Review: In Character, RIBA North

Words, Lorraine Bacchus

One of the exhibitions currently on at RIBA North’s Albert Docks headquarters is a hybrid – a conceptual installation of colourful objects masquerading as a children’s playground, albeit one in which visitors are forbidden to touch anything.

The pieces were originally made by the architecture practice, Studio MUTT, as a site-specific investigation in 2018 into the Sir John Soane Museum in London. Soane was himself a 19th century, renowned, inventive architect whose idea was to house a collection of architectural models, casts and drawings for his students. This plan was deemed impractical but Soane continued to collect items from all over the world throughout his life. The result is a chaotic cramming together and juxtaposing of extraordinary artefacts.

The original impetus for Studio MUTT’s installation at the Museum was a text by Soane, ‘Crude Hints towards an History of my House’. In this he imagined his home as a futuristic ruin where visitors speculated on its origins and function. In particular he had fun conjuring up four characters the visitors could imagine having lived there: a Lawyer, a Monk, a Magician and an Architect. In giving colour and form to these characters, Studio MUTT’s architects have used their own imagination and clearly had a lot of fun.

At the magnificent Soane Museum the pieces emulated Soane’s genius for startling juxtaposing and he probably would have enjoyed it all. But at RIBA North the characters are housed in a curious structure with tin foil curtains, where the floor is covered in tree bark; the result is simply perplexing rather than thought-provoking.

In re-exhibiting these pieces, Studio MUTT’s idea is to question how a change of context can affect the reading of character and architecture. This is gleaned from the accompanying text, which also gives some explanation as to how they arrived at this manifestation of Soane’s imaginary characters. The text poses lots of architectural, philosophical, questions, which this installation attempts to highlight, such as: How to make buildings that are not plain, voiceless or clone like? What might the tools be to convey character? How can we change an existing construction’s context to offer new meanings, re-readings and new insights into existing conditions?

This exhibition is certainly an unusual way of trying to engage the viewer with contemporary architecture but the bizarre objects/characters in their strange setting are alienating rather than engaging. It feels like even they don’t know what they’re doing there – that they were intended for some other purpose, which of course they were. And therein lies the problem – site-specific pieces very rarely work in another setting.

All that said, RIBA North is an excellent resource and there is always a choice of architecture inspired things to see.

For more information about this and the other exhibitions www.architecture.com/ribanorth