Space Invaders

Architects and exhibition designers use exhibition space in a different way. Architects may be getting more work, but Pamela Buxton thinks there’s room for both styles

When the Sir John Soane show opened this month at the Royal Academy, it wasn’t just the contents that attracted attention, but also the imaginative exhibition design, by Piers Gough.

Gough, a partner at CZWG, is just one of many top architects picking up plum exhibition jobs. A glance at some of the year’s top London shows suggests that more galleries are hiring architects rather than specialist exhibition designers, especially for high-profile shows such as: Cities on the Move (Rem Koolhaas) and Addressing the Century (Zaha Hadid), both at the Hayward Gallery, and Modern Britain (Foster & Partners) at the Design Museum.

Great news for architects, who consider exhibition design a natural extension of their remit. But for exhibition designers, it’s an issue of considerable concern. Frustrated by the attitudes of many clients, many are angry and despondent at the success of those who, in their opinion, lack the necessary specialist knowledge to communicate information, as well as dealing with the spatial issues. While some are bitter, others recognise the need for the exhibition design profession to sharpen up its act and work harder to promote itself.

“One of the major problems is that we aren’t recognised as a profession,” says Neal Potter, an exhibition designer for 30 years and chairman of the Chartered Society of Designers’ newly formed exhibition group.

“The plan is to try and show clients we offer a professional serviceä There is a case for saying that anyone can interpret a design brief but there’s a great deal of experience which goes into handling a project. A lot of architects look at handling spatial design rather than information design,” he says.

“We’re prepared to take our place in the market, but we don’t actually believe that the interior designer and architect are delivering the goods to the clients and the publicä I just don’t think the clients are getting as dynamic a solution as they deserve.” He says project managers prevent a direct relationship between exhibition designer and client, and suspects elitism when clients go for the big name architect to design their show, even when the architect in question has never designed an exhibition before.

Giles Verlade, fellow exhibition designer and committee member of the Museums and Exhibition Design Group, is more blunt, blaming ignorance among clients in believing that architects can deliver the best service.

“[Exhibition design] is leapt at by architects and commissioned by amateurs,” he says.

He believes architects are often attracted to exhibition work because the fees seem high, only having respect for those like Tim Pyne of Work, who specialise rather than dabble.

So what do exhibition designers have that others don’t? For Verlade, it’s the ability to communicate to the public within a 3D space. Fellow exhibition designer Barry Mazur considers it is the skill in interpreting the brief through a close relationship with the curator, and choosing the right approach for the subject. Jasper Jacob points out the need to coordinate a range of specialist skills, ranging from sound to film.

“We’ve had enough experience to be able to talk to the curatorial staff and encourage them to be decisive in their choice. Over the years you learn the pitfalls,” says Mazur, adding that the design should support the content, not dominate it. “You get to know how curators feel about their objects and see how they are thinking rather than bullying themä It comes down to detail, lighting and how the public reads it.”

Bitterness isn’t the answer. As exhibition designer Richard Fowler points out, clients must have reason to look elsewhere for their exhibition designs. “I think they may have had bad experiences with people who churn out clichés. There have been bad exhibition designs by exhibition designers and very nice ones by architects.” He sees the current trend as a “shot across the bows of exhibition design” – more a challenge than a threat.

Jacob, who established Jasper Jacob Associates 15 years ago, is also relaxed about architects designing exhibitions. “I’m certainly not carping. I don’t get annoyed about them entering the field. All I hope is that they understand that exhibition design is a different discipline.”

What really does irritate him is arrogance. “All’s fair in love and war and jobs. My only gripe is some architects think it’s a bit of a doddle and that exhibition designers don’t have the intellectual strictures that they do,” he says. As an architect turned exhibition designer, Peter Higgins of Land is well placed to comment. “Quite often architects create gallery environments and put objects in spaces, but we’re involved in narrative and storytelling. That’s where architects come adrift. They don’t understand media and communications,” says Higgins, whose work includes the new Maritime Museum in Falmouth and the Football Museum at Preston.

