BY Owen Hatherley in Reviews | 02 APR 09

Barkow Leibinger

Filling the Architectural Association's Georgian exhibition space with a series of objects that are unashamedly material and corporeal, an exhibition of and about ornament

BY Owen Hatherley in Reviews | 02 APR 09

Concerning the German architectural firm of Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger, 'An Atlas of Fabrication' initially presented itself in opposition to certain contemporary tropes. A collection of models, details, panels and leftovers, the exhibition was immediately notable for a total lack of digital images. Digitality and pixellated representation have become highly dominant in fashionable architectural circles, recently even given its own theory courtesy of architect Patrik Schumacher: 'parametricism'. The digital building necessarily shies away from the frequently unromantic world of building, fabrication and material, yet Barkow Leibinger's exhibition stressed exactly these three elements. Nonetheless, this doesn't stop the show from falling into other, less immediately obvious, contemporary clichés.

Filling the Architectural Association's Georgian exhibition space was a series of objects on wooden tables, with two videos showing on small screens. These depicted actual finished buildings, but otherwise there was a certain distrust of the capacity of the architectural exhibition to depict real structures. These models, in Barkow and Leibinger's words, claim to 'depict nothing but themselves'. The first objects in the show were a series of wood, metal and glazed terracotta panels, all arranged in angular, irregular patterns. A video showed some very similar details used on a roof, and one of the architects comments on their desire to 'elevate everyday building programmes'. If we give any credence to this oft-expressed intention, then the object used to elevate is the architectural object that dare not speak its name: ornament.

Barkow Leibinger, Trutec Building, Seoul, South Korea (2007)

'An Atlas of Fabrication' was, although you could find the word absolutely nowhere in the room, an exhibition of and about ornament. This shouldn't be surprising. Ornament, though seldom actually described as such, has returned in the neo or pseudo-modernist architecture of the last decade or so. The most common version is via multicoloured, irregular curtain walls, or stick-on wood/metal cladding, both of which involve simulating function. A more straightforward and fearless ornamentation has emerged most obviously in the gables and turrets of British firms such as FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste), or in Caruso St John's peculiar Nottingham Contemporary, a concrete shed covered in lace patterns. Barkow Leibinger's ornament lies somewhere between the two, its physicality and presence coexisting with a rhetoric of material, production and metal. 'We like building factories', they comment. No effete dressing-up here.

The objects shown at the AA were unashamedly material and corporeal, but, in their wilfulness and irregularity, were not so far from parametric whimsy. One of the most intriguing corners featured a collection of towers or clusters of metal tubes. Rather than standardized, interchangeable parts, these resembled steel tendrils, sheet metal tentacles. One arrangement showed them almost as a forest of metallic foliage, a bizarre biomimicry in the least biological of materials. Here, not for the first time, Barkow Leibinger veered towards kitsch. One of the metallic pipes, inset with blue lights, appears as an objet d'art seemingly designed for the mantelpiece of a studiedly avant-garde living room rather than as the conduits for a working building. This presumably unintentional flirtation with kitsch reaches particular heights in the form of a perspex chandelier, looming prettily and pointlessly over the exhibition.

As for the objects which suggest particular real structures, the most interesting were models of faceted, repeated honeycombs, which recalled the 1970s collective housing of the Israeli architect Zvi Hecker. It was unclear whether these prototypes, these offcuts, were intended as an ideal for living or as more ornamental dressing. There was, however, one very clear architectural model, of what at first appeared, in its symmetries and proportions, as a straightforward neoclassical building. Looked at closely, it was full of the pipes, voids and cyber-organicism of the exhibition's scattered parts. Yet it was nearly as kitsch as a straight exercise in neoclassicism.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).