A mild kind of magic

In Character, RIBA North, until 28th June, free

Architecture is an art form which sometimes needs a good shake up in purpose to be appreciated. I can think of a few music venues, for example, which can be particularly appreciated for how they use their buildings. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be a complete reinvention; a good intervention – the right thing in the right place – can make you think about a location in a whole new way.

In Character is an exhibition of pieces which were originally designed as a site-specific interventions in a museum in London, the Sir John Soane’s Museum. I’ve never been, so I can’t say accurately or otherwise how successful their dialogue with the surroundings was. Happily, their exhibition at RIBA North doesn’t try to do the same thing. Instead their creators Studio MUTT invite you to assess the pieces on their own merit. The basic premise is described as being “If buildings and architecture are to be more relatable, how can we imbue them with character?”. I like that idea – not just making a place look like ‘serious architecture’, but architecture with personality, with which you may want to spend time – or not.

These pieces aren’t quite architecture, but I don’t think they’re really meant as straightforward artworks either. The first word to immediately jump into my mind to describe their character is ‘childish’. This doesn’t just come from the block-based shapes and primary colours of the sculptures, but the manner of their exhibition. They’re in a small, bright, circular tent with a bark floor. I’m more than a little acquainted with this everywhere-ness of child things, but it’s the bark floor that absolutely clinches it – taking me immediately into my past filled with many, many hours of playground supervisions.

This would be fine, but what I don’t really feel is the next leap to these having anything to do with a real built environment. It’s all well and good to want architecture to be “relatable”, but it has to feel like architecture in the first place, which these doesn’t really. I blame the cramped-ness of this curation, which doesn’t allow you to really explore these objects or think of them in any way apart from in dialogue with each other. But it’s a dialogue which doesn’t quite work, because you can only read them alongside each other rather than in the wider context which was presumably intended

I don’t mind any of the objects as individual artworks that much. Within the overriding Duplo feel is symbolism with an uncanny vibe – I’m thinking sorcery, alchemy and mysticism. Out of the four my favourite is the one I subsequently discover is called The Magician, with steps leading to a wall and a portal and who knows where. They may look like toys to me, but in the right setting I can also imagine them starting a good conversation with their surroundings. Bringing a bit of magic or doubt or mystery into any number of settings old or new. But here they don’t, so I analyse them as individual pieces of art. And I’m then confused because I don’t think this is what the exhibition actually wants me to do??

I’m absolutely all for the superfluous in design. Since I got a job which involves a lot of thinking about art in the built environment, I find myself looking around in a different way. I’m noticing more details that architects and artists have included to try and make places more interesting. The thing about the majority of these designs though, is that they’re intended to work in specific situations – just as, from an architectural point of view, these four pieces originally were. Taken out of that and they cease to be points of architectural interest, and more ready for individual analysis. These do, anyway. Somewhere, and not just in the Sir John Soane’s museum, there is a home for these pieces to have proper meaning. But RIBA North isn’t, I’m afraid, it.

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