Sam Jacob Puts Perspective in Perspective at London’s RIBA
Disappear Here, RIBA's latest exhibition, reframes architectural perspective as a mirror of politics, society, and world-making power.
A dizzying 18th-century design for an unbuilt Parisian cathedral looms above a 1970s pastel-soaked drawing of a Japanese-style garden, where interior and exterior melt together in the space between delicate curving lines. The cathedral’s three gigantic arches recede infinitely toward the vanishing point while a forest of columns careens over the specks of people below, as if peering over their shoulders. The more time spent with this all-seeing behemoth, the more appealing the zenned-out scene beneath it becomes.
This is just one of the many strange juxtapositions that pepper Disappear Here: On Perspective and Other Kinds of Space, the current exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. The show, the first installment in a planned series that will deal with Serlio’s classic 16th century treatise Seven Books of Architecture, traces the twisting logics of perspective as both drawing convention and world-changing force. Often, as in the above case, this consists of pitting entire frameworks for living against one another—from the overwhelming grandeur of religion to an intimate portrait of home.
The invention of linear perspective in the 15th century fundamentally altered the course of history, argue Disappear Here organizers Marie Bak Mortensen and Sam Jacob. By declaring a single “correct” way of viewing the world, perspective introduced a new order of social, political, militaristic, and religious power structures that gave its European creators the upper hand. The birth of perspective coincided with the birth of modern global warfare, according to Mortensen, a RIBA curator, and Jacob, an architect and writer.
To reveal the “completely synthetic” nature of perspective, the duo mined RIBA’s 4000-piece collection and pulled together 21 drawings that touch down at different historical points over the last 400 years. Wall IDs for the artworks have all but been stripped away, with tedious details such as artist names, titles, and dates consigned to the exhibition catalog (a holographic little thing with strangely curved corners and trippy tilted text).
Visitors enter the gallery through a Josef Albers–like sequence of shrinking blue squares, their ever-darkening shade a reference to the Renaissance custom of signifying distance through darkness. Historical illustrations dating from the 1530s to the 1970s are scattered in loose clusters that obey no linear chronology, instead following the parallel lines painted onto the gallery walls, which give the illusion of leading into additional rooms. Drawing and wall meld together, as if reinforcing the other’s artificiality. Perfectly polished granite floors and a mirror-plated column in the center of the room add further confusion.
A cheeky sculpture covered in grouted white tiles blocks the exhibition’s main path. “It’s Super-Serlio,” Jacob says simply of the strange object, which echoes the signature gridded surface of Superstudio’s Continuous Monument. This jokester approach makes sense coming from Jacob, a co-founder of the now-disbanded multidisciplinary collective Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT) and an advocate of the provocative and disjunctive tenets of Postmodernism, and it is provocatively at odds with RIBA’s unflinching keep-the-books formality.
Superstudio reappears in one of the show’s most effective art historical pairings. The group’s A Journey to the Realm of Reason (1967-69), an ambiguous wedge-like monument stretching into the distance, rubs up against the English Sir Edwin Lutyens’s memorial for French soldiers in World War I (1923). One a piece of theoretical play and the other a somber war memorial, there seems to be little common ground between them. Yet, the overlap comes in the dramatic tilt of these drawings as they seem to be sucked into their shared vanishing point.
On the next wall over, a section drawing of Scottish architect James Gowan’s Isle of Wight House (1956–58), seen from above, abuts a 1700’s ink one-point perspective of a lavish baroque home, appearing as though a worm had tunneled into the earth to admire the glamorous interiors. Gowan’s orderly Google street view–like delineation is a burst of logical Modernist clarity, while the intended trompe l’oeil effect of the baroque study—unfinished and irregular in its application—seems to revel in its own illusion. Although both illustrations depend on the same central vanishing point, the stylistic contrast between them belies vast ideological differences in lifestyle and taste over time.
Not too far away hangs French-American Raymond Loewy’s space-age design of a wardroom for NASA’s spacecraft. The crisp, Disney-like curve of its penmanship suggest an expanded notion not just of the craft of draftsmanship but also of a world no longer limited by the purely linear horizon. With one foot in the earthly realm of Gowan’s bird’s-eye view, its futuristic design also nods to the stratospheric perspective of Superstudio.
The main gallery empties into two side rooms that offer very different final takes on perspective. Visitors clamoring for a dose of proper historical grounding (dated and labelled for their viewing pleasure) should head to the left, where a series of five historical texts sheds some meaning on the madness. For those loving the ideological free-fall of Disappear Here, keep right, where you will be rewarded with a film installation that Jacob’s architectural studio produced with video game developer Shedworks.
As you bask in the ambient glow of the latter—a color-changing portal through which columns, arches, and other deconstructed architectural objects of Renaissance lore flow at a pace that’s oddly reminiscent of early 2000s screensavers—try not to think about the absence of CAD, Rhino, and other more recent digital design software. Neglecting to do so will ruin the magic of its “choose your own adventure”-style approach.
“We become what we behold,” said critic John Culkin of perspective’s powerful ability to cast reality through the eyes of whoever owned the means to produce it. In a current political climate that protests the very idea of singular truth that perspective depends on, Disappear Here is an ultra-contemporary response to viewing perspective as a social phenomenon. More subversive than critical, it is educational without enforcing an explicit definition of perspective, leaving visitors to come to their own conclusions.
“Perspective is sort of like porn,” Jacob suggests at the end of the walkthrough. “You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.”
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