Exhibitions about architecture are all the rage. In the past year alone, London has hosted a wide variety of shows, with varying degrees of success. The most notable were Archigram at the Design Museum (excellent), Mies van der Rohe at the Whitechapel (very good), Foreign Office Architects at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (so so) and Daniel Libeskind at the Barbican (bland). Now the Victoria and Albert Museum, in association with the Royal Institute of British Architects, has opened a permanent gallery devoted to the history of buildings.
This explosion of interest is curious. Until now, the capital's arts venues have paid little attention to the subject. The reason, no doubt, is that architecture exhibitions are very difficult to pull off. Too often they fail to capture the joy of the structures they are supposed to be celebrating, relying heavily on models and drawings that delight experts but fail to engage a wider audience. As Gareth Williams, co-curator of the V&A's new gallery, acknowledges: "The most obvious problem is that your subject isn't there. If you're doing an exhibition about silver, for example, then you show cases of silver. With architecture, the first thing you have to get over is that everything is a representation of your subject and you have to try to give it context and continuity."
Then there's the problem of the accompanying text. Like most professions, architects have a tendency to guard their secrets through language. Ideas are rarely described in simple terms, and many architecture shows appear to be on a mission to confuse rather than explain. That certainly seemed the case in the ICA's retrospective of Foreign Office Architects. The show, bathed in blue light and with images projected on to the walls and floors, was visually alluring. Yet the account of the practice's work (which includes Yokohama International Port in Japan and involvement in London's bid for the 2012 Olympics) was wildly pretentious. For example, in the book that accompanied the show, the founders Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi wrote: "Our practice may be seen as a phylogenetic process in which seeds proliferate in time across different environments, generating differential yet consistent organisms." And architects wonder why they are often lampooned in the mainstream media.
In such a climate, it was brave of the V&A and Riba to use items from their respective collections of drawings and models to present the history of architecture in a single room. Split into three sections - "The Art of Architecture", "The Function of Buildings" and "Architects and Architecture" - with an area for temporary exhibitions on the side, the gallery does its best to appeal to the widest possible audience. The first model that visitors encounter is of a typical 1930s two-up, two-down house, and Eric Kuhne's Bluewater shopping mall in Kent is (quite rightly) given a prominent position alongside buildings as diverse as the ancient Pantheon in Rome and the Eden Project in Cornwall. Importantly, the curators have looked beyond western architecture to examine how buildings developed in Japan, Eygpt, North Africa and India.
So there is much to applaud in the new gallery, and yet it falls short of achieving its aims. According to Williams, the V&A hopes to attract "the general public - the general V&A audience - which is anyone from tourists to school groups to informed adults". Yet it is impossible to unpack a subject as big as architecture in such a small space, and for different reasons both experts and the mildly curious are likely to feel short-changed. Among the exhibits are some delightful drawings and unexpected models, but no project is given the attention it deserves.
The accompanying text is good - clear and concise, if occasionally patronising: the opening board tells us that "for centuries people have designed and constructed their own buildings. But since early times skilled specialists, who we now call architects, have been asked to design important buildings." The content, meanwhile, is unlikely to raise the pulse of the average punter. Despite the vast array of weird and wonderful technology now available to guide people around exhibitions, the V&A and Riba have stuck to a somewhat tired formula. When TV screens are used - for instance, to explain the construction of Foster & Partners' Swiss Re building (otherwise known as the Gherkin) - they are discreet and almost apologetic.
There is also a distinct lack of interactive features. The beauty of buildings is that they engage all the senses. Our experience and understanding of spaces are informed by acoustics, smells, materials and context, not just what they look like. However, with the exception of the touchy-feely materials wall at the end of the room, the V&A's new gallery is concerned almost exclusively with the visual nature of architecture.
Presented with the problem of squeezing 180 exhibits into such a small space, the gallery's designer, Gareth Hoskins Architects, has come up with an elegant and unobtrusive solution. It is to the firm's credit that your eye is always drawn to the exhibits rather than the gallery's design. On the other hand, it's rather too easy to drift from one section to another without realising exactly where you are.
The V&A and Riba have done a solid job of editing and displaying their collections, and there are some real gems for buffs to admire - such as an 18th-century ivory model of Fort William in Calcutta and a preliminary sketch of the Houses of Parliament by Charles Barry. The gallery even includes a model of the V&A's own, permanently mothballed, Spiral extension.
Nonetheless, it's impossible to shake the feeling that you could get much the same experience from a book. That extra dimension required to attract a mass audience is missing. Despite all its good intentions, the gallery fails to take the architecture exhibition to a higher level.