Like most Londoners I have long been acquainted with St Pancras Church. Its curious caryatids (carved stone ladies to you and me) are a familiar sight to anyone who regularly ventures along the Euston Road. What I am less familiar with is the crypt that lies beneath and the rolling programmes of exhibitions and events that take place there on a regular basis. As part of Artslant’s month-long focus on alternative spaces in the city I went to take a look at this most unique of galleries.
The current show at the Crypt gallery, Uniquely Singapore, Distinctively London? (question mark theirs, not mine) is famed as a “series of ongoing conversations on generic spaces between six pairs of architects and architecture students in London and Singapore”. Located not far from the Architectural Association, the show draws many of it’s exhibitors from the international community of architects associated with the school past and present
Architectural exhibitions have always struck me as rather curious propositions, largely because the subject of the exhibition – the building in this case- is absent. What is left is essentially a set of didactic instructions for how one might understand something that isn’t there. This metaphysical problem aside there is a serious purpose to this exhibition which is best understood as a group of architects “comparing notes” on the built environments of both cities. These “notes” are largely photographic but also contain lists, descriptions of journeys and projections.
The numerous photographs are rather successful in telling the tale of these two cities and their dependency and interdependency on modernist architecture. Redolent of Marc Auge’s Non-space treatise the images talk of the common uniformity, even ubiquity, to be found in both places. There is a prevailing sense of straightforwardness about these images, a sort of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. The escalator in the department store, the blue of a swimming pool and the strip-lights in an office are common around the world and are a sort of visual drone in the background of all modern cities. What is slightly curious however, is the lack of variation between each individual architect’s photographs. One suspects that a particular influence looms large over this group, guiding the images towards a conformity and sameness.
The space of the crypt is almost as far as you could get from the white cube gallery (more a black cube than a white cube). It’s loaded with associations and has a particular typology all of its own (the obvious comparable space in London is the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall). The organising principle of a crypt is to hold up the floor of the church above. What we are given, therefore, is a set of deep pillars, almost the size of a room in themselves, which give way into a vaulted ceiling. The narrow, corridor like spaces that are left are not bad for showing work. Think of the Guggenheim or the enfilade of the Louvre, continuous corridor like spaces are actually rather congenial spaces to show painting or photography.
Any work displayed in this setting requires some form of separation from the interior, achieved in this case through oversized borders on frames and concentrated pools of light. What is particularly enjoyable about the crypt is the layering of spaces which unravel before you. One moves from images of modern London bus stops to piles of C18th headstones piled on top of one another, through to carved ancient Greek inscriptions and back to documentations of shopping malls in Singapore.
This particular show is by no means an easy marriage of spaces and works. One has the impression that the venue was chosen as an afterthought once the work was assembled, and who can blame them; it isn’t central to the didactic message of an architecture exhibition. In a curious way though, the crypt in St Pancras does offer the potential to reinforce the nascent message about the similarities and differences in our built environment across the globe. A message about the wonderful curiosity of alternative spaces and the role they have to play in contrast to the ubiquity we experience on a daily basis in both art and architecture.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy The Crypt Gallery