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Fuglsang Art Museum, Denmark by Tony Fretton Architects

Tony Fretton Architects’ Fuglsang Art Museum celebrates the landscape that surrounds it, but its charm is in its walls

‘When we spoke to the bricklayers, they told us that the ordinary stretcher bond we were proposing was normally used in Denmark for non-special buildings: barns and farm buildings. So we changed it to this bond. They did a beautiful job.’ Project architect Donald Matheson is describing the quarter-brick running bond of the walls that wrap Tony Fretton Architects’ Fuglsang Art Museum in Lolland, an hour-and-a-half’s train ride from Copenhagen. The building, Fretton’s largest completed work, is contained within whitewashed brick walls, set in the flat landscape of this island in the Baltic Sea.

To be honest, before I visited the building, I idly thought that it was going to be a white-rendered box, a piece of rather aloof Modernism. But the building is made of the same whitewashed brick as the long, low barn that sits across the farmyard, even sitting on a grey base, like the stone foundations of the brick buildings of the estate. The building is contemporary (or ‘of today’ in Fretton’s words) but is explicitly clad in the same stuff as the agricultural buildings. Although, thanks to the Danish brickies, it does have a different brick bond.

Fuglsang is a collection of buildings, the most prominent of which is a country house dating from the 18th century, which is today used as a retreat for musicians. In front of the house is a farmyard, with less important buildings arranged around it, including a long, low barn of impressive scale, a house for the keeper of the estate and the original forge.

At the competition stage (which Fretton won in May 2005), the site was configured in such a way that entries were supposed to neatly complete the courtyard. Fretton’s proposal kept one side of the farmyard open, allowing visitors views of the flat landscape and water beyond. This remains a great decision. By deciding against slavishly following the type, Fretton’s building creates a place of rare atmosphere.

You enter the building underneath a large steel table that serves as an open lobby. This is set to become a Fretton trademark - his proposed British Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, also has an oversized table sat outside it. Through two sets of automatic glass doors is a foyer occupied on your left by a café and in front by a small bookshop.

If you look ahead of you as you enter, there are glass doors onto another room (normally used for education) and beyond that a view out on to a picturesque orchard. Fretton explains this as a translation of the original competition-winning project’s internal courtyards, and it is a fine intention. However, the pretty ugly door sections distract from the desired transparency, and the detailing of the terrazzo tiles also shows that there must have been some pressure on the budget. Architects worry more about these things than punters, and I didn’t find it as distracting as some more critical visitors to the building I have spoken to.

Turning right you face the reception desk and the double glass doors that lead into the galleries. Walking through you find yourself in a long, wide corridor, from which all the galleries are accessible. To the south are galleries for smaller scale work, a dedicated gallery for works on paper (the only one to be 100 per cent artificially lit) and a room stuffed full of plaster sculptures (the only one with a window). These have ornamental ceilings painted gold (inspired by the architecture of the Fuglsang manor house) and a domestic scale, and are arranged enfilade, punctuated
by tiny ‘pocket galleries’, intended by the museum for people to be alone with a single artwork.

On the north side of the corridor is a set of rooms that are larger and more conventionally contemporary in character. The biggest of these is the temporary exhibition space, a large, hall-like gallery with a ceiling made from a metal mesh. These galleries are beautifully lit from deep skylights, the changing temperature of light contrasting, in Fretton’s view and mine, to the consistent and sometimes slightly soulless character of artificially lit rooms in a gallery like Tate Modern.

The Fuglsang collection is of regional and perhaps national importance, with no art from outside of Denmark. There is lots of charming landscape painting, and a rather remarkable collection of heroic plaster figures. There are Danish versions of major schools from Classical portraiture to landscape painting, Impressionism, Cubism and geometric abstraction in sculpture and on canvas. But Fretton has created galleries that are conservation quality, allowing the museum to take high-profile travelling exhibitions if it wants to.

The corridor is the spine of the building and is itself a substantial display space - Fretton describes it as a ‘long gallery’. It is that, of course, but to me it is a place to walk down rather than linger in. The long view down the corridor is terminated by a picture window just slightly offset from the axis, and my first desire was to walk all the way to the end to see the view.

It is such an extraordinary view that Fretton has dedicated a whole room to it. The small box at the end of the axis has no art in it at all, just three huge windows and three chairs - it’s a place for contemplating the vista across fields and towards the water of the Guldborgsund. It’s a serene place, out of the vicious wind and idealising the landscape beyond. It is, of course, the same view that you’ve had before, although now you can choose to look in three directions. Fretton originally designed furniture for the space, but this was another casualty of the budget.

