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One of Britain’s leading architectural historians has serious doubts about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s plan to be a “National Centre for Architecture"

Do modern architects use historic architectural material?

London

Until the advent of the Modern Movement the tools for architecture were standardised. Architects used exemplars to aid composition, first and foremost the printed word and the engraved image. Often architectural drawings by venerated masters might be collected, as when Lord Burlington referred to the designs of Palladio and Jones in his library. Architects recorded antiquity, the Renaissance and the moderns in their travel sketch books.

Some architects still used models as aids. There had always been meetings and lectures, and exhibitions of architectural drawings were an annual event at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1769. Further developments in the 19th century were the use of casts, then the powerful influence of architectural periodicals, and, from the 1870s, the use of photographic images. Travel with a hand-held camera was not far off.

In the last century, all this changed. Many have tried recently to use the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as a measure of what architects need. The library is always producing statistics to justify the large subsidy that Institute members pay for its upkeep, but the truth today is that architects do not need vast resources of the printed word, and in any case the larger offices have their own electronic sources of reference. The world-wide web is a force for change.

I have been unpopular in saying that if the Library disappeared tomorrow, the loss would be regretted, but the quality and form of British architecture would be no wit changed. Architects in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, of the US, succeed just as well without the benefit of a centralised architectural library.

Avery Library of Columbia University is hardly used by architects, and the Library of the American Institute of Architects in Washington is up for grabs. Jim Stirling said he had never used the RIBA Library, as did that very different architect, Francis Johnson, whose classical language was derived from a limited number of reference works.

Of course, architects use books and periodicals, scanning the illustrations for ideas and images that interest them, but in the 30 years I was at the RIBA, not once did an architect knock on the door of the Drawings Collection asking to browse. Therefore it is nonsense to suggest that the conjunction of the collections at the RIBA and the V&A will produce a resource for “architecture and architects”.

Replace “architecture” with “architectural history”, and you are nearer the truth. Architectural drawings are consulted by historians and students of architectural history; by researchers, antique dealers, auction house cataloguers, students, as well as interested members of the public, but architects only use them when restoring an existing building of which the original designs might be available. The RIBA Drawings Collection in Portman Square was a measure of how architects viewed drawings: when they came there during my curatorship from 1972 to 1986, they came to enjoy the 64 exhibitions in the Heinz Gallery, not to open boxes of drawings.

These thoughts were uppermost in my mind when I heard that the V&A has identified architecture as a major area for development as part of its Master Plan. I asked myself, “What can it do for architecture?”

The marriage of the V&A and RIBA will be consummated in the Cole Wing. With a Master Plan not yet complete, and the imminent appointment of a new director, the tying of the knot might seem precipitate. That is neither the fault of the RIBA, nor of a museum whose director’s tenure at the time of the couple’s engagement was not in doubt. The conjoining of a vast collection of architectural drawings, to which must be added all the RIBA’s paraphernalia pertaining to the architectural office, has precipitated a flurry of activity. A Committee of Architecture has been formed to debate the museum’s contribution to architecture. Let us not deceive ourselves. Even if the committee veers towards the needs of architectural historians, or even a public interested in architectural drawings, the appropriate questions must be: “What can the museum contribute to contemporary architectural design and the practice of architecture?”, to which I reply: “What has it done for architecture in the past, and has it any significant role to play in the future?”

In 1852 the V&A, as it later became, was founded as a Museum of Manufactures housed in Marlborough House, where it contained, among other things, a collection of building materials. But architecture was never seriously addressed, and never has been. It is doubtful if the problem of representing indoors what is an outside subject was ever considered. In “A grand design: the art of the Victoria and Albert Museum” (1997), architecture is not mentioned. There was no communication between the museum and the RIBA, or indeed the Royal Academy of Arts.

The museum’s large, inchoate collection of architectural salvages, and its manner of displaying casts, were a legacy from the display pioneered in Lenoir’s Musée des Monuments français, but the period rooms were merely containers for the decorative and applied arts arranged in stylistic sequence. We can still see survivors of these early salvages in the present ghastly museum shop, where Sir Paul Pindar’s House is marooned, yearning to be dispatched to a far more appropriate home in the Museum of the City of London.

