Built for show

When architects, freed from the demands of permanent structures, get the chance to design exhibitions, they indulge in a little experimentation and self-expression. Pamela Buxton assesses the results at past and present shows in London and Glasgow

Film sets were the first thing that Eric Parry built while still a student at the Royal College of Art. Now in the prime of his career as an architect, he has never lost that passion for temporary installations, in particular exhibitions. He is currently deep in the design of the Andrea Palladio exhibition, opening this week at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

‘It’s a celebratory thing – celebrating the subject, and that’s part of the pulse of urban life,’ he says, enjoying the ‘realm of fantasy’ that exhibition design offers. ‘It’s lovely, fabulous. It can afford to be of the moment and more impulsive.’

He’s not alone. Many architects love designing exhibitions, with the comparative freedom and speed a welcome relief from realising permanent structures. It may not be lucrative, but it’s fun, fast and creative. For them, the smaller scale and modest budgets of such enterprises present no problem.

‘For me, it’s no different from designing a museum,’ says acclaimed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, designer of the Japan Car show now on at the Science Museum in London.

‘You are dealing with the movement of people through space, which is what architecture is all about,’ says architect Paul Williams of Stanton Williams, a prolific designer of art exhibitions. He is currently designing the Gerhard Richter show, due to open on 26 February at London’s National Portrait Gallery, where Stanton Williams also created Pop Art Portraits.

Williams loves the ‘richness’ of the exhibition design process, finding a way of meeting curatorial ambitions as well as the demands of the object and the scope and restraints of the space.

An affinity with the subject matter helps. Williams’s design for the Richter show introduces shafts of light to help articulate the exhibition space. Portraits will be displayed in a series of chambers leading off a deliberately disorientating corridor, with slots of abstract light shapes in reference to Richter’s abstract work, and at the end, a mirrored installation reflecting diffused images of visitors.

Only an architect, says NPG curator Paul Moorhouse, could have realised this, appreciative of the extra dimension they can bring to exhibition design.

Like Williams, Sophie Hicks is an architect who enjoys designing art exhibitions. These include the Aimé Maeght exhibition that has just finished at the Royal Academy.

‘I don’t feel I necessarily bring something to it as an architect, but as someone who studies art, follows it and collects it,’ she says, adding that her former career as a fashion journalist has also been relevant in finding the best way to present the exhibits. For the Maeght exhibition, she helped choose the ephemera displayed alongside the art, gathering them together under Perspex in bespoke cabinets inspired by a 1940s metal table owned by the Maeght family. ‘I don’t do much. I don’t want to overpower the art. That has to speak [for itself],’ she says.

With Japan Car, Ban also aimed to keep the exhibition design as simple as possible, mindful of the logistical difficulties of bringing cars into the space. ‘We tried to use a system that’s easy to install. Usually, at automobile shows the car is on stage. But I wanted to put the car on the same level as the people, as that’s how they’ll usually see it, and it’s easier to see inside the car.’

He came up with a large-scale, thin plastic sheet with graphics and information that acts as a backdrop, and also devised a floor covering for each car. At the entrance, Ban uses a display of Bonsai trees, with model cars taking the place of natural stones to suggest car design – especially the new breed of small cars – as being at the heart of Japanese culture.

Whatever the exhibition designers’ background, the skill is using design to communicate content effectively and enjoyably. Parry feels that architects are particularly well placed to tackle shows about architecture and design. ‘There’s a synergy with an architect doing a show about architecture. It makes sense,’ he says.

The Palladio show presents challenges – much of the content is drawings that need time to study. Parry’s response is to create a ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ lane of circulation with drawings around the outside, and a ‘feast’ of splendid models in the centre on a huge painted MDF table, designed with a buffer to keep hands off the models. Artefacts are displayed in Perspex cases cantilevered from the wall or slotted into the table.

To bring the content to life, Parry plans large wall paintings to replicate parts of historic drawings of Palladio’s work, and the highlight of the exhibition – a full-scale model of a chunk of a Palladio building, suspended from the ceiling.

Glasgow practice Collective Architecture designed the recent Building Biographies and Gillespie Kidd & Coia shows at local venue The Lighthouse, both of which are touring from this spring.

For Gillespie Kidd & Coia, Collective worked with artist Toby Paterson to create different types of exhibition spaces, using expressed structure and materials. For Building Biographies, a show about 14 buildings with a brief to use sustainable, recycled or recyclable materials, Collective specified wood from redundant whisky barrels to clad the MDF display benches, each of which shows a model of the building, project information and building materials, and provides seating for viewing projected images and text about the structure.

Collective director Ewan Imrie feels that his own background as an artist was at least as relevant to exhibition design as his subsequent architectural training. ‘It’s a bit like an art installation filled with content – different spaces with different atmospheres. For me, it’s an opportunity to modify someone else’s building. And that’s quite fun.’

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