This room has an English attitude to landscape that rules the building. In my experience of writing about Scandinavian countries, they rarely share our attitude to the natural terrain. For instance, in Sweden, the Allemansrätt gives anyone a right to roam (and pitch a tent) anywhere; no private-property owner can exclude the public from accessing the landscape. Land is fundamentally natural, and humans attempts to manage or contain it are an unwelcome (and unlawful) imposition. Denmark has more in common with continental Europe in that public access to the landscape has been reduced year-on-year and cultivated land is out of bounds.

However, Fretton’s room seems to derive from England’s overwhelming attitude to landscape as something picturesque. Whereas his Lisson Gallery in north London is lionised for placing contemporary art in juxtaposition with the tough context of the city by making a glazed street facade, Fuglsang has a lot of rooms for looking at pictures, and one dedicated to looking at the world outside. As I waited for a taxi outside the museum after my visit, the horizontal rain and high winds gave me a reason to believe such a room might be charming and necessary. Then again, I wonder also whether this room is enough - it is the only part of the building that faces the landscape, and also removes the visitor from it.

Those who work in the building get office space on the first floor, which is intentionally separate from the visitor areas. They also get a pleasant-looking terrace that faces south across the farmyard (I didn’t get up to that floor). Storage and preparation rooms are also very separate. Art arrives from a new access road that snakes around the back of the building and enters through a large barn door. This facade (the practice didn’t send us any pictures of it) is unremarkable, just an expanse of white brick. But it will only be seen by visitors who have lost their way to the car park.

The character of this building does shift appreciably between the different gallery spaces. The institution is not for the international art tourist who might visit Tate Modern, but mainly for coach trips of local people. So it is appropriate that the parquet floors, the ornamental ceilings and the room-like proportions of the smaller galleries are reassuring and comfortable somehow.

There is no great pretension from Fretton about those characteristics. His explanation for the character of the galleries is straightforward. I asked him at one point how he came up with the final proportions of the smaller galleries on the south side of the building, and he answered: ‘This is the size of the ground floor of the Lisson Gallery.’ And those proportions were based on the domestic scale of the Marylebone street it is in.

Fretton’s comment has a couple of interpretations. On one hand, the professional in him has brought a proven proportion to the building. More fancifully it adds to the feeling that this is an international building designed in London and built in Denmark.

Fretton’s approach is perhaps less bound by a culturally specific technological approach than some architects that you might compare him too (think of SANAA’s failure to achieve Japanese-quality detail at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York). Baldly put, Fretton hasn’t built that much. But despite being a professor at Delft in the Netherlands and building this building in Denmark, his is not an esperanto architecture, but one altered by observations of the things around him. ‘I want to be part of a European culture of architecture that maintains difference,’ he says, and evokes Arne Jacobsen and other Danish Modernists as inspiration.

Talking to one architect who has seen the building, it is clear that many of you would be more critical than me of some of the detailing - the skirting boards, the glazing, the terrazzo tiles. But while I wouldn’t argue that bad detailing can make a building, Fuglsang’s pragmatism is its success.

To return to the brick bond, I think knowing that the pattern of brickwork came from the craftsman more than the architect shows an attitude to construction (despite this being effectively a Design and Build project) that is contextual and collaborative. Fuglsang feels as if it has been made in part through a series of pragmatic decisions, and is warm and humane as a result. Fretton told me that he is always critical of his own work when it is just finished. Perhaps in this attitude he shares more characteristics with a craftsman, than with a designer. The building, in its imperfections, reminds me of Richard Sennett’s idea (in his recent book The Craftsman) that we think while doing, that making is thinking.

Sennett writes in his conclusion: ‘I have emphasised, throughout this book, stages and sequences in the working process, indicating when the craftsman can pause in the work and reflect on what he or she is doing. These pauses need not diminish pride in the work; instead, because the person is judging while doing, the result can be more ethically satisfying.’ The charm of the Fuglsang Art Museum is not really in the big ideas, but in the moments, like the quarter-brick running bond of the walls, where Fretton and his collaborators have exhibited exactly this attitude.

Photography by Hélène Binet

Start on site date: August 2006
Opening: January 2008
Gross internal floor area: 2,500m2
Cost: 7.2 million Euros (£5.6 million)
Client: Bygningsfonden/ The Building Foundation
Architect: Tony Fretton Architects
Executive architect: BBP Arkitekter A/S
Structural/services engineer/ cost consultant: Birch & Krogboe A/S
Project manager: Bascon A/S
Main contractor: CC Brun Enterprise A/S
Annual CO2 emissions: Precise figures are not required under Danish legislation. Emissions are predicted to be relatively low as the museum will be heated from a CO2-neutral biomass source.

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