The problem of exhibiting the three- or four-dimensionality of architecture has plagued museums since Cassas opened his Galerie de l’Architecture in Paris in 1806. From the moment the International Confederation of Architectural Museums was founded in 1979, its museums and centres have vigorously debated this problem. Yet whether in Helsinki or Rotterdam, London or Washington, the solutions are still generally the standard ones of exhibited document, models, slide projection, film, laser projection, lecture, and occasionally expensive attempts at virtual reality.

All these museums have discovered that large, multi-faceted architectural exhibitions are far costlier than wall displays of art exhibitions. The V&A has never learned from the popularity of Carol Hogben’s now defunct Circulation Department, sending out in the Sixties small travelling exhibitions, when the RIBA also toured exhibitions of mounted photographs on architectural themes. The museum has neglected the lesson of the Heinz Gallery: that a wide variety of small, low-cost, specialised exhibitions can be as successful as large ones on more grandiose subjects. The museum’s refusal to give the RIBA a dedicated exhibition space in order to continue the Heinz shows is shaming. I would not trust the museum’s Exhibition Committee to respond fairly when the Drawings Collection queues up to stake a claim for exhibition space elsewhere in the museum.

If you look down the list of architectural shows at the V&A, you see that, not surprisingly, most have been design/interior orientated, as the “Ashbee” and “Mackintosh” centenaries in 1963 and 1968, “Rococo” in 1984, or “William Morris” in 1989. Then in the Seventies Sir Roy Strong (director 1974-88) boldly entered the lists of architectural conservation with three major polemical exhibitions: “The destruction of the country house”, “The garden”, and “Change and decay: the future of our churches”. Under his directorship we also had “Marble halls” (1973), “Sir George Gilbert Scott” (1978), and “William Burges” (1981).

Since Strong, subsequent directors, not least Ms Esteve-Coll, have been wary of architecture. “Schinkel” was shown in 1991, “Pugin” (1994), “Laarsen” (1999) and “Art Nouveau” (2000): a dismally thin record for 10 years.

Because the ill-fated Libeskind Building for the V&A was planned without a detailed brief, we will never know if modern architecture would have been a component (in view of what Libeskind has been doing since, his design is already looking jaded now).

There has been glib comment about dedicating the whole of the Cole Wing to architecture, not least the fantastical statement made in the December RIBA Journal by the RIBA’s Project Architect, Claire Wright, about “combining two important and complementary collections to create a national centre for architecture”. This is sheer Castles in Spain, implying resources that the V&A cannot muster, a misunderstanding of the role of an architectural drawings collection, and in direct conflict with what the RIBA is itself doing at its headquarters in Portland Place.

The Committee’s chairman is Michael Snodin, current President of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums (ICAM). He knows well the debate that erupts ad nauseam at every ICAM conference as to what architectural museums should be doing. In Britain there has also been a consensus of opinion, supported by an Arts Council-funded report, that national centres of museums are prohibitively expensive playthings.

The RIBA in Portland Place with it multifarious exhibitions and activities has livened up that once dreary HQ, its Library becoming more attuned to what architects demand in our age of the micro-chip. The RIBA’s own regional buildings or architecture centres, some in high gear, other in low, contribute to architecture in their regions.

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA), soon to acquire the building behind Burlington Gardens, will be a major force. I entreat the V&A’s committee to cast their eyes of the RA’s impressive Architecture-Education Programme, 2000 to early 2001. The headings: the London School of Economics/RA Lectures, the Annual Architecture Lecture, the Royal Academy Forum, the Friends’ Events, and so on, comprise more than 70 exhibitions, lectures, seminars, meetings and walks. This will increase when Burlington Gardens becomes activated.

I can predict that the RA, as indeed the RIBA, will be working in informal partnerships (RA, RIBA, AA, Architecture Foundation, London School of Economics), rather than in competition.

The treasure trove that is the V&A has always been uncomfortable with architecture, not least because modern architectural design is now more a matter of advanced technologies and systems than not. I foresee disaster if the V&A Committee comes out for architectural empire building. Let it have the offspring of the drawings marriage bed, serve historical studies, stage relevant architectural exhibitions, but in doing so, co-operate with the organisations that really understand the issues that beset contemporary architecture.

Let us hear the last of National Centres for Architecture

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Do modern architects use historic architectural material?'