This review was written in response to the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition last year and explores ideas around curation, and around a sensory approach to architectural practice.


The central problem of curating a show about architecture is how to attend to the qualities of space, light, and scale which are so central to the discipline, but which are difficult to assess from the elevations, models and renderings which populate more traditional exhibitions of the craft. The notion of commissioning architects to produce environments that somehow embody their philosophies and central concerns is not totally new (the architectural pavilion serves this function) but it is a concept that some more adventurous institutions are now willing to bring within the walls of the gallery. Exhibitions including New Nordic at Copenhagen’s Louisiana museum (2012) along with their current Arab Contemporary have invited architects to install structures that engage the viewer more directly and experientially in their work. While architectural biennales in Venice, Shenzhen and Hong Kong and elsewhere have a slightly longer history of employing installation to communicate the abstract qualities of the built form.

The Royal Academy’s decision to emphasise the spaces created by architects and architecture in their current exhibition Sensing Spaces is, however, a significant one. It signals a desire to move away from popular discourses around contemporary architecture which emphasise the external, structural, monumental qualities of the form (discourses frequently reinforced by illustration and photography that draw attention to glittering façades and gleaming towers) towards a more phenomenological, experiential mode of engagement with the built environment. To emphasise this point, and to enable visitors to gain an understanding of the output of architects whose studios are located as far away as Chile, China and Germany, the Royal Academy has invited seven architectural practices to intervene in its extensive galleries.

As I wandered through the cavernous rooms occupied by Irish practice Grafton Architects’ installation I felt ambivalent about the exhibition. The suspended volumes that occupy the high ceilings of the gallery seemed to take the brief to explore space rather literally, so I was pleased to enter into the environment that represents Chinese architect Li Xiaodong’s contribution to the show. Xiadong’s exhibit evokes a grove at the centre of a forest, large dusty pebbles crunch under-foot in a clearing magically extended by use of mirrors. One then enters into a series of maze-like corridors in which branches still covered in bark form screens allowing some light, sound, and movement through, but simultaneously creating a sense of containment. These narrow pathways are lit from below by patchy panes of translucent plexiglas beneath which halogen tubes hum like cicadas, casting up a cool, bluish moonlight as if the sky were beneath my feet. Here and there a booth appears, niched into the tactile surface of the screens, dim spaces of quiet isolation. It is a pleasing, playful installation strongly relating to Xiadong’s practice in which natural, untreated elements form cladding, partitions, and platforms. But Xiadong is not the only exhibitor to signal an interest in contemporary uses of natural materials.

A few galleries later, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a sepulchral space: fronds of bamboo grow from concealed spots of illumination, conducting light along their fine filaments into the darkened room. These twisting fronds form networks of undulating shapes captivating in their combination of structural complexity and material simplicity. The installation would have felt perfectly serene, a secular temple, if not for other visitors whose clumping feet disrupting the calm. While Xiadong’s environment felt uncannily familiar, referring both to the natural world and to traditional East Asian methods of construction, Kuma’s piece seemed much more abstract and alien: as if viewing microscopic organisms enlarged to a massive scale.

This sense of disorientation, and scale is employed somewhat divergently by Chilean architectural duo Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, whose enormous platform, supported by four massive columns, fills one end of an expansive gallery. Ascending to the top of the platform – via spiral staircases concealed in a column – I was suddenly brought startlingly close to the gallery’s ceiling. From this vantage point I became much more aware of the Royal Academy as a building, and I reflected on the strangeness of the original fine, detailed mouldings (incorporating neo-classical and gothic motifs besides pouting Pre-Raphaelite angels in Liberty-robes) installed high above the visitors’ heads. Perhaps, I reasoned, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s formalist treatment of the platform juxtaposed against the lush ornamentation of the gallery was intended as a comment on the status of decoration in contemporary architecture, so I was perplexed by their statement on the gallery wall:

‘we are not trying to express the structural properties of buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequences, the way they open – simple things that taken together suggest something more complex.’

The Pre-Raphelite angels in whose company they had placed me suggested something very complex, but it wasn’t to do with the sequence of rooms.

