New galleries at the Soane Museum open with an exhibition exploring the history of sports architecture.
John Soane never designed a stadium but was fascinated by them and used his own meticulous drawings of the Colosseum in his lectures as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, so it is fitting that the first exhibition in the new galleries at his house-museum should explore this archetypal civic forum, showing off the splendour of the refurbished rooms and of the Soane collection, from which many exhibits are drawn.
The galleries have been created in the first phase of a far-reaching £7m programme called Opening up the Soane, in which more of the three adjacent houses built by Soane on Lincoln’s Inn Fields will be made accessible to the public.
Soane lived in the middle, at number 13, and this remains the heart of the museum. The houses on either side were built to let, and have been incorporated into the museum in recent decades.Number 14 now houses Soane’s collection of books and drawings, and is open to researchers, while number 12 provides the new reception and shop, the galleries and, above, rooms for the conservation department. The restoration of the building has been carried our by Julian Harrap architects, and closely follows Soane’s own interior decoration. This is much zingier than the neutral, muted take on Georgian taste promoted by upscale interiors magazines: a deep Pompei red in the shop, a smoky grey on the stairs and a mild pink offset by a hot coral trim and trompe l’oeil sky in the galleries. The gallery showcases, designed by Caruso St John and built by the Milan-based Goppion, is influenced by furniture in Soane’s own collection. Lustrous varnished walnut, mirrored edges and curved glass give it an understated richness.
Into these two small rooms the curator, Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, has packed a profusion of drawings and objects quite in keeping with the density of the domestic display across the party wall at Number 13. Many architectural exhibitions lack the frisson that comes in the presence of unique and ideally venerable objects, but this show has it in spades: here is the Codex Coner, once owned by Michaelangelo and anotated in the margins by Soane; here is Le Corbusier’s loose sketch for an Olympic arena in Baghdad; here, courtesy of the British Museum, is a bronze goose that sat above the Hippodrome in Byzantine Constantinople.
The selection shows the central role of the stadium in social and religious life of ancient civilisations, looks at the non-sporting uses to which the buildings have been put – from proposals to convert the Colosseum into a temple in the seventeenth century to putative embodiments of fascist power in the twentieth – and comes up to the present day with Jacques Herzog’s napkin scribble of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing and models of the London 2012 stadium by exhibition sponsor
Populous. Though the objects are few in number, Kierkuc-Bielinski shows that they contain multitudes, and it is worth acquiring the catalogue for the full exposition.
The exhibition has been in planning almost since London won the Games, and the detailed research and success in acquiring eloquent objects open this new chapter in the life of the museum with a flourish.
Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture is at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, WC2A, until 22 September.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012