Curated by Jantje Engels and Marius Grootveld, in collaboration with the Drawing Matter Trust and the Architecture Foundation, London, Startha Éagsúla/Alternative Histories is a unique international architectural exhibition now on show in the elegant Georgian first floor rooms of the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square.
Acknowledging that architecture is a corpus of inherited ideas, the curators invited more than eighty contemporary architectural practices across Europe (including five from Ireland) to imagine an exchange with architects from the past. Each office was assigned a different drawing from the collection of Drawing Matter – from the frontispiece of the abbé Laugier’s 1753 Essai sur l’architecture, a plan of the Villa Snellman, to studies for a theatre by Carlo Scarpa. The architects were then tasked with making a model that not only responded to what they saw, but envisioned an alternative future for the original drawing while adhering to the constraints of the project: although comprising different materials and scales, the models had to be transportable, and their footprints had to fit within the surface area of the historic drawings.
As the documentary output of a particular type of human activity, architectural drawings are retained and preserved for their long-term evidentiary value. They are complex, with layers of meaning beyond the lines on the page. From early sketches, the first crystallisation of an idea or a design solution, to fully worked up schemes, from instructions for builders on site to a record of the final outcome of the construction process, drawings lay bare the evolution and progress of buildings, built and unbuilt. They may even outlast the buildings themselves, the last witnesses to what once stood. The models created for Alternative Histories are based on drawings which are evidence of decisions and transactions, of thought, talent and aspiration, drawings that are quintessentially archival. But archives are more than just a record of the past. The essence of Alternative Histories is a recognition of the potential of archives not just to tell us where we have come from but to point us towards untold futures, unravelling for each new viewer pathways undreamt of by their creators.
The original Alternative Histories exhibition comprised 85 models produced by the same number of practices. Following runs in London (Cork Street Galleries March-April 2019), and Brussels (CIVA, September 2019), Alternative Histories has come to Dublin. For its Irish incarnation, the final leg of the exhibition’s tour, the curators have invited nine additional Irish architectural practices to join the original five. Those were Noreile Breen, Clancy Moore, Tom de Paor, Ryan Kennihan, and Taka, while the newcomers are David Leech, Paul Dillon, Steve Larkin, Thomas O’Brien Architects, Elizabeth Hatz, Grafton Architects, Niall McLaughlin, GKMP, and O’Donnell + Tuomey. The Dublin iteration of the exhibition has a definite Irish twist.
Alternative Histories comes to Dublin at a time when Irish architecture is being lauded around the world, typified by, but certainly not confined to, O’Donnell + Tuomey winning the RIBA Gold Medal in 2015, and Grafton Architects winning the 2020 Gold Medal and the 2020 Pritzker Prize, to follow on from their celebrated curation of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Alternative Histories provides an opportunity to reflect, and to consider contemporary Irish architecture in both European and historical contexts. Unique in concept, the exhibition engages the broadest public in a fresh and accessible examination of the design process, fostering a deeper understanding of the way architects think, the culture of building creation and the alternative futures buildings can have.
Startha Éagsúla Insights is a series of videos in which some of the Irish participants in Alternative Histories reflect on the drawings they were assigned, the models they produced and the processes that lead from one to the other.
The Irish Architectural Archive is grateful for the support provided for this project by the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht under the Regional Museum Exhibition Scheme 2020.