Perfectly attuned to their architectural setting, Daniel Edwards' concrete panels are proof of his meticulousness in making and documenting his work.Ethics and aesthetics are intertwined
Two grey double-square rectangles face you, offset against a rough, mottled brick wall.
Shafts of light spill down from the roof coffers; one wall is washed with light. It is cloudy and the skies outside are changing quickly, but inside it is quiet and calm. The rectangles are slightly different shades, and from afar they seem thin and fragile. They don't quite touch the wall or each other, they just hover. Up close, you realise that they are concrete panels - very fine concrete, certainly in comparison to the rough in situ concrete beams above. There is a slight shuttering grain, really just a ripple on the surface, and one or two bubbles; corners are exact and sharp.
The main body of this otherwise empty room is square, and the panels are placed off-centre on the main wall. It leads into a darker space, obviously a lecture room, as Robin Day plywood chairs wait in line, and the slide projector is whirring. There is a sense of expectancy, of waiting, but it takes some time to establish what you are there to see. The lectern, itself a veneered double-square, is exactly illuminated by the projector. It is tightly focused, no light spills out.
This is an installation by Daniel Edwards, one from his F Series installed in the extension to the School of Architecture, Cambridge University, during the summer of 2002. Colin St John Wilson and Alex Hardy's robust little building, which was completed in 1959, has probably not looked as perfect since then.
Perversely, maybe unavoidably, schools of architecture do not seem to value the fabric or aesthetics of their buildings. Edwards had access to the building for six weeks during the summer holidays, and the first three were spent removing all the non-original accretions - boards, screws, paint, notices, inappropriate furniture - and then lovingly polishing it back to its former state. Holes were filled with coloured plasticine, floors cleaned, light bulbs replaced. A mixture of amateur conservation, basic maintenance and plain tlc. The resulting installation is an art and architecture collaboration that forces you to question both the objects themselves - in this case the two concrete double-squares, and the more ethereal rectangle of light - and the building itself.
In the supporting exhibition documentation, which is itself beautifully produced by Edwards, reference is made to Reyner Banham's The New Brutalism (1966). This book is relevant on several levels - its inclusion of the School of Architecture helped make the building the canonic work it is, and it was an early (and continuing) influence on Edwards' work. He has a strong rapport for architecture of this style and period (in fact, this F Series was originally inspired by the Smithsons' Economist Building), and he grapples with the same working morality questioned in the book - ethics or aesthetics?
Edwards says aesthetics, but there is an indisputable moral dimension to his work.
He reworks themes tirelessly through series of projects, as if searching for an aesthetic ideal; F Series followed on from E, D etc. All are multiple concrete panels, similar in conception, but with different proportions and surface treatment.
Edwards' work is centred around two base processes: making and editing. Typically the series are cast in three sizes, which directly relate to the volume of concrete: the three constituent materials - sand, granite chippings and cement - come in set bags, and the same volume is always made.
Reusable moulds are supplied by a cabinetmaker to Edwards' exacting specification;
several are made for each size - flat ply trays with removable sides.
For the F Series, the base of the tray, which produces the visible face of the piece, was medium density overlay board, chosen for the smoothness of its surface. (In the past he has also used melamine and birch ply. ) Once the trays are assembled they are lovingly prepared, assiduously checked, and rubbed with a Pieri wax release agent. This is probably Edwards at his most obsessive, and where, for the only time, a handcraft element comes into the process; he is quite prepared to alter, amend - some might say cheat - to get his desired result. And while the Banhams of this world might feign shock, Edwards has no qualms. He is distinctly aware of the truth to materials debate, but it is the visual effect that concerns him most.
Concrete is mixed in a small, bright orange, concrete mixer (the only splash of colour in an otherwise neutral studio) and poured into trays, vibrated, and then closed with a ply lid which incorporates the fixing holes. After three days the trays are struck, and then left for two weeks to cure. The process is rigorously documented on purpose-made sheets, where every possible permutation on time, weather, material are recorded for each piece. These informal sheets are not intended for publication, but are beautiful in their own right. Through prosaically eloquent descriptions they aim to map the perfect process, even though Edwards realises that this perfection does not exist. There are so many variables that even he, with his exacting working methods, does not have complete control.