Perhaps architects aren’t always the best advocates of their own work, but while Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s comments on their practice alienated me, I noticed that the video accompanying the exhibition had the reverse effect of warming me to some the exhibits. Berlin based Burkina Fasoian architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, presented an installation featuring an arched structure thatched in brightly-coloured plastic-straws which could be slotted in or taken out at will. While it had seemed a fun and engaging piece in the gallery space, it gained a greater significance in his description of a practice that incorporated the community into every part of the design and construction process. Not all of the exhibits were equally successful or eloquent and I was left cold, for example, by Eduardo Souto de Moura’s cast of an existing doorway in the Royal Academy placed at an acute angle to the original. As an exhibition, however, Sensing Spaces achieves much: reconnecting the viewing public with the tangible qualities of architecture experienced up close, and to demonstrating the ingenuity of architects in creating spaces that speak to us in subtle, beautiful and engaging ways. Of course, ‘real world’ constraints often impinge on architects’ abilities to construct the harmonious environments of their imaginations, but that too is the value of an exhibition of this sort, freed of practicalities it can exist as pure rhetoric: a manifesto in concrete, bamboo and plastic straws.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

The PDF linked below was an attempt to create a genealogy of modernist design which accounted for the interconnected nature of various “modernisms” expressed across medium and discipline. I find it intriguing that the machine aesthetic, formalism and abstraction inflected fields as (ostensibly) different as industrial design, fashion, typography, scenography and architecture. It is also interesting to consider how Arts and Crafts, in many ways an anti-modern movement, sowed the seeds of radical modernism in its insistence on truth to materials and in its linking of social and progressive ideals, which in turn located the applied arts as a set of uniquely transformative media. As well as links and continuity there is contradiction and rupture, not least between more progressive modernist design and the more conservative application of some forms of Art Deco. This presentation was originally produced to illustrate my lecture on “Modernism in Design” at the Working Men’s College in Camden.

Modernist Design

This post discusses the exhibition Glorious Estate which deals with ideas around the built-environment, found objects, alternative ways of living, and the legacy of utopian architecture. First published by Allotrope Editions 2012.

A. C. StephensC. Wright

At Bruno Glint Gallery the visitor becomes an anthropologist. Entering the cobbled mews and climbing a rusty staircase, we come across a space transformed. Fetishes of some post-apocalyptic society cover the walls, a mysterious structure of unknown ritual-use stands in our midst. This is ‘Glorious Estate’, the gallery’s latest exhibition, in which artists Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter, and Carla Wright explore late-modernity through its physical detritus.

Keef Winter’s sculpture of plywood, pine, industrial insulation and black plastic film is a combination of precision and roughness. The piece is composed of three hinged panels, one of which features triangular facets forming an irregular, upturned pyramid. In contrast, the other panels of the sculpture are made up of dented industrial foam and ply. The resultant form, roughly L-shaped, is inscribed with stains and roughly painted here and there. It is at once a refined exploration of three-dimensions and a piece of chaotic maverick DIY.

Like Winter, Anna Chrystal Stephens adopts an expressive somewhat anarchistic approach to construction, and her wall-mounted assemblages are built from a variety of found materials. In ‘Survivalism’ patterned textiles are stretched over frames to form screens, the apparently haphazard combination of materials evoking the structures of refugee camps or new-age settlements. Attached to this, a pole supports a totem of tangled wire adorned with bright, synthetic-string. A length of silk draped over the totem partially obscures it, perhaps an act of deference to its mystic power. Stephens’ two other pieces also feature silk digitally-printed with images of twigs and plastic stacking boxes. There is a sense of subversion in the combination of a material associated with luxury and objects that are normally considered too mundane to be worthy of notice.

In Carla Wright’s works a certain clarity of form, geometry and use of materials (including safety glass and oak) combine in an unmistakeable reference to modernism. It is a particularly English type of mid-20th Century sentiment that brings to mind Eric Lyons’ ‘Span Housing’, Denys Lasdun, and Ercol furniture. The translation of these icons of utility into pure aesthetic objects could be read as an implicit critique of their practical value, although there is something simultaneously celebratory in the elegant lines of Wright’s sculptures notably in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’.

Discarded materials are transformed into objects of veneration in an exhibition which at its core, is an exploration of ideology. The notion of planned modernity is evoked in references to the stark edifices of modernist architecture, while the utopianism of the commune is explored in the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens. But despite this optimism (or perhaps in reaction to it) the spectres of industrial decline haunt the show, a malevolent dystopian spirit amongst the fragile beauty of the art objects. In the dialectic of modernity versus anti-modernity, and industrially produced versus handmade, the exhibition explores the shifting ground of design practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than the art object in contemporary discourse, it is the contested nature of the design object and of industrial production which forms the basis of this show. In that sense, it is a ‘To the Finland Station’ (Wilson 1940) of visual culture, exploring the trajectory of progressive applied art, but pointing out the limitations, romanticism and ultimate naivety of the doctrines that prevailed.

