Victoria & Albert Museum

REVIEW: 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

15 June – 30 August 2010

If I wasn’t already falling a little bit in love with the Victoria and Albert Museum after the delight that has been their recent exhibition program, it would be safe to say that the involving, engaging and utterly beautiful 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces exhibition has stolen my heart completely. So often in looking at art we neglect to acknowledge the space within which we receive it and how this might inform our understanding and appreciation of it. Even ignoring art for a moment, space as a concept can prove elusive when not dealing with the ugly practicalities of wardrobe constraints or peak hour on the Piccadilly line.

1:1 is an exhibition fundamentally about space – how we move in it, how we feel it and how it shapes our material, intellectual, creative and emotional journeys. It sounds intellectually obtuse. It could not be further from it.

With the Victoria and Albert as a geographical landscape, nineteen architects were invited to submit proposals for structures that explored the notion of refuge and of these, seven were built to full-scale in locations throughout the museum. The effect is twofold. In creating these intimate, bespoke spaces the emphasis becomes as much about the design of the space as its texture, construction and proportion. And in exploring these spaces within the space of the museum, the gallery halls, staircases, gardens and libraries all enjoy a renewed appreciation in terms of their own senses of scale, their use of light and their spatial qualities. A double delight if ever there was one.

1:1 succeeds in being both thought-provoking and enormous fun. Visitors must engage with the works to understand their meaning and actively participate in their negotiations of space. And this means climbing into things and climbing up things. It means sitting, leaning, peering and pausing. Because it is only by activating the spaces in these ways that their beauty and their meaning can be fully realised.

Truth be told, the exhibition does get off to a somewhat shaky start, with works by Rural Studio and Vazio S/A in the Porter Gallery. Perhaps they suffer from a lack of contextual engagement – they are the only works that feel like ‘objects in a gallery’ – but largely there is little to grasp on to imaginatively in terms of these small spaces as sites for creativity. Rural Studio is an architectural education program in Alabama that is dedicated to building affordable housing for poor rural communities and there is a great deal of integrity to the social and educational motivations in their work but, within the space of the V&A, a walkthrough woodshed does not offer much. Conversely, Vazio S/A’s Spiral Booths is a claustrophobic, slightly distressing series of heavy curtains, narrow staircases and glass walls looking down onto the ground below. The connection between these small voids or spaces as potential sites for creation and performance and the Brazilian ‘palfittes’ that inspired them – hilly terrain buildings supported by concrete stilts – is difficult to grasp and it is not a space that begs lingering in.

From here though it is largely one delight after another. Terunobu Fujimori’s Beetle’s House is Japanese teahouse meets English tree house. Scaling a small ladder to enter through the floor of the elevated house, the result is a concentrated appreciation for the new physical surrounds. The interior and low seating around the walls has been perhaps plastered and then whitewashed. It is a very calming environment and the intimacy of the space makes it very easy to envision a communal gathering for tea and talk. The interior, crucially, is also at odds with the exterior, as Fujimori has burnt the pine exterior of the teahouse, giving it a charred and highly textural quality reminiscent of a beetle shell, hence the work’s title. Within the surrounds of the Medieval and Renaissance Room the work’s exterior contributes to its sense of being yet another relic but the blackened wood is dramatised by the natural light that fills the gallery.

In-between Architecture by Studio Mumbai Architects is arguably one of more moving spaces. With its plaster exterior blending harmoniously with the Cast Courts Room and its resident sculptures, In-between Architecture is a boxy structure featuring a series of narrow corridors, ladders, and windows that interrupt two larger dwelling spaces, one of which is an open-air sort of courtyard with the distended trunk of a tree emerging from its middle. Despite the economical use of space there is a sense of purpose to its design and an overwhelming sense of calmness, and indeed refuge, within the larger spaces.

These emotional/spatial intuitions were crystalised after reading that the projects intent was to explore the unauthorised architecture of Mumbai’s settlements and slums. In-between Architecture is in fact faithfully modelled on a dwelling in Mumbai that is home to eight. Rather than a chaotic, literal copy the architects have sought to capture, largely through their use of materials, the poetry, dignity and calm that distils these structures, with their intelligent, compact design. It is a humbling experience.

The Ark at the bottom of the National Art Library stairs by the Norwegian Rintala Eggertsson Architects is a freestanding wooden tower ostensibly constructed from hundreds of bookshelves. Exploring how small spaces can focus energy and thought towards study, meditation and self-reflection, the wooden structure is suggestive again of the archetypal tree house and the imaginative play that goes on in them is neatly expressed in the thousands of books that line the shelves. Everything from Dostoyevsky to Dan Brown is on ad hoc display and the colourful spines animate the interior spaces, making it a sort of treasure trove of colour and narrative possibility. By the same function, the visual exterior of the structure is thus dominated by the white, exposed pages of the same books, their content indiscernible.

The only work to exist outdoors is the 18th century garden folly inspired climbing structure, Ratatosk, by the Norwegian Helen & Hard Architects. Its name is taken from an Old Norse word meaning drill-tooth and refers to an ancient squirrel from Norse mythology that lived in a giant ash tree at the centre of the cosmos. A gnarled, ugly sort of structure from a distance, the architects built the folly by splitting five ash trees lengthways and have arranged them to face inwards, creating an intimate, interior space that can be walked into. The structure’s roof is made from a hand woven willow canopy and its base is a collection of bagged woodchips.

Apparently the structure was created using sophisticated technology and machinery normally reserved for contemporary furniture manufacture. Whatever the case, the overwhelming connection when standing amongst the split trees is not to ideas of digital fabrication but to the mystical squirrel at the centre of the cosmos. The beautifully woven roof offers a surprising amount of shade from the sun and the raw untreated exterior of the trees is offset by their burnished interior and the feeling standing among them is of an embrace and the literalness of being at the centre of the tree does strangely offer a sense of being at the centre of the cosmos. It is peaceful, it is beautiful and the natural hollows of the wood almost seem to offer a cavity in which to press your whole body and be subsumed by the trees both literally and mystically. For an unassuming structure it is surprisingly affective.

There is no linear narrative that directs the order in which these works can be viewed and so it is unfortunate that the last work seen on this particular day was Inside/Outside Tree by the Japanese Sou Fujimoto Architects. Undoubtedly it suffers from being at the top of an out of the way staircase with little to converse with but, after the tactile, immersive quality of so many of the earlier projects, the transparent acrylic sheets of this abstract but impenetrable tree and its exploration of ‘in-between-ness’ feels a little too cerebral. Had the work been placed in a different part of the museum, maybe it would have been more memorable but in the scheme of the wider exhibition it is easily overlooked.

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces might do what it says on the box but within these spaces are other emotional, intellectual and cultural spaces that afford an enormous amount of enjoyment, engagement and reflection. These reflections are on notions of refuge, on the impact of texture and our understanding of space as something we create it and something we exist within. It’s a wonderful exhibition and a collection of happier places to visualise next time you’re stuck in peak hour.

 

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