Category Archives: architecture

Cathedrals of Culture (2014)

Of course, buildings cannot have souls. We are cannot even install them in computers. But a new 3D film by six directors, which began life as a TV series, sets out to demonstrate the improbable.

You have to admit these are personable buildings. The roving cameras are accompanied by first person voiceovers which bring us into the action as effectively as our stereoscopic specs.

It should be noted, this film got a really bad review in the Guardian, where architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright found it “sickly sweet . . . syrupy schmaltz”.

And while it is true that some of these buildings come off better than others, and that the results are an immersive advertisement for each given destination, there’s plenty of visual jouissance.

The star of the show, the leading architectural cast member, is Halden Prison in Norway. Here the film captures all the humanity you could ever hope for from one of these institutions.

Sun shines on the basketball court, marital quarters are tastefully decked out, the prison shop is well stocked, even the isolation cells look cool and, despite the dirty protest, somewhat inviting.

Wenders himself films the Berlin Philharmonic, a crazy structure based on overlapping pentagons. Yes, the praise is gushing. But this is a real life sonic cathedral, so what’s not to love?

Perhaps for those already familiar with, say, the National Library of Russia or the Salk Institute, this film is a bit of a yawn. Director Robert Redford maybe overdoes the time lapse photography.

Indeed, the thirty or so minutes spent in the company of the Centre Pompidou in Paris were none too interesting. Having spent a few days riding those escalators, something more was hoped for.

And yet the film which gave the least info was also the most dynamic. Director Margreth Olin chose to focus on the performers who use the Oslo Opera House, allowing the building itself to also dance.

At 165 minutes, this cathedral service is a lengthy one. It drags at times. But why should action movies have the monopoly on 3D? Architecture, no matter how sugar coated, is surely as exciting.

Cathedrals of Culture was screened at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton, on 30 December 2014.

Barbican Estate, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (1965-76)

(c) Claire Masset
(c) Claire Masset

There are two Barbicans, we soon learn on a tour of the East London council estate: the multi-purpose arts centre; and the mysterious residential units which sell for seven figure sums.

Most visits to the former involve passing beneath the latter. But there is so much more to this brutalist landmark and unlikely home than the short journey from tube stop to gallery.

But if you feel the towers and apartments remain distant and inaccessible, this is no doubt part of the masterplan. Barbican, as etym fans will know, comes from old French and means outer fort.

In practice what this means is vertiginous high rises, playful arrow slit apertures on some of the streets in the sky, and endless vistas of concrete much of it with an hallmark distressed finish.

Our knowledgeable guide surrprises us by revealing that this extensive finish was achieved by hand, as a team of brave workers with pneumatic drills hung from the sides of the 42-storey building.

In a 90-minute circuit of the complex, there are plenty more revelations. The Barbican has plentiful green space, tennis courts and a five-a-side pitch. The water features proliferate.

So the famous concrete appears balanced by greenery and a sense of play. It is pointed out that a semi-circular motif ties fountains to benches to penthouse duplexes and all points in between.

This is just one of a few subtle details which make the whole site cohere. The eye takes them in, but they can fly under the radar, so it is a real joy to have them pointed out.

As you might have guessed, the approach to function and form is not entirely modernist. A tower built to house RSC stage sets above the stage of the theatre is disguised by a conservatory full of plants.

Meanwhile the tower blocks appear to rotate as you move around. The sharp triangular footprints turn their four bedroom apartments to face in different directions.

Upon their first appearance, not so long after WWII, they would have been dominant features of the London skyline. But from down here they still seem impossibly high and dynamic.

Other weird components to this island of unreality in the City include a medieval church, namely St Giles-without-Cripplegate and a police station which keeps office hours.

A tour lasts 90 minutes; it flies by; and it is recommended for anyone with rampant curiosity about the lifestyles of Britain’s best-heeled council tenants. If only they needed a blogger in residence.

There are daily tours of Barbican Estate between now and February 26. See the arts centre website for booking details.

Ernö Goldfinger, Balfron Tower (1968)

2014-10-03 13_Fotor

It’s been a sheltered low-rise sort of upbringing for this blogger. So the chance to ride a steel elevator up 24 floors to flat 130 of the Balfron Tower was not to be missed.

