Atlas of the Unbuilt World

Robert Bevan reviews the Atlas of the Unbuilt World exhibition in London 2013, where sixty-five architectural models depicted as yet unbuilt schemes from dozens of countries, including Australia.

The idea of an atlas as a device for conveying information beyond that needed for following a road or establishing national boundaries has long burst its bindings; poverty, art, history, bombing and entire solar systems have each had their versions of these hefty volumes. Phaidon applied the format to its 2004 Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. It sold well (and there is a successor volume) even if the layout and format add little to the information within. The exercise felt more driven by the trend for the novelty-value, gargantuan tome that Taschen, in particular, has stretched to the point where its Sumo book on Helmut Newton not only needed its own coffee table but came with its own stand.

The central conceit of Atlas of the Unbuilt World, an exhibition hosted this northern summer by London’s UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and the British Council, has been to translate such mapped information into three dimensions in a show designed by Pernilla Ohrstedt.

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In one large room were some sixty architectural models of various scales depicting unbuilt schemes from dozens of countries (Australia to Norway via Nigeria, Canada, Bangladesh), arranged on six large stands organized by latitude and longitude. The projects were the response to an open call for entries through London’s embassies and cultural institutes. Australia’s three contributions were chosen by Katelin Butler and Cameron Bruhn of Architecture Australia. These are Melbourne University’s new architecture faculty by John Wardle and NADAAA, Green Square Library and Plaza in Sydney by Stewart Hollenstein with Colin Stewart Architects, and Richard Kirk’s Brookfield Residence in Brisbane.

Part of this year’s London Festival of Architecture, the show was designed as a “snapshot.” Co-curator Rob Gregory wrote: “The models express the design of each individual building, but more than that, the collection of projects also offers subtle reflections of their different cultural, political and social contexts and an insight into architectural progression and the future of our unbuilt world.”

A “snapshot” show for the London Festival of Architecture.

A “snapshot” show for the London Festival of Architecture.

Image: Mikael Schilling

Labelling, though, was entirely absent from the models bar the stamp of an individual studio on a few. You would be completely lost without the accompanying guide, a stapled, folded A2 booklet echoing the Phaidon format, which has some information on each of the models. This appears intentional; you are advised to use the exhibition guide as a “map to navigate your way through our future landscape of global architecture.”

The map provided within, however, is simply a square with six dotted squares drawn in it to represent the six stands, each of which supported a dozen models. As a map it fails entirely and it was often surprisingly hard to be clear about which scheme was which when the only clue was a paragraph-long description in the guide. If the model was a blank, Miesian box, a process of elimination was necessary. I’m still not entirely sure which model was Monoblock’s contemporary art museum in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and which Chile’s new National Congress Library by Alejandro Beals, Loreto Lyon and Matias Zegers.

Depending on your mood, this makes for a fun parlour game or an egregious waste of your time.

The guide quotes Italian theorist Bruno Zevi on the pedagogical usefulness of architectural representation in the absence of the unbuilt real thing. And what this exhibition does succeed in doing is reaffirming that. Budi Pradono’s vertical kampung proposal in the shape of an inverted pyramid in Indonesia should be warning enough about the likely lack of humanity of the real-life version should it have the misfortune to be built. Likewise, one only need look at the model of Hollenstein and Stewart’s library, lost among a throng of towers, to understand that the surrounding Green Square development is far too dense and over-scaled – although it is already too late to learn the lessons that the model demonstrates.

The accompanying guide is actually far more interesting than the exhibition itself, with essays including Charles Holland of FAT on scale – an issue that has intrigued the studio for many years – and Q&As with various practitioners about the role of the model as artwork, 1:1 prototypes and, with the advent of 3-D printing, inhabitable models as buildings.

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Only one 3-D model was included in the show itself but 3-D printing agency 3Dpeasy was in residence at the exhibition for four days, printing models live from files sent in from around the world. Presumably we can then pinpoint the scheme’s location on Google Earth.

This suggests the days of traditional architectural models really are as numbered as those of the book-bound atlas and the show could have been as much a wake as a celebration. The card and wood model, may, one day, be as much a coffee table novelty as Taschen’s outsize art books.

Atlas of the Unbuilt World was hosted by London’s UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and the British Coucil for the 2013 London Festival of Architecture.

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