Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at the Soane Museum – Review

Simon Henley

Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at Sir John Soane’s Museum © Gareth Gardner.

Between 19th October 2022 and 8th of January 2023, the calm galleries and vitrines at no.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields were host to an exhibition called Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at the Soane Museum. Organised around a dramatic comparison between the thoughts and work of two architects – Sir John Soane and Grafton Architects, the focus was on two buildings: 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields by Soane – once his house and office and now the Sir John Soane’s Museum, and the recently completed Marshall Building, 44 Lincoln’s Inn Fields for the London School of Economics and Political Science by Grafton Architects. These two important structures face each other across London’s largest garden square, and over the last three years, Grafton Architects have been working together with the museum’s curators to select drawings and models from the Soane collection that informed their own working drawings for the LSE project. 

Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at Sir John Soane’s Museum © Gareth Gardner.

The exhibition (and accompanying catalogue) offers much to discover, for example that Soane’s office made drawings that superimpose projections of one building over the top of another, such as the plan of St Martin-in-the-Fields over that of the Parthenon, in the interest of understanding scale. Grafton Architects emulate this process with their overlaying the nearby Lincoln’s Inn Chapel with the Great Hall of the Marshall Building to create a single drawn amalgam of vaulting. This action reveals comparable rhythmic properties, but also makes explicit and absolute comparisons that are otherwise left in the hands of the historian and their words. 

Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at Sir John Soane’s Museum © Gareth Gardner.
Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at Sir John Soane’s Museum © Gareth Gardner.

Not surprisingly, the theme of light was a key protagonist of the exhibition. A model of the once-open Portland stone loggia of 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields was placed adjacent to a series of study models of the screen that Grafton Architects stretched across the attic storeys of the Marshall Building. The structural trees at the LSE are modelled, drawn and photographed, and the completed section recorded in a Lidar scan, shown side by side a similar scan and drawings of the Soane Museum. These scans capture, with photographic precision, the tone and hue of the light, its colour temperature and gradual recession as it reaches down into the depths of the section. Quoted alongside, Louis Kahn explains, ‘structure is the maker of light’.  

Walking around the exhibition, entranced by the models and Dennis Gilbert’s huge prints of the Marshall Building under construction, I was left in no doubt about the fascination for structure and light shared by both architectural practices. Soane and Grafton Architects shape their spaces with what is above your head, be it structural or purely formal: the vault and the skylight, or the ceiling and the sky, spatialise each interior. This is true of Soane’s Breakfast Room and the museum rooms at the back of the house as much as it is in Grafton Architects’ Great Hall and the towering spaces occupied by the ‘luminous columns’ that rise out of it. 

George Bailey, No 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields Section through the Dome, 1810. © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
Grafton Architects, Section, The Marshall Building. © Grafton Architects.

Repeatedly, the curation as articulated through the drawings and models highlights the common ground between two architects who, although separated by two centuries, pay the same attention to scale and the layering of space in their facades and plans, in the relationship between light and shadow, the role of structure and environmental systems, and the crafting of a detail. Grafton Architects also employ some of the same drawing conventions as Soane, for example in their representation of materials, where masonry is rendered pink, wood, yellow and metal, blue. Grafton Architects’ construction photographs are shown alongside the Soane office’s innovative drawings of the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, made during their construction.

Soane office, No 13 Lincolns Inn Fields perspective of the south front, as erected, 1812 © Sir John Soane Museum
Grafton Architects, View of the Marshall Building North Facade, London. photo by Ed Reeves.

I had not yet seen the Marshall Building when I visited the exhibition in late December 2022 – it was closed the day I tried.  So, my experience was not of the building itself but of the idea of a building told in two ways: through the objects of its conceptualisation and production, but also through the curated comparison between Soane and Grafton Architects, which made the discipline of their methods apparent. In this conceptual representation, the curators ensure that each drawing or model does indeed focus the observer on specific themes, such as light, structure, process and material. It is refreshing to see in an exhibition that something that seems tangible – a building – can and must be explained and not simply presumed to be understood. Grafton Architects’ drawings and models are analytical and when seen next to Soane’s, the ambitions of both are reinforced through comparison, so that the exhibition is both an abstraction and hyper-realisation of the work. 

Neighbours in Space and Time: Grafton Architects at the Soane Museum was on display at the Sir John Soane’s Museum from the 19th October 2022 to 8th of January 2023, accompanied by a catalogue.

Simon Henley is an architect and principal at Henley Halebrown.