Suspended animation

We like to think of architects as all-seeing, multifaceted beings. But last week was the first time I’d seen one stop deliberately and look up as he crossed the foyer to the atrium at the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters in London’s Portland Place.

What had caught his attention was not the fine design of the Thirties interior, but a mobile sculpture suspended from the edge of the atrium. Created by full-time “mobiliste” David Chadwick – who worked previously with Zaha Hadid – and entitled Discs, the blue acrylic and steel installation is in constant motion, thanks to a solar power pack.

Further up the stairs hanging into the atrium is another piece, by Martin Francis – curtain wall glazing specialist turned maxi yacht designer and once a close associate of Sir Norman Foster on jobs such as the seminal Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich. Francis’s more conventional confection uses glass fibre and paper to create the slender rods that justify its title, Fishing.

The foyer of the RIBA Bookshop is graced by a mobile reminiscent of Sixties’ style, from Diana Edmunds and featuring asymmetrical lime green acrylic rectangles cascading at angles from metal rods. The shop itself has several ceiling-hung installations – this time delicate, but colourful pieces by Dario Bartolini in steel and glass. And so it goes on as you pass through the building’s public areas.

It was a welcome surprise in a building usually given over to architectural models and drawings to find not just art, but moving objects. We can only hope there will be more of these diversions from the former RIBA Architecture Centre under its new director Alicia Pivaro, following the “rebranding” last week of its various galleries as the Architecture Gallery. Why make that change if the tone of the content remains the same?

This particular, albeit discreet showing was the brainchild of Exact, a company set up two years ago by former contemporary art dealer David MacIlwaine to put on art and architecture exhibitions, and the prelude to a full-blown mobiles show. Collaborating with the RIBA, MacIlwaine asked a number of architects, engineers and artists to create mobiles to encourage the architectural profession to design or commission mobiles in the buildings they create.

MacIlwaine’s definition of “mobile” is something that moves, ceiling-hung or otherwise. He sees more static sculpture as “sort of out-of-date and repetitive” in the context of buildings.

“Mobiles are a form of sculpture that suits modern buildings. They tend to have a lot of glass and big airy spaces,” he says, adding that by their “engineering” nature, mobiles tend to appeal to building specialists. “I wanted architects and engineers involved because they are in sympathy with buildings. They are a low-cost way of introducing sculpture to a space.”

A lesson to be learned from the RIBA experience is that mobiles need to be bold, or at least commissioned for a particular space, when dealing with a building of any volume. Many of the mobiles at Portland Place look as though their placing is an afterthought and most would benefit from proper lighting. Though they would look great in a contained private office, they can get very lost in a big public space – for example, without solar powering to generate constant movement, you might not even notice Chadwick’s Discs, though it was one of the biggest and more interesting mobiles on show last week.

The RIBA project, a movable feast that will continue changing, involves some 20 mobiles not all of which are yet complete. Having given the go-ahead after a few months’ deliberation, the RIBA wanted to kick off the installation fast and MacIlwaine has had little more than a month to put the show together.

Tight deadlines have sadly excluded some of the architects enthused by the idea, though architectural “names” include Piers Gough, whose wire coat-hanger sculpture draws, we are told, on Man Ray, and US architect Tim Prentice, as well as Francis.

Also in the pipeline is a piece featuring suspended argon tubes by lighting designer Clare Brew and a collaboration between architect Ivan Harber and engineer Chris Wise, from Richard Rogers Partnership and Ove Arup & Partners respectively, involving rotating glass plates hung near the floor.

But the artists are there in force. Chadwick has mobiles in several corporate headquarters and at Damien Hirst’s London restaurant Pharmacy; Edmunds creates mobiles for her husband, architect Chris Wilkinson’s buildings, including James Dyson’s new factory at Malmesbury, Wiltshire; and photo-realist painter Ben Johnson was commissioned by TV news service ITN to put a mobile in the atrium of its London offices.

These will be supplemented by work from Peter Logan, sculptor brother of glass artist Andre, and a collaborative piece by Spitting Image co-creator Peter Fluck and Portsmouth University music professor Tony Myatt, whose wall-mounted opus was voted best artwork at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival.

“There was great enthusiasm, then insecurity,” observes MacIlwaine of the architects and designers he approached. There was a feeling that though the project was an exciting idea, art is something someone else did, he adds.

As with most arts projects, the show is being staged on a shoestring budget. RIBA has donated the space and British Airways provided 5000 sponsorship, but the rest has come through Exact and the input of time and materials by participants.

Some of the mobiles will be on sale as limited editions, but MacIlwaine’s long-term aim is to inspire architects to commission or create their own as part of their building schemes. It is certainly a great way to get art off the walls – even if it is on to the floor or ceiling. n

Mobiles@RIBA runs at the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, London W1 from 22 February to 10 April.

Latest articles