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Newsmaker: Abraham Thomas

By Fred A. Bernstein
August 20, 2014
Abraham Thomas
Photo courtesy Sir John Soane's Museum
Abraham Thomas became the director of the Soane Museum last December.

In 1833, an act of Parliament allowed the architect John Soane, an inspired interpreter of classical forms, to leave his London townhouse to the public. Since then, Sir John Soane’s Museum has had many directors, including Tim Knox, who began a major renovation project that will open more rooms to the public. Knox’s successor, Abraham Thomas, 36, took the helm last December, and is as comfortable talking about 21st-century architecture as he is about Soane (who lived from 1757 to 1837). Before coming to the Soane, Thomas was curator of designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he mounted a 2012 show on Thomas Heatherwick and the 2010 exhibition 1:1—Architects Build Small Spaces, which included installations by Sou Fujimoto and Rural Studio. At the Soane Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Thomas pointed to examples of Soane’s inventiveness while talking about his own plans for the museum, which receives more than 100,000 visitors a year.

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What would Soane, who couldn’t have been more citified, have made of the Rural Studio?

He would have admired that the studio takes architectural education very seriously. His own practice was influenced by the teaching he did at the Royal Academy; at the same time, the lecture drawings he presented there often depicted his own projects. And he’d offer up his house and collection to students the day before and the day after his lectures.

Can you name some contemporary architects and designers with connections to Soane?

One practice that I particularly enjoy is Grafton Architects, which created a project for the Royal Academy of Art’s Sensing Spaces exhibition earlier this year that was directly inspired by Soane. And Thomas Heatherwick, whose work ranges from the smallest object through to urban planning. When you walk around the Soane museum, you really get a sense of the conscious decision he made to work at all scales.

Your predecessors have shown work by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Daniel Libeskind here. Will you continue to display contemporary architecture?

We will, and we would also like to engage with younger, emerging architects too, and to engage in a deeper way with architecture schools and students.

What would Soane be doing if he were alive?

I think he would be rather like Heatherwick, looking at city-making. A famous project of his, which was never realized, was a grand processional route through London linking Windsor all the way through to Westminster, including a series of triumphal arches. And the Bank of England, really a whole complex, was Soane’s 45-year experiment with urbanism.

What’s contemporary about Soane’s work? 

Throughout the house you see architectural experiments involving the articulation of space through light and shadow, the use of reflective surfaces—there are more than 100 mirrors in the breakfast room alone—and framing devices, whether they’re apertures or doorways. It’s eternally inventive and provocative.

The world is getting more crowded. Are there lessons in Soane’s work for using space?

In the picture room, he presents 118 paintings in a very small space, showing how to use every available surface, including the backs of hinged panels. Even after all these years, it comes across as very radical.

Soane is often cited as an influence by postmodernists. Aren’t modernists also in his debt?

The postmodernists make some valid points, but Soane is a resource for the generations that have followed—young architects like David Kohn, who designed A Room for London [with Fiona Banner], which sits on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Much of it is a tribute to Soane. I don’t like seeing Soane pigeonholed.

How will you broaden the museum’s appeal?

There are particular areas of the collection that allow us to engage with the world of contemporary architecture. Next spring we’re going to open Soane’s original model room. We are going to present 40 models, ranging from fully realized client presentation models to fascinating engineering models, exactly as he presented them, on his own three-level stand. Having this collection allows us to think about the ways models are used in contemporary practice. And in 2016, as part of our big refurbishment project, we will open a new project gallery, an agile space where we can have a faster turnaround for exhibitions. I’m keen on the museum becoming a space of debate and discussion again.

You showed me a model by Richard Rogers. What does it represent for the Soane?

It is a model for a weekend house, designed for Lord and Lady Rogers for an estate in Buckinghamshire. The idea was, you could close it up during the week, so there are flaps that go up and down. We have it next to a rare example of a client model by Soane, ofnTyringham Hall, which can come apart. You can take off the roof and take out the rooms; there’s a performative aspect to it. That’s the type of dialogue I’d like to explore in future programming.

The Soane Museum already has more than 100,000 visitors a year. Are you sure you want publicity?

To preserve the special experience of going through a domestic space, we hope to develop audiences through research collaborations, touring exhibitions, lecture programs at other venues, and programs on the Internet. The last thing we want is to ruin the experience by funneling thousands more visitors a year through the house.

How important are U.S. supporters to the Soane?

Very important. We have a foundation in New York. At our annual gala in September, we’ll be honoring David Adjaye and Phyllis Lambert. I have been fascinated with Adjaye’s museums and libraries—very appropriate topics for the Soane—and Lambert’s work at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which, like the Soane, has an extremely important collection of drawings and models.

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