Ideas Born on Paper
Drawing Ambience, an exhibition on view at the RISD Museum, offers a glimpse into the generative process used by seminal architects prior to the digital age.
Architecture Professor Christopher Bardt BArch 83 explains the significance of this Lebbeus Woods collage and the other work on view in DRAWING AMBIENCE.
Architecture Professor Christopher Bardt BArch 83 has a longstanding personal connection to the work included in Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association, an exhibition on view at the RISD Museum through August 2. Sharing his impressions while walking through the show, he stops at a delicate graphite, ink wash and colored pencil drawing by British architect Michael Webb, a founding member of the avant-garde Archigram Group formed in the 1960s.
“Look at the meticulous way he constructed this drawing,” Bardt marvels, peering closely at one of Webb’s 1987 Temple Island studies. “He was developing ideas for a spherical submersible that would float up the River Thames. This piece reminds us that architectural ideas are born through the process of drawing, whether on the screen or on the page.”
As Bardt explains, Drawing Ambience invites visitors to think about architecture not as a discipline about designing structures but as a laboratory for ideas—a place where “human experience meets geometry.” The esoteric exhibition presents a selection of groundbreaking drawings and folios by iconic architects—all collected by the late Alvin Boyarsky, chairman of London’s famed Architectural Association (AA) from 1971–90.
Bardt first learned of the collection in the late 1990s when he visited architect and educator Nicholas Boyarsky—Alvin’s son—who taught briefly at RISD and (with his sister) inherited his father’s architectural drawing collection, along with his townhouse in London. “The house was filled with amazing drawings and artifacts by Alvin’s students and colleagues from his years at the AA,” Bardt recalls. “It offered a window into the world of the last generation of architects who worked exclusively non-digitally.”
Many of the architects with work in the show—such as Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind—have gone on to establish growing global reputations, while others were luminaries in their day. But they all shared an excitement about architectural ideas that radically diverged from previous schools of thought and came together around the AA in part because of the emergence of airline travel in the late 1960s, Bardt explains. “Different movements came out of different locations—Archigram from London, Superstudio from Florence,” he notes, “but it all coalesced at the AA because jet travel allowed ideas to travel overnight, from Italy or Austria to London and beyond.”
When Bardt brought the Boyarsky collection to the attention of Chief Curator and Houghton P. Metcalf, Jr. Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Jan Howard, she immediately recognized its significance. Though it took several years before the stars aligned around the project, she was pleased to co-curate the show with Igor Marjanović, an associate professor of Architecture at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. The show opened at the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, MO and then came to the RISD Museum. Boyarky’s firm Boyarsky/Murphy designed the Kemper exhibition and then collaborated with Bardt’s firm 3six0 Architecture on the RISD Museum installation design.
Several of the architects with work in Drawing Ambience studied or taught at RISD, whose architectural program—along with programs at Cooper Union, Cornell and the AA—represented the epicenter of late 20th-century architectural thought.
“Every time I walk through the exhibition, I learn more from these drawings,” says Bardt. “What I hope visitors will take away from it is that architecture emerges through the process of drawing—that creativity requires engagement with media, whether that be ink on mylar or a computer. The medium itself is where the ideas are born, and the architect’s choice of medium propels the work in one direction or another.”
– text by Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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