Architecture Viewing Room

3 April - 30 May 2021

Introduction - Professor Neil Gillespie OBE RSA, Deputy Convenor


"Art is something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal."

Chikamatsu Monazaemon


The COVID-19 virus has separated us from one another, distanced us from the physical world and prevented us from engaging directly with works of art. We entered a virtual world, a floating world.


In a sense the architecture room of the RSA Annual Exhibition has always been virtual, exhibits have always been removed from the actual work of architecture. The challenge for the architecture exhibit is how to engage the viewer in the visceral, the phenomenological or the material of actual architectural space. Architectural exhibitions are invariably limited to a rehearsal or a recollection of ideas and manifestos. This year architect academicians were encouraged to submit preparatory sketches and texts as well as completed images and more formal drawings of their work in an effort to open up ideas and conversations.


Unlike art however the architectural exhibit can never be the work. I recall as a student experiencing a Walter Maria Earth Room, the smell of loam was almost over-powering, elemental, shocking, an idea that could only ever be experienced. Could an architectural exhibition create such intensity?


This danger of dislocation from reality in the architectural exhibition is further increased by the incredibly powerful computer rendering platforms that lay claim to the real. There is in fact no substitute to standing in front of the artwork. Mel Gooding writes of the paintings of Myron Stout, "I realise that describing the simple motifs is not enough: the resonance comes from the instrument itself, to hear it you must be in the room... A reproduction of any painting is no more than just such an inadequate description of motifs." Likewise there is no substitute from wandering through the spaces of a real building, of touching a surface, sensing its temperature, its texture and its smell.


This defence of real material in real space is not to undermine the incredible work and resourcefulness of the staff of cultural institutions across the country and the Royal Scottish Academy staff in particular who have throughout these locked down times maintained and promoted the critical importance of the culture of ideas in our daily lives.


"Architecture is either intellectual or vernacular."

Alejandro de la Sota


The work in this year’s exhibition clearly illustrates de la Sota’s dictum, a tendency to the intellectual or to the vernacular. It is significant, if understandable, that the student work tends to the intellectual while the work of practitioner tends to the vernacular. The young architect only has the drawing, the model or the text to illustrate their thinking while the more established architect struggles with the realities of client, budget and the myriad of obstacles encountered in practice. The occasional work however manages to occupy ‘’the slender margin’’ between these two extremes.


In praise of lockdown


Strangely the sudden silence of lockdown caused many to look up and to look out. New online opportunities suddenly opened up, invitations to lecture and to take part in extended conversations.


I was fortunate to be invited to speak to students and staff of SAUL, the School of Architecture, the University of Limerick, Ireland. Elizabeth Hatz contacted me after the lecture. As well as being a practicing architect Elizabeth is a Professor of Architecture in Limerick and in Stockholm. We talked over Zoom, Elizabeth in a dimly lit studio near Stockholm, deep in snow, me, high in an Edinburgh tenement catching the last of the light.


An invitation to review students work followed. A virtual review that connected students in Limerick and across the globe with Elizabeth in Stockholm, her colleague Gerard Carty in Dublin and me in Edinburgh. New connections made, Elizabeth was then invited to take part in this year’s RSA Annual Exhibition. Elizabeth’s practice is indeed significant and thankfully begins to undermine my opening paragraphs. Her work straddles art and architecture, teaching and practice, curation and exhibition, smudging disciplines and self-imposed limitations on what constitutes a work. Elizabeth’s work delves deeply into the physicality of space, mass and the act of making. Elizabeth’s work makes manifest the power of art and architecture through the physical presence and act of drawing, of graphite burnished hard into vellum. The density of the cast metal and black wax forms is palpable, massive, even when viewed online.


While some art practice is created and even exists in virtual space, all art is always more powerful when confronting real space. The collaboration or relationship of art and architecture is profound. We look forward to once more engaging with architectural representation in our magnificent real gallery spaces in the future. In the meantime the RSA staff have created an elegant window into the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition Architecture room, 2021.


 Professor Neil Gillespie OBE RSA