This masterpiece of social housing is Grade II listed, and the flat in question is a pop up showpiece of 1960s living brought to you for 10 days only by the National Trust.

The Tower is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten, but still out-of-the-way landmarks. Tell someone you’ve visited and you may have to qualify that with a description.

In other words, mention the concrete, the height, the service tower, the streets in the sky. It may trigger the recall of an Oasis video, a Danny Boyle film, a JG Ballard novel.

But you don’t need to be an artiste to recognise the appeal of the building. You just have to love a certain rationalism. The architect loved columns and beams, and to simply show those off.

It seems totally unfair that Ernö Goldfinger had his good name swiped by Ian Fleming for the seventh novel in the James Bond series. The man was a hero not a villain.

Shortly after the completion of his visionary tower block in Poplar, Goldfinger moved in to Flat 130 and, floor by floor, invited round residents for Champagne and consultation.

He moved out circa 1968, at which point the incoming family might well have tricked out the interior in the style you can now find it in thanks to the National Trust.

The 75-minute tour culminates in a fifteen minute opportunity to poke around, with something like envy, among the Beatles records and vintage cereal packets.

Although the inhabitants’ prized posession was the view. Floor to ceiling windows at every available point afforded stunning views across what is now 21st century London.

The balcony is a spot to make inhabitants feel kingly or queenly. And the balustrade doubles as a trough of earth in which they could grow flowers or even vegetables.

Naturally it is made out of concrete, as is most of the building, and yet it makes one feel safe. You wonder how this material got such a bad rap, along with the corresponding Utopian dreams.

If you’re not already booked on to a tour between the 8 and 12 October, bad luck. They are sold out. But Balfron tower and the nearby Lansbury Estate are still worth a look round.

Chris Agnew, Sacrifice (2012)

If superstition ran riot, might not every human casualty take on the complexion of a sacrifice. Every death would register as an appeasement of one of our many gods.

Admittedly, that is wacko. But here Chris Agnew juxtaposes what must be the most rational system of government, communism, with one of the least, Mayan.

In times of drought, enemy blood would have flowed atop of Chichen Itza pyramid in Mexico. Slower deaths may have been experienced in this Bucharest tower block.

It is arguable that both civilisations fed on the blood of their enemies. Sorry, make that all civilisations. Agnew’s drawing hints we may all be irredeemably primitive.

But no one can deny our talent for inspiring fear and wonder, through the monuments we construct or the or the artworks we hang on the wall.

This drawing, for example, is a marvel of concentration and detail. Agnew has built his pyramid with perhaps as much slavery as art, brick by tiny brick.

And it is terrifying to reflect that short of raising both pyramid and apartment block to the ground, we are bound to inherit something from them.

Perhaps an architectural synthesis of left and right wing is what we need. Or perhaps it is what we already have. We live in polarising times.

Sacrifice can be seen in Agnew’s solo show, The Pomp of Circumstances, at Nancy Victor Gallery, London, until July 6 2012. See gallery website for more details and check out the artist’s own website.

Toilet of Modern Art, Vienna

I’m not even going to mention the most famous toilet in modern art, but here’s another pretender to the throne, no pun intended.

Hundertwasser was an Viennese architect. His quirky creations are a guide book mainstay, with their undulating floors and irregular windows. Coach parties love him.

Just streets apart in the East of the city are the playful KunstHausWien, and a co-designed apartment block called Hundertwasser House. Both are equally tacky, equally welcoming.

And I would defy even the most hardline modernist not to get sucked into the gaudy arcade opposite. It was so cold in late November, aesthetics were barely a consideration.

This busy market is where you will find the so-called Modern Art Toilet. Which proved so irrestistable, I forked over 60 cents for a service I did not at the time require.

Aside from some crazy tiling effects and cracked mirrors, it was not all that different from a less artistic toilet. But there was an option to wash hands in a fountain.

Ahead of me in the queue were a delegation of elderly Italians. The turnstiles kept rejecting their money and they were exhibiting symptoms of toilet rage.

This may not be exactly what Hundertwasser had in mind. But this art nouveau hippy does have an eye for the main chance. Upstairs you could buy posters and prints of his artwork.

But say what you like about his nemesis, Adolf Loos. The more sober local architect, with his ‘devil’s tools’ (straight lines, according to Hundertwasser), has much more desirable merch.

