Do you know your ogee from your triglyph? Can you discern Byzantine from baroque? What’s the difference between Tudorbethan and Indo-Saracenic? The history of architectural styles can be a minefield of movements, counter-movements and revivals, each enjoying its own obscure lexicon and accompanying set of dense treatises and disagreements. But a new exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (itself an intriguing 1930s hybrid of art deco and Scandinavian neo-classical, with temple-like bronze doors flanked by stone monoliths) aims to make this complex world accessible to all. It is a colourful, poppy history lesson for the TikTok generation.
“Style,” says Lara Lesmes, standing on a dazzling graphic carpet in the RIBA gallery, “is about communication. It is not something that should have to be explained by an expert, but something we recognise intuitively, from our influences and preferences. It allows us to relate to each other through appreciation and exchange, whether that’s through pattern books or Pinterest.”
Beneath her feet, the carpet writhes with symbols of changing media, from printing presses and binding tools at one end of the room to radios, TVs, computers and smartphones at the other, arranged like ornamental motifs in a baroque ceiling, yet printed in an eye-searing palette of clashing colours. These are the tools, it appears to suggest, through which style has been disseminated across the ages, the bands of colour accelerating and compressing as the pace of media itself has sped up, until they become a dizzying Bridget Riley-style barcode at the far end of the gallery.
An enormous black wooden model rambles across the centre of this psychedelic floor, a mashup monument of famous London landmarks. You can spot the towers of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Chinese pagoda at Kew, the roof of Crystal Palace, the modernist slab of New Zealand House and more, all jammed together. You can begin to decode what’s what by following the banded stripes in the carpet, which connect parts of the model to framed drawings on the wall, taken from the RIBA archive – from a page of Augustus Pugin’s gothic furniture catalogue to a spread from Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, each illuminating a particular chapter in the history of style.
Peppily titled Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media, this bold little show is the work of Space Popular, a multidisciplinary design studio founded by Lesmes and her partner Fredrik Hellberg in 2013. Its work zings with a passion for pattern, ornament and colour. For this exhibition, they have also had a chance to indulge their interest in virtual reality, installing a series of VR headsets that take visitors through four five-minute acts in the story of style. Bringing the mute black model alive, the films provide an immersive introduction to key moments over the past 500 years, from the classical inspirations of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, to Pugin’s gothic revival, to art deco, brutalism, blobs and beyond.
“We didn’t want it to be a straight didactic exhibition,” says curator Shumi Bose. “It’s not trying to be a watertight academic show, but very much the designers’ own take.” Before historians write in to complain of taxonomic sacrilege, the architects have written their own disclaimer: “The choppy waters of style are treacherous, yet we have navigated them lightly, as one would a ball pit rather than a daunting ocean.”
It makes for a refreshing dip, dissolving the preciousness of architectural history, and revealing the annals of style as a great buffet for today’s designers to gorge from. Drawing a direct connection between style and media, they reveal how things we deem to be contemporary have existed for centuries. Today’s architects are accused of designing “clickbait” architecture, calibrating their work to appeal to design blogs, but so too were their Victorian counterparts. Gothic revivalist William Butterfield was often criticised for designing his buildings specifically so they would look good in print. A plate from an 1853 issue of the Builder magazine shows his scheme for All Saints Church on Margaret Street. With its highly contrasting striped facade, boldly banded in red and black brick, it leaps from the page.
Across the room, we find Pugin’s Entrance Gate for a New Cemetery, a parodic drawing confected with all manner of Egyptian mouldings and motifs. He drew it in 1843 to lambast what he saw as the impure mixing of styles. Cemetery companies, he complained, “have perpetrated the grossest absurdities in the buildings they have erected”. He went on to criticise a “Carnival of architecture … tricked out in the guises of all centuries and all nations; the Turk and the Christian, the Egyptian and the Greek”.
It is the kind of language that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Conservative government’s recent Building Better Building Beautiful report, produced by a commission presided over by the late Roger Scruton – a man who lamented the “growing moral void” in contemporary architecture, and continued to rail against the iniquities of modernism until his death last month, decades after the movement had ended.
Perhaps the show’s biggest unanswered question is what will come next – or, to be more specific, what effect mass digital media will have on style. The correlations between 19th-century pattern books and their related stylistic movements are clear to see, as are the millennial craze for blobitecture and the ensuing reaction against it, with a renewed interest in materials – which the exhibition terms The Haptic Revival. But the future of our post-internet realm is less clear.
“The speed, accessibility and vastness of the internet has thrown us into a dizzying freefall,” the architects write in an accompanying text. “Our neurons feast and choke on an overdose of pattern recognition.” If the evolution of style is driven by the ease of communication and collaborative exchange, then is the internet a style-making paradise? Or is it a catalyst for ever-more shallow image-led architecture, doomed to end in a spiralling race to the bottom, as references are endlessly flattened and regurgitated?
Space Popular’s conclusion is as sunnily optimistic as their wardrobe. The inclusivity, openness and emancipatory character of new media, they argue, can only be positive for architecture, even when it shakes ideas of authorship and the architect’s role. If their kaleidoscopic carpet is anything to go by, we’re going to be in for quite a ride.
• Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media is at RIBA, London, until 16 May.
Oliver Wainwright is in conversation with Space Popular at the venue on 17 March, after their lecture From the Printing Press to Pinterest.