If the making process has obvious parallels with architecture, then the editing has direct links to his typographical background before he became an artist.At its root, typography is about making marks; it is the mason's craft of carving words into stone.
The discipline, sadly, has been somewhat taken over by its louder relation, graphic design, but its connections with architecture are strong. Both demand exactness and attention to detail, both work with modification to surface, and both have roots in the stonemason's craft. We talked about the similarities between the serif and the skirting-board, with their dual nature of what they explore and conceal. The serif, the classical scar of the chisel, exaggerates the start or end of the cut, just as the skirting-board expresses the floor/wall junction and hides the mess in-between.
But the essential, often obscured, practice common to both is editing. This is one of the main, but unnoticed, and certainly financially unaccountable, skills that the architect has - it is about control and judgement of the aesthetic idea. It is about knowing how to wade through the vast array of products and materials, how to put them together and, most importantly, where to stop.
The editing process is essential to Edwards, most literally in the matter of documentation, but also in aesthetic judgement.
He likes to control all documentation of his work - it is, after all, the only way for most of us to experience it - from booklets describing it to announcement cards. Initial ideas are developed through simple computer drawings (he likes the exactness of the digital line), three-dimensional studies of the forms and their shadows. At this stage, the drawings may have no context but, if relevant, key details such as the reflective surface, or the quality of light through a window, might be incorporated.
These ideas are collated into a booklet, an extremely pared-down document that becomes, in effect, a selling tool, used to introduce the project and secure an exhbition space.After the installations, the work is documented again, with photographs and choice words. Images are manipulated to reach Edwards' required colour saturation and intensity, but again, Edwards has no ethical dilemma - no image is a true representation, after all.
Editing is crucial in the choice of panels, and here Edwards heavily relies on his partner, Nicola Barnacle. They work together, examining the many cast pieces, observing the surface bloom, ripples and flaws, setting the rules as to what is acceptable or not. The acceptability of air bubbles, for example, depends on their location, size and number - but where exactly do you draw the line?
Edwards' line is pretty tight - more than 30 panels were rejected for the two that were shown in Cambridge. A success rate of three per cent; Edwards wryly acknowledges that he could not work in the architectural world.
Once selected, the pieces are hung, and again editing comes to the fore. The hang is an intense experience: millimetres, relationships, the absorbency and reflectivity of the surrounding materials, are all critical, and it is a process that cannot be rushed. At Cambridge, the concrete piece took half a day to hang, but Edwards had practiced several times in his studio beforehand.
Edwards' and Barnacle's home, a small Edwardian flat in Walthamstow, is stripped down to Shaker purity. They have few possessions, and what they have is carefully chosen, to be both used and seen. This is minimal living far away from the versions in coffee-table books; there are no storage rooms concealing all those trappings of contemporary life, or any false pretence.
Two pieces from the D Series are in their home, square panels subdivided asymmetrically by a chamfered step. Four large panels are placed diagonally across the bedroom floor, and four small panels are hung in the entrance hall, on the wall above the stair. The chamfer is vertical - three are placed in one direction, the first is handed; one plus three, in conversation, slightly goading each other on.
The D Series are, for me, the most beautiful. They are a bit awkward, they jar slightly, being placed off-centre, and seemingly heavy on the soft grey wall. Light comes in from the right at high level, accentuating the panels' ledges, edges and surface ripples.
They were just handfuls of sand, cement and stone, but now these four simple concrete panels, with their powdery bloom, cause such a visceral reaction, and hold their own.
Edwards pursues his aesthetic goals with such depth and sincerity that you cannot but give him full respect. His work is not for those who like their art flashy; it is elegant, questioning and calm. He is, not surprisingly, delightfully modest, and while of course he would like everyone to appreciate his work, he is under no illusion that they will.
He is fortunate in that he does not rely on selling his work to make a living (he is a director of a special needs school), and so does not have to engage with the brash commercial art world. For Banham, ethical concerns outweighed aesthetics. Edwards states the reverse. But for both, the relationship is so intense, so intertwined, and so essential, that one wonders why one needs to choose.
Documentation of the F Series installation at the extension to the School of Architecture, Cambridge, will be published this summer.
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