And his buildings do not pander to your inner child. Only streets away is a prime example built by his student Paul Engelmann and his friend Ludwig Wittgenstein.

It’s a notorious fact that elements such as doorhandles took a year each to design. But still, one has no real desire to turn them and enter this villa of good taste. Perhaps that is the point.

Is it me, or are these washbasins over selling themselves here?

The door is locked. Come back when you’ve read Tractatus and make an appointment.

Toilet of Modern Art can be found in the shopping complex opposite Hundertwasser House on the corner of Lowengasse/Kegelgasse.

Adolf Krischanitz, Barhocker (1986)

With its dark, stained and somewhat splayed feet this stool looks solid enough. But it was still not clear that sitting there was permitted. It was, after all, part of an exhibition.

It had its own plaque on the wall and, indeed, I was reading the very details relating to this piece, when I turned and saw what first I took to be an astonishing sculpture.

Barhocker appeared to feature a hyper-realist old man with finely rendered grey hairs. It took a second to realise, this was in fact my gallery going companion.

My father accompanied me on a recent trip to Vienna. But he wasn’t much interested in the meta-discourse on white cube spaces at the city’s famous Secession gallery.

Instead he wanted to take the weight off his feet. And never mind the reference to Joseph Kosuth who is infamous for putting chairs into galleries.

“You can’t sit on the art!” I almost shouted, pointing out that particular chair was an idea rather than a piece of furniture.

Its designer is an Austrian architect who presumably made severeal Barhocker pieces to go with his rennovation of this world famous institution in 1986.

This stool would have been the perfect place to gaze at the newly restored columns in the Hauptraum. They were once again clad in chrome steel and brass.

Because in 1991, they were painted over for a show curated by Kosuth, whose best known work was a chair accompanied by a photo and a dictionary definition.

His was not the only conceptual piece from the 1960s to involve a chair. Had this been a reference to George Brecht’s Chair Events, sitting there would have been just dandy.

But that’s a lot of back story to explain to a weary relative why an inviting seat in a contemporary art show is probably a perverse conceit. It does sound foolish.

DIE FÜNFTE SÄULE was a group show at Secession between September 9 – November 20, 2011. See gallery website for more details.

Ximena Garrido-Lecca, The Walls of Progress: Project Country (2011)

Amidst the bright, shiny things one could take home from Frieze to put on your wall was this: a structure of mud, daring collectors to take it back to their bright, shiny homes.

Hand made from adobe bricks and modelled on an original in the highlands of Peru, this sculpture brought the outside world into artworld via the Frieze marquee.

As a 6m wide wall, it echoes the countless partitions which separated the 173 galleries who showed up to sell work. It suggested that was all capitalism amounts to, divisions.

But Project Country also had a resonance from the cultural exterior as well. In the outside world, such walls in Peru demonstrate a close relationship with the earth and veneration for nature.

That’s an angle for the jet-set to consider, for many of whom art is surely a ‘fragment shored against ruins’ of industrial or ecological collapse. In other words, it’s an investment.

And yet exterior is the wrong word. Like 48-sheet posters at the nearest tube, these walls now carry murals advertising consumer brands, or in this case a now-defunct political party.

And just as there might be no escaping the marketplace in the wilds of Peru, so there is no escaping from progressive politics in the heart of a lucrative art fair.

To purchase this crumbling structure from Revolver gallery at the fair would be as absurd a gesture as those tales of Americans shipping home English castles brick by brick.

It would cost a packet and serve as a constant reminder of all those peasants or serfs who cannot buy blue-chip art. And Peruvian or not, that’s most of us.

Project Country could be seen last week at Frieze Art Fair. There’s more about Ximena Garrido-Lecca on her website or in this interview in Momardi blog.

Kutluğ Ataman, Mesopotamian Dramaturgies / Mayhem (2011)

Kutluğ Ataman has got into the spirit of the Brighton Festival with a carnivalesque metaphor for the recent turmoil in the Arab world: a waterfall which defies gravity.

(This reading of Mayhem needs its full context, a series named after a region encompassing Iraq, Iran and Syria. And nearby here is another piece (Su) in which Islam is a more explicit theme.)

But the relative safety of an art space in the West, gives us some distance from this drama. Like a television with the sound down, Ataman’s film cools off the spectacle of unrest.

