Letters to the editor: doubts about the need for a V&A Architecture Centre

Architects no longer need vast resources of the printed word.

In February 2001, in the article “Do modern architects use historic material?” (The Art Newspaper, No.111, p.16), I expressed my doubts about the plan for the Victoria and Albert Museum to be a National Centre for Architecture. Last month we saw the opening of the museum’s glittering architecture gallery. Of course, it is too soon to pass judgment, but when I heard RIBA President George Fergusson’s speech, fortified by the eulogies of Norman Foster, those doubts rose to the surface like bile from my gall bladder that is no longer with me.

We heard from Paula Ridley about the marital bliss of the RIBA copulating with the V&A, and the thousands of architectural drawings that will be available to all, and by “all” what was meant was the architectural profession and the visiting public, not specifically the architectural historian. As I wrote in 2001 the conjunction of the two collections will not produce a resource “for architecture and architects”, for architects do not consult drawings in the educating process. When the Drawings Collection was housed in 68 Portland Place, and subsequently in 21 Portman Square, not once in my 30 years there did an architect knock on the door asking simply to browse through drawings.

Architects no longer need vast resources of the printed word. They have their own electronic sources of reference. They absorb architecture through what they see on their travels, exhibitions, and those illustrated books that take their fancy.

Mr Fergusson’s lamentable omission in his speech was to suppress the achievement of the Heinz Gallery. It was there, rather than in semi-permanent and costly displays of architecture, that his members and the general public learned about the variety of architecture. It was galling that in The Times on 16 November Tom Dyckhoff referred in deprecating affection to the Heinz’s “splendidly obscure exhibitions”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the statistics are there for all to see. As Colen Amery wrote in RIBA Heinz Gallery twenty years of exhibitions (1992), the gallery was “both a crucible and a catalyst”, with 97 exhibitions between 1972 and 1992, whether of Graves or Stirling, Price or Siefert, Michelucci or Scarpa, “Silent cities” or “Off the rails”. This astonishing programme can only be matched by the 140 exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, over 55 years between 1932 and 1987. I thought it ironic that Mr Fergusson should have trumpeted the generosity of Drue Heinz when the Heinz exhibitions have been abandoned, and his own Institute would have put her beloved gallery on a skip, had it not been happily claimed by the Irish Architectural Record in Dublin, where it has arisen like a phoenix. I say to both Paula and George: “The jury is out”.

John Harris

Curator emeritus, RIBA Drawings Collection, London

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 153 December 2004