Surviving the Century
Exhibition Review

You get a slight sense that the Twentieth Century Society is expecting criticism of 100 Buildings 100 Years. You feel from the way the introductions are written that they expect disagreement about their choice of buildings, choice of exhibition style, even about the size of the photos. Perhaps this is inevitable for an organisation used to defending unloved, or under-appreciated, pieces of architecture, steeped forever in the endless style wars surrounding the British architectural establishment.

But I don’t think they should feel defensive. Ultimately the exhibition and book are intended as a celebration of buildings that have succeeded. The first success is in managing to be built, and the second – unfortunately not in every case – is in managing to survive. They are also a demonstration of the importance of the work of the society.

Any time chronological listing is used to represent a piece of culture it knowingly, even cheekily, invites comparisons, rankings and criticisms. It also creates a very personal response from the viewer / reader in a game-like fashion. What happened the year I was born? (30 Cannon Street, as it happens). How many of these choices do I know? How many do I agree with? Which is my favourite? And so on.

To me, it’s as good a way as any to concisely reflect on 100 years. A thread emerges forming a perceivable story about the century. The relationship between wider political / social events and the architecture produced and the functions housed is a very compelling part of the study, cross-referenced well in the graphics of the exhibition. The presentation as a chronological list also allows a variety of readings. As an architect recently involved in many education projects, I was interested to count six schools nominated, including one by Gropius, and none since 1985. This sort of observation does allow some larger conclusions to be drawn (in this case not very positive!).

I read the book before visiting the exhibition. This meant the knowledgeably written overviews and the building snapshots informed my reading of the display. The exhibition is in the RA’s Architecture Space. This is essentially a ramped corridor space. At first I thought this was a shame, as it is a space people pass through on their way to the restaurant rather than a destination gallery. However, as I lingered there, I noticed how a photo would catch someone’s eye and they would then stop and comment. Ooo, that’s nice. We should go there. So, what is the difference between grade I and II listing?

Perhaps if we could capture all these reactions it would offer another layer of analysis. Even better, place this exhibition in a more public corridor, like a tube station, and then see what criticism comes along!

This review was written in The Simpson Building: 1936

It first appeared on bdonline on 27 November 2014