Radical Rooms at RIBA London explores the power structures of the domestic plan

The exhibition looks at three historic British projects with women custodians whose architectural layouts challenge the conventions of a domestic plan.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Aug 15, 2022

While an architectural layout is where the aspirations of a building come together, wall by wall, does it say anything about the power roles one play in determining it?

An ongoing exhibition at RIBA’s architectural gallery in London is pivoted on the role women have played in the history of architecture, and how the prevalent power dynamic of the time influenced the domestic plan. Focused on three key British buildings from the 16th, 18th, and 20th centuries – Hardwick Hall, A La Ronde, and the Hopkins House – the showcase titled Radical Rooms: Power of the Plan captures the stories of these projects and its female protagonists through immersive audio-visual performance pieces and archival material featuring drawings and diagrams that illustrate how the homes have challenged conventions in residential architecture.

The exhibition is conceived in close collaboration between Charles Holland Architects and visual artist Di Mainstone | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
The exhibition is conceived in close collaboration between Charles Holland Architects and visual artist Di Mainstone Image: © Gareth Gardner

Developed in close collaboration between theUK-based practice Charles Holland Architects and visual artist and filmmaker Di Mainstone, one gets a closer peek into the lives of Elizabeth Shrewsbury (Hardwick Hall, 1590-1597), Jane and Mary Parminter (A La Ronde, 1798) and Patty Hopkins (Hopkins House, 1976), the chief custodians of the three projects. They were involved in the planning process as either clients, patrons, or architects.

Soft furnishing defines the spatial design | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
Soft furnishing defines the spatial design Image: © Gareth Gardner

Speaking of the diverse histories of the three subjects, Hardwick Hall was acknowledged for being one of the earliest examples of the influence of the European Renaissance in Britain. While the design of the country home is attributed to Robert Smythson who drew up the plan and layout of the building, it was Elizabeth Shrewbury who modified the design during construction to ensure each room had a distinct style and interior character. The seemingly circular 16-sided cottage, A La Ronde was the brainchild of cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. Heavily influenced by the 6th century Byzantine basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, the home’s interiors were flushed with richly ornamented details such as inlaid feathers and a shell galley, while the layout has interlinked rooms that radiate off a central triple height-hall. According to RIBA, the layout allowed the cousins to inhabit the rooms according to the time of the day, ‘subverting conventional concepts of functionality and use’. The third building – a home-cum-office for the Hopkins family was conceived around the turn of the industrial revolution and features elements that could be considered high-tech at the time. Standing out for its pared-down aesthetic, what differentiated the home from its contemporaries was its flexible, non-hierarchical space planning that blurred the boundaries between work life and home life.

An audio-visual performance piece is showcased parallel to a richly-graphic spatial thematic | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
An audio-visual performance piece is showcased parallel to a richly-graphic spatial thematic Image: © Gareth Gardner

Translating the stories of these buildings spatially, the overall layout of the gallery, conceived by Charles Holland, takes a firm reference from the Palladian plan and presents an abstract grid of three connected rooms. The white hall takes on a colourful twist as bright carpets spread on the floor and full-length curtains with peppy illustrations shield the three rooms staggered as small pockets within the space. Upon parting the curtains one finds the archival material pinned around the pillars of the gallery and also discovers that the strong graphic identity permeating the space (on the floor, wall, and curtains) represents design details of the three buildings. The curtains, for example, hint at the tapestries that hang inside the Hardwick Hall. “These artefacts,” RIBA shares, “reveal stories that have been largely overlooked, whether it’s the documentation of women’s role within architectural history or the representation of buildings created by or for intergender relationships.” Sensorially elevating the experience is an audio-visual presentation by Mainstone that ‘focuses on the people, bringing to life four key characters and revealing their history and influence on the construction of the three domestic properties’. The videos reveal the women protagonists as contemporary figures dancing off in sculptural costumes animating choreographed sequences. Much like architectural props, the costume design featuring metal bars, architectural plans, and origami-like folds interpret the distinct language of each building’s architecture, all along bringing light to the relation between our bodies and the buildings we inhabit.

  • Di Mainstone's films feature the women protagonists as contemporary figures | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
    Di Mainstone's films feature the women protagonists as contemporary figures Image: © Gareth Gardner
  • Drawings from the RIBA archive are discovered upon parting the curtains | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
    Drawings from the RIBA archive are discovered upon parting the curtains Image: © Gareth Gardner

The display of the RIBA archival architectural layouts forms the exhibition's second segment. Its curation has been drawn from architectural historian Robert Evans’ essay ‘Figures, Doors, and Passages’. The beautifully seminal study compared paintings and architectural plans in order to gain insight into the relationship between the spatial organisation and social arrangements and formation. A particularly interesting discourse that the study looks into has been the role of a corridor in organising spaces, particularly in separating the public and private realm. The three sections of this presentation – Pure Palladians, Experimenting with layout, and Client, commissioner and designer, reveal projects that depart from the conventional styles of living while questioning the authorship of a building once it has taken shape

  • Hopkins' House, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London: Patti Hopkins in the master bedroom | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
    Hopkins' House, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London: Patti Hopkins in the master bedroom Image: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections
  • Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire: the long gallery | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
    Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire: the long gallery Image: Bernard Cox/RIBA Collections

Speaking of the exhibition, architect Charles Holland says, “Radical Rooms explores profound questions around the power structures that shape our houses and our home lives. It also reflects back on a history of houses through the RIBA archive.” Di Mainstone, who worked with Holland in developing a spatial thematic of the space using audio-video adds, “It was such an honour to explore the stories of these trailblazers through a 21st Century lens, using costume, soundscapes, and film.”

Charles Holland and Di Mainstone | Radical Rooms | RIBA | STIRworld
Charles Holland and Di Mainstone Image: © Black Edge Productions, courtesy of RIBA

Steering away from the generalisation that the built form takes precedence over the journey that it is a result of, the exhibition presents a fresh way of looking at historical architecture and its granular journeys, especially through the purview of the oft-neglected role of women. Power, Plan, and Possession: the three key P’s have been intriguingly weaved in the showcase.

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