The purpose-built space has an education room used to host workshops with young people, and a library which is open to all. Most of it, though, is taken up by the generous exhibition space which features large windows, allowing passers-by to peer in while furnishing the space with natural light.
However in the case of the exhibition Unbuild: A Site of Possibility, in which contemporary artists engaged with architecture, the depictions and explanations characteristic of architectural language were done away with, instead foregrounding warm qualities of the inhabitation of buildings.
This is ‘unbuilding’ not as a destructive process but as one that is progressive in understanding buildings and our relation to them without the technicalities of built-environment construction. With refreshing freedom, the process of coming to terms with this strange bond of who we are and the spaces in which we live was celebrated in its rawness.
Though drawing is an integral part of understanding architecture, this exhibition puts forward an alternative view, with few of the pieces constituting a ‘traditional drawing’. Indeed the artists gravitated to vastly disparate methodologies with their varied works, choosing instead to reframe the act of drawing as an ongoing working definition. ‘Drawing can sometimes be a mindset,’ Macfarlane continued. ‘We’ve never been too fussed about the end product but more about exploring and appreciating drawing as a raw form in and of itself.’
Kiaer’s work considered the relationship between the gallery and the street. Pedestrians were able to catch a glimpse of his inflatable biomorphic form protruding out from a box window, prompting further investigation as to what this curious object might be.
Speaking about the exhibition, Drawing Room co‑director Kate Macfarlane said: ‘All the artists are looking at how buildings affect us physically and psychologically, making their work through a kind of material exploration rather than starting off with a sketch and then making that in a kind of perfect way.’
Though the themes explored in the show were familiar, visceral and broad in their process of understanding the built environment, it was tricky to untie the presentation of works from the sometimes hard-to-penetrate aesthetics of conceptual art. But what did come to the fore was a sense of learning and ‘a work in progress’ attitude, constantly evolving and responding.
Unbuild: A Site of Possibility ran from 22 September to 10 December 2023 in the Drawing Room’s new Bermondsey gallery
Artists Emily Speed, Ian Kiaer and Jessie Brennan, meanwhile, were commissioned specifically to create new works relating to the gallery and local residents. Brennan’s work materialised through taking part in gardening with residents from the nearby Setchell Estate. The result was 160 sheets of handmade paper using flowers and plants collected from the sessions. The experience of interacting with residents was integral to the making of the piece.
When visiting exhibitions focused around the built environment or architecture, one gets familiar with a certain language and modes of working, whether it be documentary photography, technical models or the ‘genius relicks’ of the napkin sketch.
Renowned artist Do Ho Suh, for instance, unpacked memories of moving home via the subject of the humble door handle. His series of drawings involved a collaboration with architects and AI technology to produce architectural models and robotic renderings that at first appear entirely done by hand.
The exhibition – which ran from 22 September to 10 December – was the first to be held in the Drawing Room’s new Bermondsey gallery, which is designed by Coffey Architects, and its theme was inspired by moving and settling into new surroundings. The work shown explored an intimate confluence between buildings, the body and the locality of the gallery itself, which is a part of the London Square residential development and was enabled as part of a Section 106 agreement.
In yet another mode, Speed’s commission entitled Fossa played on the physicality of the structures. With a sense of comedy, half-building, half-body forms hailed from a world where legs, fingers and arms became structural and architectural components.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tanoa Sasraku’s A Tower to Say Goodbye commanded a space in the gallery, drawing viewers into its orbit upon entering. Overtly analogue, its physicality is made visible in the stitching and tearing of this 3x4m paper giant, which is stained red from the floor of the abandoned post office where the piece was developed – a literal embedding of material and place into the pores of the work.