London Exhibition Interrogates the “Radical” in Radical Architecture

At the Royal Academy of Arts, scores of architects—Denise Scott Brown, Peter Cook, and Patrik Schumacher, among them—show what being radical means to them.

What is Radical Today?
Alberte Lauridsen’s contribution to What Is Radical Today? Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

What is radical today?” may seem an odd question to ask at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), the architectural embodiment of the cultural elite that looks out over London’s Piccadilly, facing the Ritz. Yet nestled in one corner of 6 Burlington Gardens, the rear building of the neoclassical RA complex that was recently refurbished by academician David Chipperfield, the Architecture Studio has been hosting quietly experimental projects since it launched in 2018. The three-part Invisible Landscapes series, which ran from May 2018 to April 2019, considered how digital technology is changing our environments, and over this summer the room hosted a small display on the playful and generous work of the late Will Alsop. 

Now, the RA’s architecture program curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado wants to understand what ideas are energizing architects in the turbulent context of 2019. Drawing inspiration from the game-changing 1960s works-on-paper of Archigram, Superstudio, and Archigram, Delicado sent a strikingly simple brief to 40 contemporary practitioners, asking them to respond to the exhibition’s titular question with a single image on A3 paper. 

“I think what is important today is that architects have an agenda,” Delicado explains. “I wanted to know what the agenda is of architects now.”

The resulting display is a light-hearted stroll through pressing ideas, each of which is presented as equal across a Superstudio inspired, grid-like structure. Among the participating designers are several protagonists of the 1960s’ radical moment including Peter Cook, Andrea Branzi, and Denise Scott Brown, as well as mid-career stalwarts such as Sam Jacob, Patrik Schumacher, and Francis Kéré. Unsurprisingly, the most radical proposals come from younger practitioners, such as Maria Smith, Céline Baumann, and Jack Self, who make up the bulk of the show’s contributions. Delicado’s loose brief means the range of responses is wide, even eclectic: There are manifestos, new collages, old projects re-hashed, and delicate hand-drawn utopian cities. “Radical can be taken in many different directions, it can be driven by tends or breaking the rules,” says Delicado, “and for some people it’s their own buildings.”

What is Radical Today?
Ideas for a Challenged Architecture by Denise Scott Brown Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

Highlights include Kate McIntosh’s scrappy, zine-like meditation on her south Dawson’s Heights housing complex in London and Maria Smith’s exquisite corpse, used to illustrate the need for different disciplines—namely engineers and architects—to “step on each others’ professional toes.” Sam Jacob is typically playful, converting the grand country home of the slouching Jacob Rees-Mogg into a future waste processing plant, while Céline Baumann replaces parliamentarians altogether, instead giving power to trees, shrubs, and flowers as a “source of inspiration” to “act in our current era of political uncertainty and climate change.” 

Owing to the broad range of practitioners included in the show, it’s difficult to pin down a singular thread or “agenda”, to borrow Delicado’s term, running through it. The theme of climate change and architecture’s role in it is arguably the most prevalent theme, which chimes with the upcoming Eco-visionaries exhibition opening at the RA in November. That said, alongside Extinction Rebellion logos there are Patrik Schumacher’s totems of free-market capitalism and OFFICE KGDVS’ greenwashing of the US-Mexico border, making What is Radical Today? more a collection of disparate and contradictory agendas than any blueprint with which to envision the future of architecture.

What Is Radical Today? 40 Positions on Architecture is now open at the Royal Academy in London through November 7, 2019.

You may also enjoy “Metropolis’s 8 Highlights from London Design Festival 2019.”

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