Canadian Architect

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Embodied Minds

A major exhibition at the CCA emphasizes John Soane's pivotal role in the transition from neo-classicism to modernism.

July 1, 2001
by Michael Carroll

Under the oculus of the Octagonal Gallery at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), as luminous as the moon, stands a four-foot high earless and bodiless head on wheels. This sculpture is Canadian artist Geoffrey Smedley’s realization of Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca’s two-and-a-half inch drawing of an ideal head. The piece, entitled The Numbers, is one of several works that comprise Meditations on Piero, a show guest curated by Alberto Prez-Gmez and Louise Pelletier.

Smedley interprets della Francesca’s drawing as a blueprint. The construction photos presented in the exhibition reveal the sculpture’s structure as a kind of building comprised of plates, columns and a bricolage of wooden pieces that fill its interior. Its smooth surface is inscribed with a series of anamorphically distorted numerals–the key to the cosmos. The head gazes westward along an axis that extends through the main gallery and this summer’s main CCA event.

John Soane 1753-1837 is the first instalment in Modern Architecture in the Making, a new series at the CCA being presented from May 2001 through 2004. The exhibition cycle shows the evolution of architecture over the past 200 years: the Soane show will be followed by Mies in America (October 2001) and Herzog & de Meuron’s Imaginary Museum (summer 2002), Asplund/Terragni (winter 2002); and will culminate with the fireworks of Frank Gehry.

In the current exhibition, for the first time since Soane’s London Museum was established in 1833, more than 200 of the objects from the collection are being shown outside its walls. The exhibition John Soane 1753-1837 includes the architect’s own sketches and drawings, more than 25 original models, a selection of his books and drawing instruments, and paintings by Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843). Also on display are several important objects from the CCA’s collections, most notably various drawings of Soane’s houses that were acquired at a Christie’s auction in 1983. In fact the CCA, the only North American venue for the exhibition, has the largest collection of Soane’s work outside of the British Isles.

The exhibition’s six rooms include Soane’s work with the Bank of England, his academic development, a variety of his domestic architecture projects, examples of his innovative construction techniques, his unrealized visions for London as a neo-classical city and his most famous work, 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Soane Museum.

At the entry to the exhibition are two portraits of John Soane, one at age 22, the other at 75 years of age. But all is not what it seems, for beyond the immediate appearance of this comfortable, English gentleman architect lurks an entirely new sensibility: modernity.

The exhibition clearly situates Soane as an innovator who addressed the new realities of the industrial age through the design of new building types that ranged from banking halls to picture galleries, as well as technical innovations like the introduction of fireproofing. Taking his cue from French neo-classical theorist Abb Marc-Antoine Laugier, Soane advocated a return to first principles and presented an abbreviated, stripped-down architecture that responded to economic pressures and the move toward industrialization. But Soane was also a highly eccentric and individual architect. His poetic sensibility is expressed in his inventive handling of light and space with such devices as flattened domes, concealed skylights and mirrors. His double nature is hinted at in marginalia he inscribed in one of his 10 copies of Laugier’s treatise, Essai sur l’architecture: “…essential beauty, necessity–caprice, defect…”

At the core of the exhibition and of Soane’s career is his design for the Bank of England (1788-1833). Built as microcosm of the city, the Bank was essentially a fortification with sky-lit domed interiors modelled on the baths and mausoleums of ancient Rome. For a virtual tour of the Bank, which was demolished in the 1920s, there is a digital walk-through created at the University of Bath that dissolves into Gandy’s watercolours.

As a counterpoint to the Bank is Soane’s Museum at 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, whose rooms the architect described as “studies for my own mind.” Developed between 1792-1823 the complex consists of three properties that served as his residence, professional office, and museum. The latter became more pertinent after his appointment as professor at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1806, when his collection was made accessible to his students. The interior in its most basic conception is a “ruinscape” lit from above as if open to the sky. A contrast to the interior’s complexity is the stripped-down facade of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields built in 1812, with its clear incised lines and controlled elegance.

Of particular note in the exhibition is a door from the Soane Museum that incorporates two mirrors, one convex and one flat. It stands in the middle of the room like a Duchampian Readymade–a viewing device for Smedley’s large head looming in the distance. It is here that the two shows come together to provide commentary on the act of remembering. Smedley’s large head recalls della Francesca and a time when number was connected with the celestial. Soane’s body of work inherently contains both the fragment of the ruin as well as the irreducible nature of the primitive hut. The dual nature of his work creates an opening, a liminal space, for modernism in the making.

Michael Carroll is based in Montreal as a partner of BUILD. Both exhibitions close on September 3rd.




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