power relations in architectural plans

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Radical Rooms: Power of the Plan is the latest public exhibition at 66 Portland Place, created by Charles Holland Architects and artist Di Mainstone. The exhibition focuses on three British domestic buildings as a starting point for considering power relations in architectural plans. At La Ronde, Hardwick Hall and Hopkins House were chosen for their unusual layouts, breaking with the organization methods of established living spaces, but also for the involvement of women in their creation, whether as architects , patrons or clients. The exhibition is curated by Margaret Cubbage and features a long list of contributors, including composers Jay Malhotra and Mandy Wigby, reflecting the show’s ambitious scope in commissioning new work.

Mainstone’s videos brilliantly cast the protagonists almost as contemporary characters, though the fabulous costumes seem to draw inspiration from both history and science fiction, complicating the conventions of gendered fashion. An immersive audiovisual experience, the pieces feature performers in choreographed sequences, with original soundtracks and spoken word. The sequences activate consecutively on three projectors, with two actors shown waiting “on hold” as the third performs. The protagonists wear architectural accessories, which establish an evocative parallel between bodies and houses, fashion and architecture. For example, the performer playing Patty Hopkins sports a set of portable metal bars and the soundtrack includes metallic noises, bringing a brilliant multi-sensory experience and alluding to the lightweight, high-tech steel construction of the Hopkins House.

Patti Hopkins in the Master Bedroom, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London. Credit: architectural press archives/RIBA collections

Source: Architectural Press Archives/RIBA Collections

Plan drawings from the RIBA archives form the second part of the exhibition. The curation was guided by architectural historian Robin Evans’ seminal essay, “Figures, Doors and Passages”, which traces the history of the domestic plan and argues that the hallway is a device of separation that reinforces the privacy and allows servants and visitors to move around unobtrusively. The first section of the exhibition, “Pure Palladians”, presents buildings without corridors, the rooms directly connected to each other. The second section, “Experimenting with Design,” presents projects that deviated from or subverted the norm, often offering experimental and unorthodox lifestyles. In the last section, “Client, sponsor and designer”, a blurring of borders is proposed – how and to whom is paternity attributed, notably in historical projects and before the profession of architect was defined and codified?

Audiovisual art and archival material are held together by an exhibition design based entirely on upholstery. This ubiquitous material, carpet, has been taken to another level. It covers the entire floor of the gallery and reproduces abstract shapes borrowed from the details of the buildings presented. The different colors and patterns mark the sections of the exhibition. Full-length colorful curtains wrap around the pillars of the gallery. Visitors must draw the curtains to reveal the drawings hanging from the columns. This small, tactile and interactive gesture is a welcome moment after the era of sanitized surfaces and Covid restrictions. Holland’s use of soft furnishings, typically associated with the lower, feminine sphere of interior design and decorating, is a particularly powerful choice for an exhibition that focuses on gender and domestic architecture. The rug, which also appears as furry letters on the wall, forming the title of the exhibition, recalls the provocative ways in which Holland’s – and previously FAT’s – projects tackled issues of taste and class.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire: the long gallery. Credit: Bernard Cox/RIBA Collections

Source: Bernard Cox Collections/RIBA

Radical Rooms is an intriguing and layered exhibition, which successfully marries art and architecture. The focus on women is important not only to address the historical gender imbalance within the profession, but also to broaden our understanding of authorship in architecture.

Holland and Mainstone trace the contours of architectural history by telling the stories of these women, but they do not offer a radical subversion of the way architectural history is written – the focus is still on wealthy and powerful personalities. Extending the radical theme of the exhibition beyond the simple study of floor plans and into a social and historical critique would have given visitors a better understanding of the impact of architecture on ways of life. Sticking to Evans’s conceptualization of the hallway as a separating device, one can’t help but wonder what the titular radical pieces were – not just for owners and pursers, but also for cooks, servants and domestic workers. For all its interest, depth and wit, ‘Radical Rooms’ follows the corridors of money and power, through which history has always been written.

Radical Rooms: Power of the Plan is at RIBA until July 30

Marianna Janowicz is an architect, researcher and member of the EDIT collective

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