The Secret Laboratory: Notebooks and Narratives

Cork City Hall, Anglesea St, Cork

Marshall McLuhan’s axiom, that things only become valued when their original purpose is abandoned, neatly applies to The Secret Laboratory: Notebooks and Narratives currently on show in Cork City Hall. Arriving in Cork, on tour from Dublin and Belfast, this touring exhibition is a joint venture between the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland (PLACE) and the University of Ulster in Belfast. Its curator, Paul Clarke, is an architect, writer and Course Director for MArch in the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Ulster. In addition to a sample of Clarke’s prized notebooks, the exhibition selects from local, national and international architects based in Ireland and Northern Ireland: Grafton Architects, Tom de Paor, Shane O’Toole, Peter Cody, Ciaran Mackel, Gary Boyd, ABK, Seamus Lennon, Nigel Peake, Jason O’Shaughnessy, Michael Doherty, Jane Larmour and Patrick Wheeler, Gerry Cahill, Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey. Strangely, there are no identifying labels to distinguish individual architects’ notebooks. Clarke has deliberately made the curatorial decision for object anonymity so that the exhibition can reveal the ideas, observations, thoughts and reflections that are often concealed in a drawer, a coat pocket or in the individual imagination of a quintessential architect. Clarke poetically alludes to the notebooks as ‘butterflies’ expressing the fragility of ideas they capture and the public exposure of what is a most private activity. These ‘butterfly’ notebooks are stretched out under perspex in shallow presentation cases, built by Niall O’Hare (a former MArch student), resembling a cabinet of curiosities snaking along one side of City Hall’s bustling foyer. The exhibition’s title derives from Le Corbusier’s way of referring to his painting practice, but ‘secret laboratory’ also refers to the private diagrammatic spaces of an architectural student’s notebook, when the first tentative marks of a concept sketch are scored across the paper’s surface. Sketchbooks mediate the private process of thinking out an idea, with the spontaneity of a sketch acting as a kind of ‘direct communication’ along the lines described in Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Thinking Hand (2009). Paul Clarke interprets the ‘hidden’ space of the notebook’s page as a site of agency by asking: does a notebook’s influence disappear or blend into architectural practice?
Sketching has always been an important tool for the serious student of architecture. The activity hones skills of draughtsmanship and observation; it helps to develop an understanding of architectural form and establishes a ready reference library.

Installation shot of The Secret Laboratory. Photograph by James Cronin.
Installation shot of The Secret Laboratory. Photograph by James Cronin.

Paul Clarke’s early commitment to the notebook began while studying architecture in Glasgow. Here, he had the good fortune to access the architectural and design notebooks of Charles Rennie Mackintosh held at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery. Facilitated by Pamela Robertson, the museum’s senior curator, he was able to handle these objects, something, he admits, a young architectural student could not do nowadays. Mackintosh sketched from his youth until, in his late forties, painting came to dominate his artistic output. He toured extensively throughout Scotland and England during the 1890s and early 1900s with one very significant trip abroad on a scholarship to Italy in 1891. His drawings were private and rarely exhibited or published in his lifetime. These informal pencil studies, executed free from the constraints of academic supervision, are amongst the earliest works to show his evolving individuality. The Italian drawings show his understanding of classical principles, whilst his British wanderings reveal his fascination with vernacular traditions and the countryside around Walberswick in Suffolk which were to yield the highly individual botanical studies which lead up to his most famous works as exemplified by The Room de Luxe at The Willow Tearooms in Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art.

A theme resonating throughout the exhibition is the idea of notebook as conceptual ‘tool’ or ‘device’. The characteristic of the contemporary age, argues Ivan Illich, is ‘system’, understood through the language of cybernetics as a comprehensive metaphor to describe the information revolution. This term ‘system’ marks the end of what Illich called ‘The Age of Instrumentality’, which he understood as a time where our relationship to the world was primarily mediated by tools. Illich uses the term ‘tool’ to signify any engineered instrument of mediation, and argues that a tool is characterised by what makes it distinct from its user. By contrast, a ‘system’ lacks this distinction because it integrates user intentions within itself. In cybernetics the world system, metaphorically, becomes a ‘network’ and ‘ecosphere’ whereby the computer becomes increasingly identified with the self (David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich, 2005). To Paul Virilio, optical devices attached to the latest military missiles illustrate how the eye, through technological mediation, has become a weapon (Paul Virilio War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, 1989). The cybernetic system is a form of technological prosthesis.
Compact sketchpads and disposable notebooks may seem to be increasingly anachronistic in contemporary digital culture, but Clarke values the unique characteristics of every notebook as a counterweight to the homogeneous ‘flattening’ tendencies of digital design software now ubiquitous in architectural education. Others also value the recovery of disappearing analogue practices. A renewed interest in the educational potential of notebooks is shared by Mark Dyer and his team at TrinityHaus, a research centre of the School of Engineering in Trinity College Dublin. The centre aims to promote sustainability in buildings, neighbourhoods and cities. Its ethos derives from a holistic and multidisciplinary approach underpinned by creative thinking. Central to this process is the notebook. One project, ‘Shelters for the Homeless’, which works towards designs for sustainable night shelters, has benefited from a renewed interest in the notebook as a scaffolding device helping to stimulate enquiry and assisting engineering students to work through a design brief. There is something essentially countercultural in attempting to recover and find value in a forgotten process or lost practice. This particular sense of the countercultural pervades The Secret Laboratory.
The Secret Laboratory: Notebooks and Narratives was on view 12 May – 5 August 2011.