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Critical Writing Students Reveal What is Hidden in Plain Site

Critical Writing in Art & Design students launch their Albertoplis Companion this evening: the most recent publication to be collaboratively produced by graduating students from the programme. This collection of essays excavates and turns a critical light on the hidden treasures of the College’s immediate surroundings.

Entirely conceived of and produced by the students, the book exposes the more obscure histories and narratives of Albertopolis, an area that stretches from Albert Memorial in Hyde Park to the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums on Cromwell Road. Historically it is an area for showcasing, collecting and learning, and remains so today alongside being a hotspot for tourists, who are drawn to its world-renowned cultural venues.

As explained by Bryony Quinn in the first essay in the publication, Albertopolis was first coined as a facetious nickname for this creative quarter. The plot of land it inhabits was purchased with excess funds generated by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Prince Albert drove plans for the area to become an incubator of design and enterprise. Yet these altruistic aims are also inextricably linked to more imperialistic motivations – as Owen Hatherley outlines in the book’s foreword, the Great Exhibition was ‘the zenith of British Imperial Capitalism’ and the architecture of Albertoplis is a constant reminder of this, resembling ‘a World Expo that nobody got around to taking down.’

Embedded in one of Albertopolis’ institutions, the students found themselves in a position to be critical of both the area’s history and its role today. Through their research and subsequent essays, they have stepped away from the well-trodden paths through the area to reveal more complicated, conflicting and intriguing histories. Fi Churchman, one of the books editors, explained: ‘We didn’t want the publication to be too celebratory and we also wanted to avoid nostalgia. Instead we were drawn to the area's flaws, which made Albertopolis more endearing to us.’

The students have created a wide ranging, off-centre and critical anthology of texts, which have enlivened and invigorated an Albertopolis that seemed, as they put it ‘bored with itself’. The essays explore below the surface, as in Nina Kock’s essay about the tunnel running beneath exhibition road, and disclose the nuanced in the everyday, like Jeremy Atherton Lin’s journey through contemporary Albertopolis on foot. Others delve into the unfamiliar depths of collections held within Albertopolis, such as Churchman’s ‘Lithophilia’, which reveals the macabre details of collected rocks, or they consider hidden events, as in Benjamin D Harvey’s reflection on the legendary 1965 performance of beat poetry at the Royal Albert Hall.

Dispersed amongst the individual essays are a series of collaboratively written Companion Notes, focusing on unique facts, objects, stories and incidents unearthed by the students. These range from common sights, such as the London Plane trees of Queen’s Gate, to the more unusual, like the gigantic Chatsworth water lily, which was the inspiration for the structure of the Crystal Palace. Each of these notes is printed in gold, setting them apart from the other texts, and corresponds to a point on an illustrated map accompanying the book.

The book was designed by first year Visual Communication students Guillaume Chuard and Daniel K Y Nørregaard and features conceptual references to Albertopolis’ nineteenth-century heyday, such as the use of a font developed by Robert Huber inspired by a typeface from 1890. Unique hand drawn monograms, which were influenced by pocket book of Victorian Painters' Monograms, are also used throughout. Each essay is accompanied by an illustration from Katie Rose Johnston, providing a more subjective, contemporary aesthetic amongst the wealth of fascinating archival images. Gold is used throughout the publication to highlight and augment aspects of the images, bringing both warmth and quirkiness. This is seen to best effect on the photographs of the Albert Memorial, where the blinding sheen of the monument is emulated. Quinn, who was jointly responsible for the art direction of the publication explains: ‘Albertopolis is a strange place, so it made sense to engage in a “making strange” of the images.’

Today, it's a challenge to feel an affinity with the polished public face of Albertopolis – yet this is what the Albertoplis Companion seeks to do through its focus on intimate details and idiosyncratic facts. In exploring this living archive, the students have challenged existing modes of writing about place and forged their own individual approaches. Combined with the smart design of the book, the students' essays convey a sense of giddy excitement at the opportunity to share their discoveries about this surprisingly strange area of London.

Albertopolis Companion will be available at Show RCA, Kensington, where there will also be a display and audio-guided walk to accompany the publication. It is also available online.