Design needs showcases as much as architecture

Contemporary architecture is at last receiving the attention it deserves in the UK. Despite the sad fate of Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral extension to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin building for Swiss Re has won acclaim from cr

Contemporary architecture is at last receiving the attention it deserves in the UK. Despite the sad fate of Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral extension to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin building for Swiss Re has won acclaim from critics and the public alike. Now Zaha Hadid, robbed amid huge controversy of the chance to design the Cardiff Opera House some years ago, looks set to create the Architecture Foundation’s new building, situated at Bankside near Herzog & De Meuron’s Tate Modern.

Apart from making a contribution to the architectural wealth of the capital, Hadid’s building, should it get through planning and other hurdles, will provide yet another centre in London for people to study and enjoy architecture. The Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association have long provided venues frequented largely by the profession, but the opening last year of the V&A/ Riba architecture gallery by Gareth Hoskins Architects, with subsidiary spaces by Wright & Wright, and news of the Architecture Foundation scheme should provide more public access in London to the subject.

Would that design were as fortunate. Many in the industry see the V&A as design’s spiritual home, especially now that, under the enlightened directorship of Mark Jones, it has embraced more contemporary design shows. The Design Museum also has a place, particularly as a centre for excellence in up-and-coming talent and ‘fashionable’ design.

But, the Design Museum’s Peter Saville and Saul Bass shows notwithstanding, the main focus of both these venues is 3D design. There is relatively little scope for graphics outside smaller venues such as the London Institute. The inaugural D&AD Congress last year arguably provided the best showcase in years.

There is also the question of how best to display graphics. Rick Poyner’s Communicate show at London’s Barbican was hailed as a triumph by many, partly because of the effort involved in staging so big a show. But graphics fans were critical of the way exhibits were displayed – magazines aren’t best seen behind glass, though security concerns demand it.

Meanwhile, the ‘words and images’ show 26 Letters, staged at the British Library by writers’ group 26 was lost in the building’s corridors. The book of the show was more successful in getting the point across.

So we have a dilemma. Graphics is the most common expression of design, touching daily life through signs, posters, the media and computer screens. It is celebrated in many a book and part of every piece of communication. But how can the public get to understand the process behind it? Any ideas?

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