Make no mistake, if you can only get to one event at this year’s London Festival of Architecture then the ’50 Years of London Architecture’ exhibition should be it. But you’ll have to hurry, it ends this Saturday. Held at the Mall Galleries in John Nash’s sumptuous Carlton House Terrace and organised by the Architecture Club, the exhibition is a photographic retrospective of London’s architecture since 1960. And it’s unmissable.
The format is refreshingly simple. Large, lavish photographs of various buildings adorn the walls accompanied by brief text summaries. The buildings are grouped into five decades, each of which also features a short text introduction that sets the background for the period. Together, they form a fascinating catalogue of the history of Modern architecture in London.
The first and most striking element one notices is the sheer quality of the photographs. Buildings are lovingly captured on spectacular, large scale prints that provide as much of a photographic retrospective as they do an architectural one. The cumulative effect is overwhelming yet disturbingly seductive, challenging preconceptions about certain buildings and forcing new interpretations about others. Pictures have never told a thousand words as powerfully as they do here.
This perhaps touches on the second characteristic that contributes to this exhibition’s success, its largely dispassionate and impartial presentation. Architecture in London is often a fractious, polarising force and several of the buildings featured, such as Number One Poultry and Paternoster Square, were precipitated by monumental, long-running ideological disputes often fought on the battleground of style, heritage or commercialism.
To its credit, the exhibition largely presents unbiased and objective views, seeking to inform rather than influence. One amusing exception however is the curators’ thinly veiled criticism of the Major premiership. The National Lottery, the bounty from which several 1990s projects prospered, is cited as one of the few “positive achievements” of his government.
Perhaps the final element that makes this exhibition so effective is its sheer scope. The amount of buildings it covers is staggering and to study each one in detail would take hours. It moves effortlessly from the Swinging Sixties to the post-modern Nineties and beyond providing a comprehensive synopsis of major (and minor) landmarks along the way.
Perhaps understandably there is a conspicuous emphasis on the most recent decade which is given the greatest amount of wall space. However, all the photographs are generally so evocative that no period is left unfairly treated. One notable omission is the 2003 redevelopment of Trafalgar Square. Commendably, the exhibition frequently refers to the historic influence of London’s public realm and this major development could have provided the anchor that reflects the renewed importance of public space in the evolution of London architecture.
The exhibition organisers have done a superb job of dissecting London’s modern architectural heritage in a manner that is informative yet simple and accessible. It has an instant visual appeal to members of the public that allows them to engage with architecture in the simplest way possible, deftly challenging the perception held by some that the London Festival of Architecture is an insular talking-shop for industry professionals. The only drawback is that it finishes so soon. But its subject matter it so important to anyone who cares about London that it almost merits a permanent home. I for one hope that one day, it gets one.
The London Festival of Architecture lasts from 19th June to 4th July and features hundreds of events across the city. Lectures, exhibitions, walks and cycle rides will take place in and around some of London’s most famous landmarks and several of the city’s leading architects, critics and personalities will also contribute. Further details can be found at www.lfa2010.org.