It’s always a good test explaining something with which you are comfortably familiar from your own field to a total layperson. This is especially true when it comes to the arts. Empirical justification for something which is creative or poetic and elicits a non-quantifiable, emotional response is of course difficult to find.
Recently I found myself trying to describe the new V&A 1:1 exhibition to someone who, although intelligent and undoubtedly open-minded, had little understanding of what I meant by ‘a series of architectural installations’, and, moreover, what the point of such a thing might be.
It is clear what the point is for the architects. As an architecture student I was once given a brief to design a pavilion for a particular site, and it was by far the most enjoyable and liberating project I tackled during my student career. Confinement to thinking about a single room allows the testing of ideas or concepts on a safe scale perhaps too risky at the scale of a building. You can experiment with materials or forms or structures, or ways of modulating light or of shaping space, without having to withstand the full Vitruvian test. This must be the most (serious) fun an architect can have.
The benefit for the museum is also clear. In my limited experience it seems unusual, and really quite ambitious, for a museum to commission a brand new piece of work (or, indeed, seven of them). Such a project pushes the boundaries of what the museum thinks it should do.
But what is the point for the viewer, or audience, or user (whichever…)? There was certainly something playful and innocent and refreshing about some of these projects. In fact, in my slightly tipsy state, I proclaimed that I found one of them ‘magical’. The fact that you can clamber into and around them, even having to remove your shoes for some, enables a much closer and physical interaction with the built form than we would probably indulge in on a day-to-day basis. How often do you spend time really touching the walls of your office, for example? But then your office walls probably aren’t quite as lovely as, for example, Studio Mumbai’s casting of an intricate alley-scape, or Helen and Hard’s barky tree-house. The carefully extravagant deployment of materials and light does bring with it a certain natural pleasure.
So the question is: if, when we really pay attention, we are capable of experiencing the emotional response that these different spaces can draw – of feeling how delightful they can be – what unseen toll and stress is wrought, that we perhaps ignore or suppress, by the uninspiring surroundings of the everyday on our bodies and minds? The space around us does matter, in far more ways than the purely quantifiable – architects and designers know this – and an exhibition such as this is a convincing reminder for both expert and layperson.