Title: Architecture in embryo
Author: Jake Brown. Photographs by John Vaughan and Edgar Hyman
Text: Architecture in embryo
The Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects has finally found a permanent home. Jake Brown argues that this splendid start, by revealing the sheer quality of the material still stored away, indicates that even better facilities must be provided. Photographs by John Vaughan and Edgar Hyman
The RlBA's Drawings Collection, containing over 200 000 original drawings, topped up with some remarkable sculptures, paintings and models, is the largest of its kind in the world. There are, of course, some major gaps, but it has saved for posterity major works of art and historical documents of great social importance which other museums and galleries, to their shame, have let slip through their hands. This means that it is a remarkably catholic, uneven collection, the superb jostling with the eccentric and the awful.
Included in the collection are things as diverse as the design for one bay of Bishop Fox's chantry at Winchester Cathedral (a very rare example of a late medieval building), Frank Lloyd Wright's project design for the All Steel House in Los Angeles, John Belcher's Competition drawings for the Victoria and Albert Museum, Edward Blore's proposals for Buckingham Palace and the entire collection of drawings from the office of Albert Waterhouse, as well as contemporary models of St-Martin-in-the-Fields and St-Mary-le-Strand by James Gibbs and a sculpture caricature of Lutyens in a Delhi domed topee probably made by some of his Indian assistants.
Drawings and paintings have mainly come as gifts, although it has not been easy to decide what to accept or reject. At least one living architect decided that the collection made an ideal storage place for his office's drawings and records. This has caused some embarrassment because while John Harris, the curator, wanted some of his drawings, there is not space for all of them.
The work of practically every major British architect during the past 300 years - including Inigo Jones, Wren, John Adams, Pugin and the Smythsons - is represented, together with many examples of foreign architects' work, including almost the entire surviving examples of the work of Palladio.
(caption) Left, two views of the Heinz Gallery designed by Stefan Buzas and Alan Irvine inside an early 18th-century house. The hall, original staircase and study have been left unconverted Above, project for temple by Etienne Louis Boultée, one of the late 18th-century French architects whose influence was mainly through writings and drawings rather than completed projects
The collection is now housed in Portman Square in a house designed by James Adam, next door to the Courtauld Institute, with which it interlinks. For the first time the collection can be properly stored, catalogued and photographed, made accessible to students and open to the public. When the scheme is finished there will be the same facilities for the study of architecture as there are for painting and sculpture next door.
On the first floor there is accommodation for the staff, a study room and storage for the 18th-century collection. On the ground floor is space for the 19th- and 20th-century collections, together with models, stored in what was until recently the kitchen of the Senegalese Ambassador, and a public gallery designed by Stefan Buzas and Alan Irvine. Called the Heinz Gallery, this was given by Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz II and is to be used for temporary exhibitions, the first of which, Great Drawings from the Collection, is currently on display, and some of the work from which is shown on these pages.
The gallery has recessed showcases on all four walls with dustproof sliding glass fronts. To show large drawings the sloping back walls give a display height of 4 feet at each end of the gallery, and 5 feet 8 inches at each side.
Lighting in the showcases is by means of two rows of fluorescent tubes above a directional mirror-finished egg-crate louvre. The upper surface of the louvre is covered by a 1/8in thick clear plastic ultra-violet filter. One row of the fluorescent tubes is De Luxe Warm White 3000K similar to tungsten filament colour, the other Kolor-rite 4000K, giving excellent natural daylight colour rendering quality. These colours can be operated individually or together and are controlled by dimming equipment, enabling any desired colour or intensity of lighting to be obtained to suit the type of drawing being exhibited. The walls are panelled flush with the face of the showcases in Brazilian Imbuya veneer.
(caption) Top, drawing dated 1898 of Amsterdam Stock Exchange by Hendrik Petrus Petlage Middle, sketch by le Corbusier for garden patio of Villa Savoye. Above, caricature of Lutyens made by his Indian assistants. Right, project in 1937 by Frank Lloyd Wright for the All Steel House
At each end of the room is a floor to ceiling screen made up of three sections of open lattice-work construction. These screens act as room dividers and separate the central area of the room, where there are a table and four chairs from Form International. On the screens can be hung the heavier framed drawings or portraits. The screens are removable for occasions when the room is used for lectures and an unobstructed floor space is required to accommodate 60 seats. All the light fittings in the room are from Rotaflex.
This is an enormous step forward for the collection, and has been achieved mainly through the efforts of John Harris, whose achievement in raising nearly £85 000 from donors, independent and corporate, made the acquisition and modernisation of Portman Square possible. But there is still a long way to go. A great deal of new storage equipment is still needed and, ultimately, a much larger display area will be required. For the remarkable thing about the collection is not just its historical and sociological value. A great deal of the material is outstandingly beautiful. Apart from anything else, it is one of Britain's more important fine art collections, and is of interest not just to art historians but also to the public. A large part of the collection deserves to be put on permanent display.
A 30 by 20 foot room, however elegant, is inadequate in comparison with the space given to other collections of paintings and drawings. We ought therefore to be pressing for a permanent home for continuous displays from this collection - under the control of the RIBA - in what will, hopefully, be one of the new regional national galleries and museums to be established during the next few years.
The Heinz Gallery points the way, but essentially this new home for the RIBA Collection, while ensuring its preservation, does not solve the problem of its adequate display. As a place for temporary exhibitions it is immensely attractive. Future exhibitions include the work of Wells Coates and Eileen Gray. With so much diverse material the permutations for exhibitions are endless. For instance, it would be fascinating if the Gallery organised an exhibition on what the face of Britain would have looked like if competition runners-up, competition winners never used and designs never implemented (such as Gropius's flats nearWindsor) had been built? It would be fascinating to see what kind of Britain - more eccentric? more romantic? more endearing? more practical? - we would have had.
(caption) Left, detail of Heinz Gallery with deep and shallow showcases. Lattice-work screens can be removed to allow the room to be used for lectures Top, unexecuted beach house designed by Rudolf Schindler. Born in Vienna, he became a pioneer of American architecture
Bottom, Columbia Broadcasting System offices and studios, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood. The first building in America designed for broadcasting - by William Lescaze, who also designed Buildings for Dartington Hall