Eva Jiricna, co-curator with Chris Wilkinson of the architecture gallery at this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, sets the context for the show.
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is, after 244 years, a well established part of London’s cultural life in the summer months, sharing the calendar with Wimbledon, Pimms, the Serpentine Pavilion and this year, of course, the Olympics. It is unique in that it is open not only to those artists who are lucky enough to have been elected as Royal Academicians but to anybody who is capable enough to fill in the form, queue to deliver the work, and strong enough not to become depressed if their masterpiece is not among the one-in-ten to be selected.
Of the 14 rooms in the exhibition, the architectural gallery is one of the smallest and has only one wall which is not interrupted by a door opening. But it has a high ceiling and is very visible from the entrance, through the Octagon room at the heart of the show. Unlike most of the exhibiting artists, architects don’t tend to sell their artworks, and since the profit from the show is a vital part of the RA’s income, it is understandable that there are restraints on the space they occupy.
The RA takes the exhibition very seriously. Tremendous efforts are made behind the scenes to improve visitors’ experience each year (with an unexpressed prayer to turn any improvement into commercial success). In recent years visitor numbers and total income has increased, so this supplication seems to work.
This year the curators, led by painter Tess Jaray, decided to try to ‘soften up’ the boundaries and make a more gradual transition between sculpture, paintings, prints and architecture. All the galleries, apart from the bright-red Octagon, have been painted the same grey colour. But like the story of school uniforms, what starts with a deeply democratic intention finishes with suppressed revolt. As a properly behaved schoolgirl I tried to wear my uniform with grace, but I personally love the subversive variety of colours and approaches in the building. To my mind architecture is grey enough in our everyday lives, and giving it a grey background in the show didn’t excite me a great deal. Admittedly this isn’t much of a problem as there is little blank wall space visible. The walls are liberally plastered with sketches, photographs, drawings and paintings. Having spent a lot of time in the architecture gallery in previous years, it’s apparent that non-architect visitors seem to pay most attention to models, so we gave priority to their display. There are architectural models everywhere and, in line with the principle of pulling down boundaries, Chris Wilkinson and I even sent some along in both directions into adjacent galleries.
It’s always painful to reject good work and we agreed that generosity should be maintained. Does the work on display reflect the state of British architecture in summer 2012? To my mind it does. Of course the big names are well represented by large prints, photos of construction sites (Zaha!) and models paid for by rich clients. You can recognise the architectural signatures without referring to the catalogue – Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, David Chipperfield, Louisa Hutton (with a very nice project), Spencer de Grey and more. But to my mind, the more refreshing works come from those students and young architects who demonstrate the talent and energy to change, improve and rebel against establishment norms before they fall into the deep well of so-called professional practice. Their beautiful, poetic works are there to be enjoyed alongside the pragmatic but often less interesting work of the established generation. This year lots of foreign-born architects are represented, but somehow, in spite of globalisation, there is still a recognisable national identity to British architecture.
Czech-born Eva Jiricna moved to London in 1968 and worked on Brighton Marina and at Richard Rogers Partnership on the Lloyd’s Building. She set up in practice in 1982 and now has offices in London and Prague. She was elected as a Royal Academician in 1997.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition continues to 12 August.
First published in AT229, June 2012