Jay McCauley Bowstead, Allotrope 2012.

Link to publication

This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of  the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity. 

Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together


Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.

Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.

The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.

The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.

Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, his cantilevered chair of1927 combines traditional wicker elements with industrial materials (tubular steel) permitting new possibilities of lightness and form.

While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland BarthesThe Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.

In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.

‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.

 Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.

Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.

A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.

This post is about criticism of architecture and the built environment. I’m interested in the way that architecture arouses particular passions, including nostalgia, idealism and romanticism. What is the impact of these, often unspoken preoccupations, on the critique of the built form?  

Jonathon Meades’ article, which I refer to throughout, is so extreme in its inconsistency and subjectivity that you suspect that its primary aim was to elicit controversy. Nevertheless, many of the features of Meades’ piece, particularly its romanticisation of “liminal” spaces seem particularly current, and are worthy of some interrogation. 

For me Jonathon Meades’ article in The Guardian on the relationship between architecture, planning and the (urban) environment seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

Meades’ central thesis is that there exists a problematic and unsatisfactory relationship between the urban environment and those tasked with designing the structures that inhabit it. This argument is initially convincing as Meades’ contends that buildings are designed to look impressive as drawings, models and photographs rather (implicitly) than to be experienced by those that use and interact with them. And he suggests that contemporary architects are encouraged to create buildings which operate as images or edifices, but which are abstracted both from the real world, and from their stated functions.

As the article continues, however, this central concept rather than being reinforced by pertinent examples, is instead diluted by tenuously linked personal bug-bears and bizarre pontification. On the one hand, the straw-man of planned utopia, whether new-town or garden city is stridently knocked down “ It doesn’t matter what idiom is essayed, it is the business of attempting to create places that defeats architects”. On the other hand, the value of beauty in unexpected places (specifically the Lee Valley) is asserted:

A writer, sees entropic beauty, roads to nowhere whose gravel aggregate is that of ad hoc second world war fighter runways, decrepit Victorian oriental pumping stations, rats, supermarket trolleys in toxic canals, rotting foxes, used condoms, pitta bread with green mould, polythene bags caught on branches and billowing like windsocks, greasy carpet tiles”.

The River Lee prior to the Olympics

Quite what relevance this fit of unrestrained prose might have to the practice of contemporary architecture is unclear: it’s certainly difficult to imagine how architects might incorporate rotting foxes and used condoms into their schemes. Having been brought up in Newham, I can’t help but feel that Meades’ celebration of the decrepitude of pre-Olympic Lee Valley smacks of a touristic and romanticised vision of poverty and post-industrial decline. While Westfield Shopping Centre may not represent the apotheosis of human artistic achievement, it does for many Newham residents represent an improvement on what came before.

More generally, what weakens Meades’ analysis (along with his propensity for unreflective romanticism) is his failure to conceive of architecture existing within practical, economic and sociological constraints which impinge on architects’ ability to create successful structures and places. How, for example, do transport infrastructure, choice of tenure, planning regimes and contractual arrangements impinge on the design of a scheme? While there will always exist buildings and schemes which “transcend” their function and circumstances, the lofty and poetic language Meades employs scarcely helps to understand what makes these works successful.

L’Unité d’Habitation

“Le Corbusier’s l’Unité d’Habitation instruct[s] us in what genius is. The roof of l’Unité is a transcendent work: it is as though Odysseus is beside you. In a few gestures, it summons the entirety of the Mediterranean’s mythic history.”

If the purpose of criticism is, at least in part, to inform and enrich practice, then tangible qualities of successful architectural schemes, rather than sweeping generalities, need to be identified. While the new-towns, housing schemes, and suburban developments which Meades critiques may all have their problems, to simply dismiss them as unliveable dystopias is supremely unhelpful. Practitioners such as Jan Gehl have sought to analyse and explore how issues such as scale, streetscape and dominant transport type impact on the liveability of cities and public spaces. For me, these much more concrete proposals based on survey, analysis and observation remain far more relevant and convincing than the semi metaphysical, self-editorialising criticism of which Meades, sadly, is not the only exponent.