Freestyle and Forms of Industry: two new exhibitions open at RIBA 27.02.20

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RIBA Freestyle 250220 070 Credit Francis WareSpace Popular's installation at the RIBA. Photo by Francis Ware, courtesy of RIBA

Freestyle is RIBA's first exhibition using VR technology. Thankfully, it is neither a gimmick nor an afterthought, writes Peter Smisek.

This week, two new exhibitions opened at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. RIBA’s first floor gallery hosts an exhibition of contemporary photographs by Alastair Philip Wiper and archival images by Eric de Maré from RIBA Collection. The ground floor gallery space is dedicated to Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media by Space Popular.

The latter is an ambitious, didactic and above all colourful exercise in tracing the relationship between architectural styles and mass media – think the printing press, photography, internet and virtual reality. It is also the first of RIBA’s exhibitions to use VR, partly with the aim of luring in a younger audience that would otherwise be less inclined to engage with a more institutional exhibition, and also as a way to compress and present the wealth of information.

In the middle of the gallery, a giant architectural model which represents the stylistic sequence of the last 400 years, starting with Robert Smythson’s Hardwick Hall and ending with Future Systems’ Lord’s Media Centre fusing everything from St. Paul’s, Georgian terraces, Crystal Palace and John Outram’s postmodernist Temple of Storms. The colourful carpet on which the installation stands – and which, as RIBA Exhibitions Curator Shumi Bose remarked, was probably the most difficult part of the exhibition to find a manufacturer for – provides a timeline and a visual link with the more conventional drawings hanging on the walls.

RIBA Freestyle 250220 101 Credit Francis WareThe VR component of the exhibition is superimposed on the physical model. Photo by Francis Ware, courtesy of RIBA

Thankfully, the VR element of the exhibition is neither a gimmick, nor an afterthought. The headsets are mostly well-calibrated and the segments, which consist of animations overlaid on the physical model, are both intelligent and playful. The exhibition was initially planned to open last fall, but it is evident that the extra time was well-spent.

The last segment of Freestyle presents VR environments co-created by students from London Design and Engineering University Technical College. The students have created alternate digital environments which, the exhibition would have us believe, represent the social spaces of the future.

To some degree, digital social spaces have existed for years if not decades – think chatrooms, group chats, online multiplayer games and social media. It would be interesting to consider how far the balance will tip towards social interaction within representations of virtual space, and whether text and video-based platforms such as WhatsApp will remain as popular as they are today.

DSC 6264The Boeing Factory, Washington, 2018. Photo by Alistair Philip Wiper

The exhibition upstairs, Forms of Industry, is more conventional, though no less interesting. Curated by Justine Sambrook and Rodrigo Orrantia, it juxtaposes contemporary images of industrial buildings and research facilities by the photographer Alastair Philip Wiper with archival images of similar structures created by Eric de Maré in the 1950s for Architectural Review, under the title Functional Tradition. Wiper’s masterfully composed, but often frenetic and at times parasitic images of industry, contrast with de Maré’s more poetic, formal approach, both echoing society’s disenchantment with the brute force of industry.

Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media and Forms of Industry are both on display until 16 May 2020 at RIBA in London

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