He himself has only good collaborative experiences of dealing with architects, but freely admits that this mutual respect may have been helped by his architectural training. At Land, Higgins doesn’t hire designers from an exhibition design background and suggests that better training is needed for the design of exhibitions. He adds that the sector must not be frightened of collaboration and crossing the boundaries between different disciplines.

Architects certainly aren’t. When the Scottish/Japanese architectural practice Ushida Findlay set up in London, its first work was in exhibitions for the Crafts Council. But, associate John Norden refutes suggestions that architects are encroaching on exhibition designers’ patch and aren’t the best people for the job. “If you do it really badly, you won’t be on that patch for very long… People who stick within narrow job descriptions are quite sad. If you study architecture why do you just have to stick to buildings?” he says, adding that unlike exhibition designers, architects are less likely to place too much emphasis on information and graphics.

Meanwhile, more conventional design consultancies are also getting in on the act. CD Partnership director James Soane feels the group is well-equipped to carry out exhibition design, especially with its in-house graphics, furniture and interiors capability. The group has recently completed From the Bomb to the Beatles at the Imperial War Museum and is currently designing London Eats Out, a food exhibition opening next month at the Museum of London. “People enjoy the challenge of a new territory. It depends on who the client is and what they can give, relying on a good relationship and a continuous dialogue,” he says, adding that their broad training allows architects to cross over into other disciplines.

It boils down to the client and what they want. For them, the issue is not professional background but approach. At the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank, director Susan Ferleger Brades is well known for using architects to design exhibitions, commissioning the likes of Zaha Hadid, Ian Ritchie, Claudio Silvestrin and Robert Ian Barnes. Sensibility is more important than profession, she says, and an affinity with the subject matter. The robust nature of the gallery itself also favours a spatial approach, but according to Ferleger Brades, the designer must never let their own ego dominate the subject matter.

Over at the Royal Academy, collections secretary and senior curator MaryAnne Stevens has a range of exhibition designers whom she commissions for two-dimensional exhibitions where discrete and unobtrusive designs are needed to allow the objects to speak for themselves. But the academy is more likely to commission architects for three-dimensional and architectural shows, working with Tadao Ando and Michael Stiff for the Ando show, and, of course, Piers Gough for the Soane exhibition. “It really depends whether you’re looking to create spaces within your galleries. If it is primarily the work itself you want to highlight, then working with exhibition designers is the ideal situation… There’s no danger of the architecture overshadowing the exhibition.”

Crafts Council exhibitions director Louise Taylor commissions exhibition design from a combination of exhibition designers, furniture designers, interior designers and architects. She often uses up and coming practices such as Urban Salon, Adjaye & Russell and Ushida Findlay, the latter well-known in Japan, but newcomers to the UK (and designers of the council’s successful Fibre show).

Taylor considers exhibition experience to be very useful, but not essential, choosing the team most appropriate for the job in hand. Exhibition designers, she feels, can offer the experience of a specialist discipline and a focused way of solving problems. “The issue is whether these practices will take an experimental approach.” Rising practices such as Adjaye & Russell often have an advantage: “They often know the work. That generation of architects is looking at fashion design, galleries and craft and has a genuine relationship with an exhibition.”

Clients may commission big name architects for the kudos, but Taylor delights in fostering new talent, whatever their discipline, often giving designers their first exhibition job. It’s not all gloom for the industry: Potter might fail to get a reply from the Hayward, but internationally, like many UK exhibition designers, he is in demand, working on projects in Singapore and in Seattle, where he worked with Frank Gehry. “When we’ve had the opportunity we’ve worked with some of the world’s leading architects, who recognise what we can do,” he says.

Fowler thinks things will settle down soon in the exhibition sector, which has enjoyed a boom in activity over the past five years. “With the millennium and associated Lottery projects it’s a rich field and architects want to get involved. I don’t see it as a threat – it’s a challenge. When the dust has settled I think the old lines of demarcation will form again,” he says.

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