The advent of this year's Venice Architecture Biennale has brought to the fore the need to radically restructure the ways we think about, talk about, and practice architecture, shifting focus from the previous subjects of our inquisition to open up a much broader, richer territory for exploration. So within that, it seems rather incongruous to find London's Royal Academy focusing on the work of Herzog & de Meuron. Being white, male, European, and “of a certain age”, they are the polar opposite of Lesley Lokko’s Biennale cohort. Yet their exhibition created with curator Vicky Richardson offers much to add to these themes for enriching the profession.
Unlike many other architectural exhibitions which focus on 'hero' buildings, supplying a kind of back catalogue of greatest hits, the exhibition Herzog & de Meuron has been orchestrated as a meander through their archives, complemented by a deep dive into the afterlife of their designs once they leave the (metaphorical) drawing board. It is also an opportunity for the practice to celebrate and revel in their longstanding interest in exploring “tools for perceiving and representing architecture." The most immediately evident shift from expected norms of representation is the exhibition's use of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technologies, which are accessed by visitors via a specially commissioned app. Richardson was not alone in her hesitancy in introducing what is ordinarily an individuated experience to the social context of the gallery, where the appeal—especially in the wake of the pandemic—is for a shared, tactile experience. Yet the process of interacting with the virtual models—which she terms 'ghosts in the gallery'— actually provokes greater curiosity and interaction between visitors than might ordinarily be anticipated. In both the use of the technology, and in watching others interact with it, we make surprising intrusions on each others’ physical and virtual space, providing a context in which the audience is able to both see and be seen by each other.
The first room of the exhibition contains a series of cabinets of models which have been produced for many different typologies at many different stages of the design process, from which any attempt at post-rationalisation is thankfully seemingly obsolete. You can challenge any architect not to whisper 'Wunderkammer' at this point. Ranging from concept to technical development, to construction detail, to presentation model, these physical objects are each systemically numbered in accordance with the timeline within which they have been created by the practice, such is their longstanding dedication to and fastidiousness for recording their process. Nestled amongst these are a series of abstract images which trigger AR experiences in the app, revealing structural models, larger-scale applications of the materials exhibited, or views around the completed projects. Herzog & de Meuron considers the work displayed to be ‘substitutes’ for the architecture which is too vast to be exhibited in the gallery, thus these virtual models offer us wholly different perspectives that the final building is so rarely able to convey. Used in this manner, the physical and virtual worlds offer parallel experiences which generously bridge the gap commonly experienced by non-architectural audiences in comprehending the visual and textual languages so often used to describe projects in exhibitions.
Lengthy captions have been eschewed, providing more space for the visitor to explore and interpret the work on their own terms, rather than approach these with the predefined perception of the curator. This too is an act of generosity, though also one of the limitations; Richardson notes that the number of projects featured would have demanded the equivalent of a book-length text to be written to explain them all. Yet since you already have your phone in your hand, why not Google for further explanation? In this manner, our quotidian ways of interacting with the world are allowed to permeate the otherwise hallowed halls of the gallery, accepting the myriad ways in which we interact with both physical and digital realms. including gaming to find a shared language through which to communicate, and so transcend professional siloes.
The latter two rooms take us back from the fetishisation of the model as objects to instead confront why these are important in the development of the designs, and even why we make buildings at all. In place of the stereotypical depiction of architectural projects devoid of human interaction, here the buildings are shown as backdrops for the day-to-day lives of their users, centring the human experience. Presented without a dialogue explaining what we are looking at, there is instead a natural affinity with the lives of the users we are watching. This enables us to understand and empathise with their spatial experience, devolving the narrative framing from curator to user through the medium of the filmmaker. Although the practice ethos is never to reuse ideas or to become too formulaic in their approach, eschewing the house style more common to other practices, when seen in juxtaposition the genealogy between such a wide variety of projects becomes clear. Their ongoing interest in exploring the possibilities of materials. How this is employed in the interfaces they create between their buildings, users and viewers becomes evident as we watch these in use.
Most touchingly, one film by Bêka and Lemoine traces the way the building supports the physical rehabilitation of patients at the practice’s REHAB Basel. From this, it is clear that the building’s true value is not as a building but as an experience within a greater life journey—an ethos which is taken even further in the final room, which takes a longer view of the development of Zurich’s Kinderspital. The really smart move here is the manner in which the different scales and formats of representation are linked, something which really only otherwise clicks after years of architectural education. Through the use of augmented reality, visitors are transported from a seemingly sparse room into the completed scheme, whilst dipping into the process of the building under construction to show what lies beneath the built veneer we interact with; orthographic plans become spaces and materials, conceptual strategies develop to become entire schemes. As an architect, it is a thrill to see the messy entanglements which we wrangle with on a daily basis shared with such care and delight with an audience for whom these aspects are otherwise so often invisible. In doing so, this exhibition elevates the value of that which is ordinarily overlooked—be that the unfinished model, or the social purpose of a hospital project—in a manner which usurps the preconception of architecture as mere shape-making. It demonstrates that, whilst what we are looking at might remain the same, the manner in which we look at it can afford us far richer insight into architecture as a process, practice, product, and purpose as a result.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)