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‘Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities’, RIBA, London

Makoko Floating School, Nigeria 2013, NLE architects

Image: Makoko Floating School, Nigeria 2013, NLE architects, Author's own photo

An architectural exhibition is undoubtedly a curatorial challenge. Most exhibitions address artists and sculptors, focusing on paintings, installations, prints or photographs. The presence of genuine artworks is generally taken for granted. As absent buildings, distant projects and unexecuted plans are more difficult to visualise, so architectural exhibitions are more rarely realised; however their potential for impact, structured through powerful spatial experience, is arguably much greater.

‘Creation from Catastrophe’ unearths optimism and opportunity in the devastation of natural and man-made disasters, documenting death tolls and destruction but emphasising possible results of rebuilding, reconstruction and regeneration. The show hones in on ten case studies across four continents, an ambitiously wide scope, both chronologically and geographically. From plans to rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666 to housing projects initiated by architect Shigeru Ban triggered by the recent Nepal earthquake in 2015, such diversity could result in disparity. However, the exhibition is cleverly calculated to create a sense of journey and travel, with its clear chronological arrangement and an underlying thematic unity. The leap from the first room, focusing on mid-seventeenth century plans for rebuilding London, to the second, concentrating on the novel ‘Chicago School’ in America in the 1870s, is made with agility rather than awkwardness. This jump is eased by neutral cork partition walls separating the sections and a gradual ramp, indicating chronology. Moreover, although totally dislocated in time and place, these London and Chicago redevelopments are comparable in their catalyst, fire. The chosen case studies consistently link thematically, smoothing out any erratic time jolts and geographical voids. As we move through the exhibition, fire (England and America) graduates to earthquake (Portugal, Nepal and Japan), which in turn morphs into tsunami and flooding (Nigeria and Pakistan).

Each case study has a close focus; although never overloaded with textual information every narrative is reinforced by visual variety. For example, through digital photographs and video interviews we learn about ecological building systems in Lagos, such as a floating school in Makoko, combating the flooding of 2012 and the resulting disillusionment of mass-relocation. Juxtaposing this and similarly enlightening are the plans, elevations and models of Yasmeen Lari’s women’s centre in Darya Khan Shaikh, Pakistan. To date Lari has provided 45,000 relief structures, instructing local residents how to rebuild using vernacular materials. Although separated by thousands of miles these examples are united by their search for solutions to flooding and their emphasis on working with local inhabitants and resources.

Manipulation of the exhibition space and subsequently the entire visitor experience is instrumental at architectural exhibitions. This winter the RIBA lauded Palladio and his followers, in ‘Palladian Design: the Good, the Bad and the unexpected’ - an interesting show for those with a penchant for Palladio. Here an airy open space filled with simple wooden workbenches and packed with a plethora of Palladian plans and models suited the ideals of simplicity, harmony and spaciousness, which Palladio so

espoused. ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ occupies the same exhibition space, miraculously transformed to become an infinitely more striking show. Instead of luxuriating in spaciousness here we are funnelled, channelled and coaxed by the exhibition ‘architecture’ or temporary partition walls. This space seems to echo the optimistic message of the exhibition: at the early stages we shuffle through close cells and corridors, dictated by the partition walls, but the show culminates in an open space, enlarged by mirrors, where any notion of clutter or claustrophobia is banished.

This uplifting finale leaves us with an overwhelming sense of triumph, catastrophe has been re-examined, re-imagined and entirely conquered by creation.

‘Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities’ is at the RIBA, London, until 24 April 2016 (02075805533;

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