Tired of (in the words of curator Abraham Thomas) architectural shows that feature little more than inscrutable computer renders and whistful scale models, the V&A tried something new: they invited seven international architects to design and build small yet ambitious full-scale structures around the museum's Cromwell Road home.
Working within small footprints, the architects have made use of the V&A's high ceilings by building upwards. In the hub space of the Clifton gallery, Brazilian practice Vazio S/A has constructed a multi-floor theatrical performance rig. Garlanded with plush red drapes that could have been pinched from a David Lynch film set, the precarious tower, with its imprecise internal form and hidden recesses, will be recognisable to anybody familiar with a Shunt play; appropriately enough, the structure will be occupied by dance and theatre groups each Friday and Saturday, who will devise performance pieces specifically for the space.
Rintala Eggertsson Architects's Ark takes a similarly vertiginous approach. Like a Borges fable made real, the tower, smuggled into the staircase of the V&A's National Art Library, is lined with books. Wooden steps wind up past shelf after shelf of paperbacks, the spine of each turned inward, and small nooks set at each floor allows the casual browser to pull a tome down and take a read. Another space for relaxation and reflection comes via Beetle's House, incongruously placed in a suntrap between a 15th century Viennese staircase and the facade of Paul Pindar's house in the V&A's new Renaissance and Medieval gallery. Accessed via a Lilliputian staircase, the tea house is appropriately accessorised with a tea set inside by RCA Ceramics and Glass student Malene Hartmann-Ramussen.
Perhaps the most challenging space to fill was the V&A's cast courts. The honour here goes to Studio Mumbai, who have created In-Between Architecture a cast of the cramped, makeshift lodgings of an eight-person family that live behind their Indian headquarters. The exhibition is completed by Ratatosk, a "play structure" designed by Norwegian firm Helen & Hard and located in the Madejski Garden; Woodshed, by Rural Studio; and Sou Fujimoto's Inside/Outside Tree, a series of polygonal plexiglass sheets held together with thick cable ties that form a computerised render of a tree.
The word 'sustainability' is refreshingly absent from this exhibition. None of these practices have sought to make any grand statement on what architecture should be, or how it should respond to modern challenges and concerns; rather, there's a sense of play and enjoyment at hand. More so than any other recent architectural exhibition, this is a show to engage the casual visitor in a sense of the possibilities inherent in a profession too often guilted into docility.