1:1 – Architects Build Small Spaces, V&A

Seeing this exhibition immediately after the V&A architecture exhibition meant that all my thoughts on it revolved around an assessment of space, structure and form. Again the opportunity to physically experience the work provided a more tactile and holistic experience. 

Structural spines formed pods covered in see-through fabric, with tubes connecting the inner fabric to the exterior, like the pores of an organism. These become spy-holes to the exterior, viewing points, as well as forming the porous shell of the creatures.

Neto describes these sculpture as ‘body/space/landscapes’ (Neto, n.d.), wanting us to have ‘the feeling of getting into the abstract idea of a body, as if you could get inside your own body” (Neto. n.d.). The sculptures seemed like life-size sea creatures but the tubes extending from the interior to the exterior were like vessels or veins, the stretched sheer fabric like skin and the structural spines like bones.

The essence of retreat and refuge continued in these organic urchin-like forms as the light permeated through the sheer fabric infusing the interior with a soft, meditative light. The repeating and interconnecting pods extended throughout the gallery, so you could sit in your private cocoon and view through to others; the colours of the fabric changing through the space, overlapping to create transient colours that constantly shifted in hue and tone. There are forms within forms and sculptural spaces existing within as well as around the pods.

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Sat in the context of the Cast Courts Room surrounded by ornate, intricately detailed sculptures, its angular, weighty form looked incongruous. Based on illegal shanty dwellings in Mumbai that colonise the space between buildings, the contrast of the angular form with the ornate sculptures could represent the contrast of wealth and poverty in these two forms of architecture. Even close up the building still looked unassuming, uninteresting, but walking into the building the echoey noise of the gallery is immediately softened and a peaceful coolness surrounds you. Walking through with your shoes off you feel the cool warmth and the soft, dusty texture of the plaster. Inside, the structure is unified by the same soft plaster: the pitted walls, the corrugated roof, the bark of the tree and the floor and ceiling are all the same colour and material, only their surface texture differentiates them. A corridor and two staircases connect four small internal spaces, and one external space recedes into the structure. The spaces are small with low ceilings, forcing you to crouch or crawl, and lots of small windows in the walls and ceilings provide snapshots of the gallery outside. The architect intended to “distil the poetic qualities of these agile living spaces, their order, calm and dignity“ (Unknown, 2010) and the cool and peaceful space did feel ordered yet organic and more like a liveable space than other buildings in the exhibition.

I’ve been aware of the work of Rural Studio for a number of years and their public projects to create low-cost, sustainable housing for communities and charities. Their Woodshed wasn’t as spatially interesting as the other buildings. It was open with a high ceiling and it didn’t encourage the feeling of retreat or repose in that context but perhaps as a shelter within the rural context it would have a feeling of harmony with the surroundings and could therefore generate a sense of calm and tranquility. The simplicity in form extended to the use of material; the shed was created from one material: thinnings from a managed forest. “We are deliberately trying to make a piece that celebrates one material, that it does delight just because it is this notion of taking one material and rigorously exploring that one material, figuring out how to connect it, how to make a habitable space with it. It’s a very simple almost primitive form.” (Freear, 2010).

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The Inside/Outside Tree was one of the works I was most looking forward to seeing based on the images on the website. As an object it was visually engaging and conceptually the idea of manifesting the negative space of a tree encasing the positive was interesting, but as an architectural space that encourages a sense of retreat and refuge it was unsuccessful. The work could only be entered’ by standing in an indentation on one side and the view was not dissimilar enough to the exterior to make it worthwhile. The Perspex panes of the structure had been connected using large cable ties which created a series of white dots travelling throughout the structure. On one hand, the way they diminished in size towards the centre of the form accentuated the three-dimensionality of the form but they also confused your ability to ‘read’ it- the numerous white dots formed a haze interrupting the panes, lines and angles.

The Ark by Rintala Eggertsson Architects was a lovely form but with a central staircase spiraling up to link the floors all the spaces were openly connected, so unlike the In-Between Architecture you couldn’t privately explore the space as there were always people above or below you. Developed around the idea of an archive, it is a tall form essentially constructed from bookshelves. From the outside the white pages of the book are visible between slats of wood; on the inside, the spines of the book form a colourful surface for the space: “warm riot of colour” as Lucy Mangan enthused in the Guardian (Mangan. 2010). As a magical little library it is a book lovers dream retreat, even if it is more open that In-Between Architecture or Beetle’s House.

Beetle’s Tea House was my favourite. It’s a quirky, Tim Burton-esque form; the charred, cracked exterior and the ladder extending up into the floor made it feel childlike and naïve yet ancient. Climbing up the ladder, squeezing through the small entrance, felt like you were climbing in to a tree house. The charred pine exterior continued inside with charred fragments creating fragmented vertical lines that cover the walls and ceiling, infusing the air with the humming smell of charcoal. This space was magical: it felt like a secret retreat from reality.

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It was wo­nderful to be able to sit and contemplate what we’d seen in these buildings. It would be great if all galleries had such spaces for repose, somewhere to sit and reflect on what you’ve seen. And in a gallery where you are not allowed to touch the majority of exhibits it felt oddly naughty and exhilarating to physically examine these spaces. The scale of the spaces and the action of having to crawl or climb into them meant you to had to intimately explore their physicality. The interaction was tactile, haptic as well as visual: you felt the materials that they were built of, were able to examine the textural details. This experience was indeed a “profoundly physical process that momentarily distracts us from our surroundings”. (V&A, 2010)

Photos taken 2nd July 2010.

Freear, A. (2010). [online] Available at: < http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/architecture/smallspaces/videos/Rural-Studio/index.html&gt; [Accessed 7th July 2010]

Mangan, L. (2010) The bookcase you’ll want to live in, The Guardian. [online] Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jul/13/the-ark-bookcase&gt; [Accessed 13th July 2010]

Unknown. (n.d.) Jerwood Applied Arts Prize [online] Available at: <http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/whats-on/view/jerwood-applied-arts-prize-regional-tour/detail&gt; [Accessed 19th May 2010]

V&A, (2010). [online] Available at <http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/architecture/smallspaces/exhibition/Built%20Structures/index.htm&gt; [Accessed 7th July 2010]

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