ARTISTIC LICENCE AT THE AF
Walking through a grim industrial estate in Acton, west London, it is difficult to imagine that an internationally renowned artist - and, as of this week, the Architecture Foundation's (AF's) new chairman - has his studio here.
But stepping into Brian Clarke's workspace, the grey pavements and greasy burger vans give way to the calmness of the Greenway and Leedesigned studio, which is scattered with a huge variety of glass artworks.
Clarke is best known for his work in stained glass, which has seen him join forces with some of architecture's biggest names, such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. He may seem a surprise selection for the chairmanship of the AF, and the appointment of an artist instead of an architect is sure to ruffle feathers, but Clarke has been a trustee to the AF for almost five years, and is more of a natural successor to Will Alsop, who steps down this week after six years in the role, than he may at first seem.
'It's a big sacrifice to take this position on, ' Clarke says.
'Will gave up six years, which is a big chunk of your life. He brought me in to the AF and it is good to have a change.'
Clarke originally hails from Oldham, and is a Lancashire lad through-andthrough. He won a scholarship to art school at the tender age of 11 in 1964, attending Burnley School of Art, and began to make his name in stained glass in the early 1970s.
He says he flirted with the idea of becoming an architect, but discarded these thoughts after he won the scholarship.
However, Foster says Clarke would have made a 'formidable opponent' had he chosen the architectural route.
Clarke claims the 'art versus architecture' debate does not register with him. The two, he says, are not distinct; rather art is integral to architecture and the urban environment.
'Art in architecture is no longer the lipstick on a gorilla, ' says Clarke, 'it is site-specific art.
When I started it was regarded as avant-garde - a radical affront. It was very suspect, but now everybody is doing it.'
But questions are sure to linger around whether it is right that an artist should take on the role of promoting architecture in the UK. Some observers say that only an architect should be considered for the post.
Clarke disagrees. He has worked on architectural projects around the world for more than 30 years and clearly knows architecture like the back of his hand. Among his recent works is the stained glass apex of Foster's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan.
And Clarke clearly doesn't lack any confidence when he brings his knowledge to bear on architectural projects. 'What I bring to the role is me, ' he says.
'It couldn't be expressed more literally than that, really.
'Artists and architects have very different approaches, ' he continues. 'I have great sympathy for architects. I have engaged in many architectural projects, and the problems are legion. There are problems of collaboration, there are problems of collaborating but not compromising, and so on.
'Architects have to bring what an artist brings to the table but also include massing, planning and volume - they have to create poetic expression in an urban fabric. I take my clues from the building; the building tells me where to go.'
In his role as AF chairman, Clarke says he will be looking to continue the work of Alsop and former chairman Richard Rogers, as well as add to it.
He says he intends to try and involve more young people in the AF, and is planning to visit architecture schools to see the new ideas coming from the next generation.
'There is so much going on around these schools, ' Clarke says. 'I went to the Bartlett recently and there are some fantastic things happening there at the moment. People forget that 30 years ago fuck all was going on, and then there was this glorious explosion of radicalism. Today there is so much going on, and we need to tap into it.'
Clarke is also planning on becoming involved with teachers as well as students, because, he says, teachers are instrumental in forming the architectural minds of the next generation.
Clarke hopes to make the AF more inclusive and, in doing so, create more of an identity for the body in the rest of the country, not just in London. He is keen to highlight the 'exciting things' he says are happening all across the country, outside the capital.
Clarke says he also wants to use his artistic background to address the balance of form and function in new building projects. He claims there are currently too many buildings being constructed which lack any form and only barely function.
Clarke says: 'For me [Foster's] Willis Faber Building answers all questions on form and function. It functions beautifully. But, if a building only functions then it has been created by a builder. Buildings are not just about function; we are not ants.'
Summing up his mission, Clarke says: 'At the moment we have a very thin layer of excellence at the top. Then there is a small sub-strata of worthiness, but then there is a bottomless pit of nothingness, of dross. The AF needs to work to expand the top part.'