Retreat and Refuge

Hello – and welcome to the first entry of the ‘1:1 – Architects Build Small Spaces’ blog. Over this coming year, I’ll be sharing with you some of the thoughts and discussions that we’ll be having at the V&A as we develop this exhibition. We want the blog to be a forum in which we can offer an insight into key moments of the exhibition’s lifespan: the research, the shortlisting of architects, and the various stages of design development – from concept through to detailed design and final construction at the V&A.

It would be great to get your own reflections on the themes of the exhibition – these issues around the power of small spaces and their impact on everyday experience: moments of quiet contemplation, study, work, play or even performance.

So why this exhibition, and why now?

Set amid an economic and social climate which one could argue is rapidly developing in opposition to a certain trend for grandiose building schemes (as exemplified by the Emirates and China) – the intention was for this exhibition to create a space for debate which would allow us to explore an agenda for design and construction which would return architecture to its raw state of existence – as an ‘idea’, as a basic human need for shelter – a space for retreat and contemplation on a human scale. In the context of a cultural landscape ever more concerned with ‘appropriate design’, the ambition was for this exhibition to present examples of architecture pre-occupied with an aesthetic of quietness, combined with a renewed sense of function and instinctive purpose.

As a museum curator, I also had another bugbear. Architecture is unique among almost all other cultural endeavours in that it is intrinsically part of our everyday experience – the designs of buildings define the spaces in which we work, eat, sleep and play. However, despite the profound cultural and social importance of building design, the process of exhibiting architecture has traditionally been a difficult one to navigate. Because of the need to ‘explain’ buildings through drawings, models and photographs, architecture has remained to some extent a detached, mystical strand of design for the general public. 

This aspect of mediation has often forced architecture exhibitions to provide a second-hand experience, denying the audience a direct engagement with the ‘object’ itself. This is why we have decided to promote the notion of the built artefact, bringing the architectural object centrestage – the final manifestation of an architect’s vision. The exhibition will consist of a series of built spaces, each designed by a different architect, and each reflecting a very personal response to the notion of shelter and retreat. Just as the Museum itself represents a transition from the chaos of urban life, so each of the commissioned structures will provide separate immersive environments – places both of encounter and reflection – for visitors to experience directly on a visceral level.  Drawing upon an international field of cutting-edge architects, these tailored, idiosyncratic habitats will represent the local concerns and cultural contexts of each designer, whilst also using the concept of the retreat to highlight parallels in their respective approaches and creative ideologies. The architects will be encouraged to explore specific architectural and social typologies, each reflecting the intrinsic human need for modest, private spaces which can offer a vital refuge from everyday life.

I want the exhibition to pose some crucial questions and to challenge our perception of the role of architecture, and its relevance to our lives. As this blog develops in parallel with the exhibition, I hope that it will offer a space for debate and discussion – examining this idea of creating personal space, and how we occupy this space both physically and emotionally – so please feel free to return and add your own comments, thoughts and questions!

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