but seductively curved, medieval-era arch from the middle east; staring at some exquisitely embroidered, eighteenth century dresses in the fashion galleries; and spending twenty quid on a limited edition tea towel, all will be right with the world once more.

I’ve only ever reviewed the big, fat exhibitions here – the showy-offy ones featuring starry fashion collections or well-known contemporary artists. But smaller displays, which usually show items from the museums permanent collections along with the odd, loaned piece, are often more than worth a gander, and I thought they deserved a bit of critical attention for once.

Set in a little, corridor-like space off the main architecture galleries, Architects as Artists is a collaborative project between the museum and the RIBA. It isn’t huge – even looking at every drawing and thoroughly reading every bit of blurb wouldn’t take more than an hour at a stretch. Perfectly suited to the twenty-first century attention span, perhaps.

The idea behind it is quite a simple one – to show how architects, from pre-renaissance to contemporary times, have created pieces that might seem more ‘art’ than plain old plan, section or elevation (though a look round any architecture school in 2014 will soon tell you that maybe some of them need to get away from thinking of themselves as quite such artists so they can actually design useful buildings, but that’s another article.)

There are some lovely examples here. Turner prize winner Grayson Perry and FAT Architects’ collaboratively produced drawings for his ‘House for Essex’, due to be finished later this year, are brazenly contemporary and borderline cartoonish. In my favourite of the two, Perry’s hand-drawn image of the house, clad in gaudily-glazed, green ceramic tiles and with a brass roof, has been pasted onto a contrastingly crisp, digital view of the Essex countryside.

 Opposite, a most precisely-finished section drawing is stuck onto a larger piece of yellowing paper, with lines of perspective flying off in all directions. It looks just like a Surrealist image by de Chirico from the mid-twentieth century, till I blink and realise it’s actually a Tohomli Rainaldi section from about 1576. It reinforces just how influential architecture has been on artistic practice over in the past few hundred years, and how surprising some of these connections can be.

My soft spot for anything with a remotely modernist twang draws me to Raymond McGrath’s 1932 ‘Design for Studio One – Broadcasting House’. I hadn’t grasped that it was the modernists who started to draw axonometrically (with three sides shown at once), and here the technique makes the piece look as if I’m looking at an auditorium through a fairground mirror.

 Drier, more standardly architectural drawings appear to have been included because of their provenance rather than any specifically artistic merit. A section from the Castle Howard by seminal British architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, for example, is perfectly executed but not hugely enticing as a work of art. The same can be said for Giovanni Batista Borra’s ‘View of Guzel Husar and the River Maender from the East’ – a landscape drawing that was originally intended just to give context to his renaissance buildings, but alone and out of its time is as vapid as a tourist’s digital snap.

All the works here are two-dimensional and static, with the notable exception of ‘Le Carceri D’Invenzione of Giovanni Battista’ by French video artist Gregoire Dupond. He’s taken six of Giovanni Piranesi’s etchings of fictional prisons from the 1750s and inserted them into a camera mapping program, which allows filmmakers and architects to convert a two dimensional image into a three dimensional one, so viewers can experience a space that previously existed only as a drawing. The result is haunting and disconcerting – we’re sucked into the heavily hatched lines and grotesque scenes from Piranesi’s tortured imagination. The camera pans around his monstrous, cathedral-sized spaces with densely scribbled figures dotted around and chains hanging from scrawled stone walls. It is worth a visit on its own – Dupond’s is the best example here of a practice that brings architectural technique smashing into an artistic one.

 The inferiority complex which makes architects feel somehow lower in the pecking order than artists has been shadowing them since the nineteenth century, when the debate started to rage over whether architecture is really an art or a profession. If this show is anything to go by, many of them can and could be both artist and builder, whether they realised it or not. Now, I wonder if they’ve got a Piranesi tea towel….

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