Show Time

AT THE BASEMENT of London’s 22 Gordon Street, the workshop at the Bartlett School of Architecture, there’s something brewing. To my left and to my right there are dozens of students sawing wood, taking measurements, bending knick-knacks and assembling their thingamabobs, while techno music blasts in the background. Some kids bop their heads to the rhythm of the bass, the sounds of the tools whirring and buzzing to a different groove altogether. Somehow, the whole scene in front of me is less of a cacophony and more like a performance. Deep down I know that what I’m seeing are students manically getting things ready for the Bartlett Summer Show, arguably the biggest architecture student exhibition in Europe, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is some kind of a super-hip millennial party. I know they’re stressed—hell, I was an architecture student too—but, man, I wish I was part of this. Is this FOMO? I could watch it all day, but I’ve got a meeting with Bob Sheil, the School’s Director, to talk about upcoming Summer Show.

As duty calls, pulling me up to the first floor, I make my way to Bob’s office. I knock on his door, and make my way in. This is the first time I’ve met Bob in his office since we moved from our previous, temporary home at Hampstead Road; it’s smaller than it used to be, although the ever-familiar sound of a siren in the background ties both spaces in quite nicely. “Shall we start?” I ask him. “Go for it,” he replies.

What’s different about putting together this show from others before?

This is the first time the show has been in the school building for 16 years. In 2000, we moved the show into the Slade School of Fine Arts. We were there for 14 years, and it was very exciting because it’s a wonderfully grand venue, and it’s on the UCL Quad. That, in turn, generated the start of the Summer Show parties, where we actually created UCL’s biggest party of the year. That was a great thing. 

Is this show more personal?

There’s no doubt about it. I did enjoy Hampstead Road a lot. Somebody described it recently as “the Bartlett’s equivalent of David Bowie’s Berlin years”. We were kind of outside our normal identity and our normal selves. The basement show in Hampstead Road I thought was brilliant, I thought it gave a really gritty kind of feel to it with the combination of the yard, the ramp and the kind of letter box entrance. I really liked the space a lot and it also got the Degree and the Masters in one big space together. 

Being back here though, of course, it’s going to be even better because the place of exhibition is the same as the place of production, it’s the historical site of the school, it’s everything—that’s amazing. We had 10,000 visitors in Hampstead Road. We used to have 6,000 visitors in the Slade, but that’s because we only got a week in the Slade. We had two weeks in Hampstead Road and we’re going to have two weeks here. So we’re bringing in 10,000 visitors into a school that has other Masters programmes that are 12 months long, PhD studios, staff offices and so on. Logistically it’s quite complicated, but emotively it’s wonderful. And the fact that this show is also vertically stacked, you’re slicing through the building as you’re going up and you’re making links with studio spaces and exhibition spaces.

What’s the message the show is intended to send?

The truth is we don’t actually know what the message is until the show opens. That’s kind of what’s so thrilling about it. It is the reveal where everything suddenly goes, “Well, viola! That’s what it was.” 

The show is more than just an exhibition, it’s a resource for us to see what happened. We form those views when the show is up. The first thing we all ask ourselves is, ‘Is it a good show?’, ‘Does it feel good?’, ‘Has it got a feeling of a standard that is as high as they usually are?’, ‘Are the projects doing things that we haven’t done before?’, ‘Does it feel different?’, ‘Does it feel as good?’ Those first few hours of seeing the whole show are those kind of thoughts, and then over the course of the two weeks you’re reading the projects as much as you can. 

So when the show is ready you’re just as surprised as everybody else?

Pretty much. Obviously we’ve seen glimpses here and there, we’ve seen the portfolios, but exhibitions are a totally different animal. Projects are put into the spotlight and they are dressed up and enhanced, and made to look as clear and powerful as possible. A lot of the time, an individual student’s year—which has something like 7,000 hours of work in it—has to be summarised in one image or one model. So obviously they’re keen to get the most out of that opportunity. You’ve got one shot; one image in the catalogue and one thing in the show. And you want it to be remembered. 

Every single student wants their work to be remembered. In future years people say “Oh, what year did you graduate?” And sometimes people, instead of saying the year, they say, “I graduated the year that that video about this city—in Costa Rica, or whatever—was in the front window. Do you remember that show?” People remember the Show by the content, not by the year. 

Ross Lovegrove's opening the show this year. How do you make that selection?

I think it’s somebody who’s sufficiently distant from the School to form an objective viewpoint. I think it’s important that it’s not someone who knows us too well. I think that’s the first thing. Then I think it’s someone who has a global view. Someone who is coming in, doesn’t know you too well, and is offering you a response that is based on their global experience. So we’re looking for people who’ve travelled the world a lot, who’ve seen a lot of things, who have seen a lot of architecture shows or shows of this kind of nature, and they’re trying to comment and place it in that kind of way. Then after that, it’s people whose work resonates a little bit with some of the themes. 

It seems like an immense challenge. There’s all these things you have to do and all these boxes you have to tick, at this completely different building. 

With 1,000 students and 280 staff, you have to delegate and you have to have really, really clear lines of communication. In the last two or three years we’ve done some really mundane stuff in the background, some documents that map what has to be done every hour of every day leading up to the show. It’s an exhaustive document, it’s a call sheet for an event, like if you were putting on an act in the theatre—there’s a call sheet for who’s where, every day leading up to the show, and I can see it on my phone. So if something’s gone wrong, I can just check my phone and go, “I know exactly where that person is right now,” and I can tell someone, “go and find them”. I do get a kick out of that a little bit; it’s exciting to feel there are so many players involved and it’s building up to something. 

What’s the best part of the show for you? 

I think it’s just before it opens, when you feel it’s done. There’s a funny little lull in the afternoon on the Friday and suddenly it all goes quiet for a little while, and everyone’s walking around. People have gone home, had a shower and they’ve come back, and they’re looking smarter, and you go, “Hang on a minute, we’ve done it.” I think that’s the best moment. 

It’s a quiet moment; it tends to happen when you’re wondering around on your own. “There it is, it’s done.” I think that’s good. Of course there are other moments, like hearing prizes announced, and seeing the crowd, and the party at the portico, but I think the feeling that it’s done is a great feeling. 

Image of model above: A Descent into Hallowed Strata by Rory Nole Turner

How would you characterise, or say, “This is a Bartlett Show”? 

I think it’s the sheer ambition that you can see in the work. I think the standards are very high, the effort that’s put in is the biggest effort than anyone could possibly put in. Everyone has done their best. I think that’s the feeling you get from a Bartlett Show. There are no half measures, everyone’s done their absolute best and they want to be judged on that basis. There’s no excuses, no one wants to turn around and say, “Well, it wasn’t a great show” because of three or four really pathetic reasons. We want to have no excuses for it not being a great show. But if it is, we feel very happy about it.

–All images courtesy of Richard Stonehouse

–Article image: Low Res City by Agostino Nickl

–To see the Bartlett Show Catalogue, click here.