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Land art, experimental architecture and utopianism. Puts the obvious architectural names (Buckminster Fuller, Ant Farm, Diller Scofidio+Renfro) into context with Robert Smithson, Josef Beuys, Anya Gallaccio and others.

Radical Nature – Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009


The Barbican is always urging us to do something different.

Radical Nature – Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009 is very different from the usual, even the radical, architectural exhibition. To begin with it may not even appear to be an exhibition about architecture, but an exploration shows it has much which should be of interest to architects, as well as to ecologists and environmentalists, artists of the installation variety, utopianists and last but not least, landscape architects.

It brings together "key figures across different generations who have created utopian works and inspiring solutions for our ever changing planet." The exhibition is designed "as one fantastical landscape, with each piece introducing into the gallery space a dramatic portion of nature."

The exhibition starts with key works including Buckminster Fuller’s film Modelling Universe of 1976 in which he explained, (for a non-technical audience which was fearful of technology as being to do with war and big business) how nature inspired his work and attitude to life. The film is shown, appropriately in a geodesic dome, made of timber struts tenoned onto hexagonal ply nodes and clad in triangular ply panels. Here as throughout the exhibition the seating is made from recycled walls and signs of a previous exhibition.

The film itself is well worth seeing, as far better than diagrams, for Fuller’s demonstration of the triangle as the only polygon that holds its shape, and which can be transformed via a tetrahedron into an octahedron.

Although several of the installations are by architects the only other name most architects may recognise is Diller Scofidio + Renfro – or if not the name their Blur Building erected on a Swiss lake in 2002. A video shows the circular structure over the lake and people’s reaction to it as the mist is produced.

Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm represents one of the architectural projects influenced by Archigram. The Embassy was designed to promote interspecies communication to establish a shared vision for a harmonious co-evolution. "Through its overt promotion of equality between man and animal, this architectural project invites us to reconsider communication with the natural world as necessarily two-way." It is also a reminder that ethical approaches to architecture are not necessarily biblically based.

A structure of more immediate use is shown in the film Reef Builders which documents Wolf Hilbertz’s project which constructed floating frames on which coral is grown to form reefs which will eventually lessen the effects of tsunamis. This could be compared with Simon Starling’s floating island filled with rhododendrons for a Scottish lake – as a comment on the plant’s history, now classified as a weed. Other exhibits were also designed to highlight ecological disasters.

As the exhibition is about nature several of the exhibits consist of plant material or are about crops. Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield – A Confrontation is illustrated. In 1982 she planted and harvested two acres of wheat in Battery Park sited between the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centre. This is also one of the exhibits specially recreated for the Barbican, and her wheat field, rather less than to acres, is growing on an abandoned railway just off Dalston Lane in East London.

On the same site EXYZT, a Parisian architectural collaborative, have built a fully functioning 16m high windmill to grind the wheat into flour, and also produced a programme of summer activities. These included a discussion of  'pirate architecture' as the practice of site occupation, and a seminar with muf architecture on the role of public space in the cultural life of Dalston. To see for yourself you could visit the nearby Gillett Square.  Opened in 2006 this was the first of the Mayor of London's new, or improved, public spaces.

The other off site exhibit, though on the terrace outside the Barbican, is a real building by Heather and Ivor Morison. It is a double domed pavilion constructed of Scots pine, larch and sweet chestnut, originally commissioned for Tatton Park Biennial in 2008. It was inspired by structures built by utopian communities on the west coast of the US in the 1970s. It functions as a tea house and provides a shelter where visitors can drink hibiscus tea.

So what might a conventional architect get out of this exhibition?

It is fascinating to go round slowly taking it all in.

I was inspired by landscape and environmental art which I hope will take root in the micro-climate around my buildings, and the public space beyond, and of the need to ground this in some CPD research.

And I realised there is so much more to an ecologically responsible architecture than mere buildings with grass roofs and zero CO2 footprints – and that there are a lot of people out there who can contribute.

 Accompanying the exhibition is a  fully illustrated catalogue, with a forward by the environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt.

The exhibition has received mixed reviews, including one in Building Design which suggested you could learn more from a walk in Hyde Park!  Perhaps - if you are an expert on all the topics it has put together; but do go and see it before it closes on 18 October if you are not.


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