27 NOVEMBER 2004, Page 56

Arranged marriage

Alan Powers

rr he marriage of the special collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects (comprising drawings, photographs and manuscripts) and the Victoria & Albert Museum was given its presentation before the public last week, and the new architecture gallery on the second floor to the right of the main entrance was doing brisk business at the weekend.

There is much to be said in favour of the marriage, even though it came about as an expedient when the RIBA failed to get Lottery funding for a conversion scheme of its own at the Round House in Camden Town. The gallery, designed by Gareth Hoskins, is one part of a larger scheme, which includes new storage facilities and a study room, designed by Wright & Wright, in the Henry Cole Wing, which recaptures much of the atmosphere of the old RIBA Drawings Collection at 21 Portman Square. The collections are magnificent, and are now in the charge of the RIBA Trust, chaired by Baroness Blackstone and formally separate from the activities of the Institute on behalf of its members

The task of selecting objects for an introductory gallery cannot have been easy, especially given the fact that only a relatively small portion of the space is intended to be changed regularly with temporary displays and exhibitions, while the rest could well last for 50 years. Architectural models take leading place, although original drawings slide in and out on drawers below waist height. There are some interesting and surprising things, such as a section of the original steelwork from the wall of Walter Gropius's Fagus Factory of 1910, or Marie Antoinette's models of the classical orders in lapis lazuli. Other items are bang up to date, although they will not remain so for long, but what will 2054 discover from this gallery about the architectural thought of today?

It will surely be seen as acutely symptomatic of our current aversion to grand narratives. Architecture has all but abandoned its myths of progressive change and evolution. Only one section of the gallery is at all chronological, and even this jumps about from period to period, putting revivals in the same compartment as the original style. The myth of 'form follows function' has died more slowly, but while some of the explanatory texts in the section that analyses the component aspects of architectural design seek such reassur

ance, the material is too heterogeneous to allow reductive simplification. The central section, composed entirely of models, is organised by building types. This substitute for historical narrative was popular in the 1970s as a diagnostic device for drilling to the core of architectural meaning, but here it is more of a set of pigeonholes for representations of work, leisure, travel and shopping.

Curators are often worried that the public will find architecture difficult to understand. No risks have been taken here in pushing the boundaries of comprehension, but the risk that comes from this approach is that the meanings are blandly predictable. Regrettably, our culture restricts the scope of teaching in the name of antielitism, while also insisting that lessons must be learnt. The path between these rocks is a narrow one, and the Architecture Gallery works best on the level of a jolly good show whose didactic intentions are superfluous.

How might it have been done otherwise? Ditching the wrong myths does not preclude mythic structures altogether, but simply demands those that are closer to experience. What I felt was lacking was the inclusion of what might be called the Platonic aspects of architecture, which are in fact strongest outside the Western tradition, By this I mean the recurrent desire among architects, and before them the self-building so-called 'primitive' cultures, to make their work a picture of the cosmos and of man's place within it, through their organisation of space. The omission of this aspect, which could even have become a unifying theme, is all the more strange given that it is truly representative of many of today's best architects and their thinking. Historians have revisited the modern masters such as Le Corbusier, and recognised their taste for hidden meanings that had previously been overlooked. Martin Heidegger's more visceral perception of 'being in the world' has never resonated in architecture so strongly as in the past ten years.

I do not think that the public would be puzzled or offended by being invited to think in these terms. As W.R. Lethaby wrote in 1928, 'The works of man as a builder have been of immense importance to him not only "materially" and for his convenience, but as a means of developing his mind and releasing his spirit.' Anyone who as a child unthinkingly made sandcastles in the form of mandalas, or dug a hole in the garden to reach Australia (as did the founders of Roman cities when they dug the mundus as a propitiation to infernal gods at the street intersection), knows this.