Indeed water is used often in Islamic architecture for this very purpose: to keep occupants cool. Three of the channels are projected onto the floor like pools in a mosque.

In a visual sense, this is a monumental feat of plumbing. The work offers a strong contrast with the vast disused space of the Old Municipal Market and its dusty concrete floors.

And at the risk of wearing out his name, Duchamp did once say that plumbing was the difference between sculpture and architecture. His fountain and Ataman’s both play with that distinction.

But only a sculptural film installation could harness the power of the Iguazu Falls. This wild South American region is also called Mesopotamia. But which one is the newer world?

The Old Municipal Market is on Circus Street, Brighton, and the show runs until 29 May 2011. It’s organised by Lighthouse. See their website for more details.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974)

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974). Image courtesy Barbican Art Gallery.

Novelist Philip Roth is known for having said: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” And this work by Gordon Matta-Clark suggests a comparable model for artists.

The house which he literally saws in two is described in a caption to the film of the event as a “typical family home”. It is then demolished in a total act of homewrecking.

A certain level of violence is needed to complete this task and, as Matta-Clark bludgeons out the foundations with a sledgehammer, it looks pretty dangerous.

According to an intriguing academic paper, just a year before this work was made the artist’s cousin was in the Broadway Central Hotel, speaking to his mother on the phone, when it collapsed.

So it was Matta-Clark’s experience that the roof over your head and your nearest and dearest can, in a direct and indirect way, destroy. When anyone is born into a family, that person is finished.

Of course, it was this person’s good or bad fortune to be the son of two more artists, Anne Clark and perhaps more significantly, Roberto Matta. That cannot have been too damaging to his own work.

And from dad he inherited an antipathy towards conformist architecture. Matta worked for Le Corbusier and later rejected his ideas. His son also studied the discipline only to do the same.

But their relationship appears to have been fraught, which may be another word for typical. Or maybe, this piece is just a comment on housing in New Jersey, where Roth grew up, incidentally.

Film and photography documenting Splitting, along with four upper corners from the house itself, can be seen in at Barbican Art Gallery, London. The show is called Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s and runs until 22 May.

You can read my review of this show on Culture24. And further reviews of shows which feature Matta-Clark can be found in Frieze and The New York Times. I also found this news piece about his show at the Whitney to be most informative.


Review: Modern Times – Responding to Chaos

Exhibition: Modern Times, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 13 2010

Somewhere between art and architecture sits a drawing by minimalist sculptor Fred Sandbeck. His pencil and chalk plan for a Zurich gallery construction hovers in mid air, reminding us of the Utopian potential of pictorial space.

The architectural role of this work would have come as no surprise to El Lissitzky. In the 1920s the Russian artist developed a mysterious term for such constructions of art. He called it Proun.

Given that eight lithographs by the inventor of Proun find their way into this show, the concept appears central to the fantastic selection of drawings here. If so, it is also central to the history of 20th century art proposed by curator Lutz Becker.

If that story begins with Lissitzky and Suprematism, it ends here with the minimalism of Sol Lewitt. By numbering the blocks in his Working Drawing (1996) he produces a piece of deadpan technical drawing, like a terse fullstop on all the preceeding “isms”.

The artist’s line, once a vehicle for representation and then abstract expression, now becomes fully realised as a means for drafting perfect structures in the mind’s eye.

Indeed, abstract expressionism here seems almost a folly. Willem De Kooning’s smudges, Franz Kline’s daubs and Robert Motherwell’s painterly blobs could be a vain rebellion against the spatial powers of the line.

But drawing too can represent chaos, rather than clarity. Night Celebration III by Mark Tobey is an even, methodical scribble which spreads across the surface of a sheet of card like cigarette smoke at a riotous party.

However, the lasting impression from this show is that less equals more. The works are largely monochrome. There are few figurative reference points. For every feat of excess there is a study in restraint.

You come away feeling that in art so much can be achieved with the simplest means. A case in point is Norman McClaren film Horizontal Lines, shown alongside moving image works by Fernand Léger, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling.

The horizontal lines rise, fall and proliferate as if set in motion by an algorithm, but this is no dry exercise in geometry. The film is also a perfect narrative. It is high drama. Excitement runs thoughout this show like lead through a pencil.

Written for Culture24.