We Live in the Office

A review of the Giles Round RIBA exhibition on the Façade

It was a curious experience being walked around the latest artist/architecture collaboration at the RIBA, formulating the right facial facade to look wildly inspired by the Giles Round exhibition. My questions were loose weave and few, interspersed in the patter from the RIBA that was on point, concise, and I couldn’t help but feel was a wonderful fib to cover the rather vectored investigation into facades that were on offer.

As someone that has experienced an opportunity to pick through the RIBA and V&A Museum archives investigating ‘office futures’ under the hairy guidance of team Aberrant Architecture, this show, five years after their architecture in residence at the V&A, falls particularly shy of a powerful and invocative piece on architectural facades, offices, or how we live, especially given the resources to hand. It was, however, a rather playful and colourful injection of graphic design and ceramic art and the coming together of these two disciplines. The inherent beauty found in the graphic interpretation of facades was clearly on display, and Giles Rounds’ re-production on the Lubetkin facade studies from the 1940s was evident, clear, and a little lovely. However, it remained a re-production of, rather than a re-interpretation or investigation into those works. It seemed slightly peculiar to have the originals on display for the first time in their history, and neatly below was their modernised adobe illustrated processed format, repeated with two charming yet arguably misplaced carpets and tables in close quarter for reasons beyond me. This was the summary of a great undertaking of mining the exhaustingly wealthy RIBA archives. The exhibition has a whiff of emperor’s new clothes, but equally there is pleasant odour in its brightness and charm to this colourful yet sparse offering.

Chain mail 'facade' in RIBA foyer

The crux of the off-beat named exhibition ‘We Live in the Office’ was the production of 300 vases adorned with Round designs for the chirpy cost of £100 for any wealthy punter who fancies a piece of the ‘vase city’ in their gaff. The working studio set up at the rear of the space gobbling up the majority of the area was for professional ceramic ladies and gents to adorn the white vases with not so white colours in façade type formations. The ambition is to create the ‘city as an object’, the clue is in the massive fabric print of Gehry’s Binoculars found as you enter; subtle. However, the idea of fashioning the city as an object by creating 300 graphic prints of facades onto vases is a huge leap of theoretical assertion. To take Gehry’s Binocular Building as object, and somehow overlay this idea onto vases and calling it ‘city as object’ undermines the beauty in the work by blurring the enjoyment of the graphic process with architectural theory to justify this display.

Chiat Day offices curtain

The theory behind the exhibition is grounded in the Andrea Branzi quote from 2006, One works at home and lives in the office, simple yet charming, reflecting the playful tone of the exhibit. It creates an inviting point of departure for discussion about the life of a building, and perhaps how facades might indicate the activity within. The accompanying ‘façade stylebook’ that annotates the exhibition is by far the most successful and interesting element of the commission and could exist on its tod. However, it is proposed on the premise of a single and correct modernity, and our continued “fetish-isation” of facades is perhaps limiting a differing perspective on the life of a building.

The exhibit makes the argument that the façade can lead to miss-interpretation of the interior function, or even ‘betrays’ the function, as if the façade and function are in some sort of monogamous marital bond. It neglects to consider that the interior function is itself a pretend existence, the family home adorned with some mock tutor pastiche form is designed to project the idealised smiley miniature railway set owning family home. Yet hidden behind is a family in despair, a single mother with an unrelenting child who has an obsession for collecting rhetorical quotes and framing them in the bark of willow tree, or they have a curious obsession with roadkill… it could be anything. Frankly, it is the charm of the unknown that make facades so exciting and evocative, it blinds the truth, take No.10 Downing Street as a prime example. This desire to understand the façade and for it to tell a ‘correct’ truth from what lays behind reflects an architect’s arrogance that there is some definitive verity in architecture, that somehow there is a perfection abound and that if we truly search hard enough, then the idea ‘something is in the wrong place’ that forwards Rounds investigation, is actually a tad off-beat. The charm in buildings can be the error; the misplaced function in the unprepared façade.

I suspect that the real joy and success in this exhibit may come in its end, where the vases in their entirety are complete, and the discussion of vases as city as object is either considered correct, or if we have been sold a short one and dropped 100 quid on a jazzy bit of ceramic.

Vases by Giles Round for We Live in the Office

Goldfinger sign

RIBA foyer

All photographs courtesy of Sophie Mutevelian for RIBA