Bringing our expertise in placemaking to the fore, Make has collaborated with Christopher Turner, Keeper of Design, Architecture and Digital at the V&A, to ensure this new experience provides a heightened layer of experiential, visual and textual information to Johnson’s paintings, so that the public can gain an unrivalled insight into his work. The VCA is a new platform that will explore contemporary art but with a particular focus on architecture, cities and places – both real and imaginary. Given the expansive possibilities of the digital world, the VCA will create innovative and collaborative partnerships with artists and institutions to host virtual events within digitally rendered environments.
Ben Johnson says that his paintings “celebrate everything that I think is great in architecture and engineering. Not the ego of the architect, but the ambitions of architecture”. Often confused with photorealism, his paintings explore complex perspectives, sometimes constructed from impossible viewpoints and depicting lost buildings. With their crystalline light, carefully chosen framing, and solemn solidity, they show the powerful underlying geometry of the structures Johnson most admires. Devoid of people, but nevertheless commemorating social places, his paintings seem timeless, perfect spaces in the Renaissance tradition of the ‘ideal city’. Together they tell a history of architecture from Johnson’s unique viewpoint – a subject he has devoted 50 years to.
Johnson studied at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s, when it was based at the V&A, and his work is inspired by the museum’s collections. One of the VCA pavilions explores these references and influences as well as Johnson’s working processes in depth. Another pavilion is designed to house a captivating behind-the-scenes look at Ben Johnson’s London studio through an interactive visit that invites visitors to explore the artist’s tools and the day-to-day objects Johnson surrounds himself with when working.
The other pavilions are each dedicated to a particular work by Johnson, including the Dome of the Rock, the Alhambra, the Crystal Palace, the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, and the Neues Museum. These works are the result of intense architectural study, built up slowly over many months of observation and drawing, often combined with digital technology. In the pavilions, visitors will be able to learn about the buildings depicted in the paintings, and the artist’s techniques, in short films by filmmaker Tapio Snellman.
Ben Johnson said: “When I came to study at the Royal College of Art, over 50 years ago, I would enter the painting studios through the V&A. I was overawed by the scale of the museum but also the breadth of the collection. This daily exposure to the collection formed the basis of my life’s work. The museum became my tutor. It bought me to a world where architecture collaborated with craftsmanship to transcend the functional and offer the sublime. To this day I still visit it as a constant source of research and inspiration.”
Christopher Turner said: “Ben Johnson’s meticulous, detailed paintings of buildings, which mix traditional modes of artistic production with digital technology, are the result of 50 years of deep engagement with architecture. The first time I saw one of his canvases, depicting the swimming pool at Norman Foster’s Willis Building in Ipswich, full of glamour and geometry, I had to seek out its maker. The resulting studio visit, a history lesson in architecture, led to this virtual retrospective.”
Make approached the design of the VCA in much the same way we would one of our physical buildings, using placemaking skills to create an exhibition environment that is connected to familiar things – such as building materials and views outside – while making use of the flexibility provided by the digital world. We considered issues of scale, lighting, ease of orientation and even the materials (both man-made and natural) that comprise the virtual architecture, but also – uniquely for the digital world – the layers of content that could be embedded in individual exhibits. The overall result is a procession of distinct gallery spaces that offer infinite display and engagement possibilities.
VCA Project Lead, Greg Willis of Make Architects said: “Working in architecture helps you see the world in a very specific way – you appreciate spaces, light, scale and materials and how they layer to provide an experience. Translating this to a digital world has been fascinating, especially in collaborating with artists and galleries. It presents a wonderful way to explore the possibilities of this new creative stream and how architecture can enhance the experience for the digital visitors. We’re so excited to see where it will lead us next.”
With the explosion of online cultural offerings during the pandemic, Make observed a genuine need for a virtual setting that provided a richer ‘visitor’ experience, both in terms of the information provided and the design and feel of the galleries themselves. Rather than replacing the traditional in-person museum visit, the VCA is intended to offer a complementary experience that can only be had in the digital world. Post-Covid, virtual presentations of art will no doubt continue to play an increasingly important role for museums in sharing their collections and expertise in this way, as well as broadening opportunities for people to access and appreciate art around the world.
Ken Shuttleworth, Founder of Make Architects said: “This has been a really innovative and exciting project to work on and we are so thrilled to be launching it with Ben Johnson and the V&A. It started with a pilot exhibition in 2020, showing works from our Architecture Drawing Prize, and it is so exciting to see how the digital arena can add another layer to how we see and experience art and architecture.”
A virtual panel discussion will launch Perfect Spaces: Paintings by Ben Johnson on 16 June and explore the future possibilities of virtual exhibitions, the challenges of educating and entertaining museum audiences digitally, and the lessons of lockdown. Register at www.vca.gallery.
- Ben Johnson, Artist
- Christopher Turner, Keeper of Design, Architecture and Digital at the V&A
- Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A
- Ken Shuttleworth, Founder, Make Architects
- Greg Willis, Make Architects
- Tamsie Thomson, Director of the London Festival of Architecture