Review: ‘The Secret Laboratory’ - an exhibition at PLACE.

Since its foundation, ‘PLACE’ - our little architecture centre - has served as an important space of engagement between our architectural identity and the wider community from which it emerges. Despite actively communicating through a constant and wide ranging schedule of events and exhibitions, sometimes limitations of space and resources can hinder the centre’s potential. Recently however, passing through Fountain Street’s increasingly vibrant (daytime) collage of cafe – bar – barber – library – restaurant – grocer – baker – busker - skater, we catch a glimpse of something different beyond the narrow frontage of Number 40.

An exhibition of architects’ sketchbooks entitled, ‘The Secret Laboratory’, has managed to strike a resonance with the discreet, windowless and confined space. Curated by Paul Clarke, the intervention has cleverly modified the character and ambiance of PLACE, while lending the space an intriguing presence within the bustle of its surrounding streetscape.

A heavyweight line-up includes local heroes, emerging talents, and the internationally renowned. As a private and very personal document, their sketchbooks usually remain hidden at the owner’s discretion. The idea of examining the raw architectural process of our most gifted architects appeals to the voyeur in all of us, and this theme of curiosity is extended to the design of the exhibition itself.

Each contributing architect has been given one beautifully crafted timber case in which to present their chosen work. Toying with our temptation to leaf through the pages, the cases are loosely sealed with a weighty slab of polished perspex that rests freely on top. The work is illuminated from within its case; a gentle, ochre glow, just bright enough to reveal the content. The effect is more like a museum – antiquated documents, precious scripts.

A bold scribble across one of Tom De Paor’s pages declares, ‘Architecture is negotiation (developed) between inside and outside.’ As an architectural intervention in the context of the street, a glimpse of a glowing, snaking object within the depths of the gloomy interior, manages to catch the attention due to its contrast with the loudness of neighbouring shop fronts. Once inside, the confines of the small space are overcome, as the intricacy and depth of the content mean each finely crafted case can be dwelled upon and explored, defying its A1 scale to acquire the significance of a room-full of exhibits. The space has probably never been used in a more effective way.

The exhibition begins and ends with a splash of colour. The viewer’s attention is ensured by the day-glo highlighter used to develop the immediately recognisable sectional drama of Graftons’ Luigi Bocconi University, while the clarity and richness of Sheila O’Donnell’s watercolours complete the journey. The collection of drawings and text in between is wonderfully diverse, ranging from skilful efficiency and control to almost chaotic intensity, from the abstract to the painstakingly detailed.

De Paor’s display documents his design process for a cinema in Galway, and refers to his rigorous consideration of the cinematic experience, while suggesting the relationships between film and architecture: His open sketchbooks are arranged to resemble a film strip, each page treated as a ‘still’ from the narrative of his design. Other highlights include Paul Clarke’s travel journal, within which a Tokyo streetscape is vividly evoked in text and collage, while, in stark contrast, a rural scene from Iona is traced through a beautifully restrained line drawing, depicting only the scene’s manmade elements. Nature is left to the imagination - as white paper around stone walls, electric wires, cottages, boats, sheep.

The exhibition celebrates the symbolic tool of the architect with great success, and in doing so illustrates the unique value of the profession itself, which currently and locally seems to be devalued and misunderstood.

Amid the drawings, critic Shane O’Toole presents a selection of his interview notes, one of which quotes John Tuomey describing the materialisation of a project, cast in concrete ‘like a thought embodied.’ Although a workaday object that usually lies at the bottom of a bag or is thrown on cluttered desk, ‘The Secret Laboratory’ presents the sketchbook as a unique collection of embodied thoughts: Each case is a window into the psyche of its architect, and the room is full of clues to the mysteries of the architectural process.

Fearghal Murray - written April '10

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