In her element
With her engraved glass wall for the new Marunouchi Building in Tokyo, Susanna Heron fuses image and architecture The photo-text essay which Susanna Heron published a decade ago, under the title Shima, provided a poetic manifesto for her urban public art projects completed during the 1990s.
An account of the moorland garden of her childhood Cornish home, Shima has proved to be as much prescient as it was a reflection on her past. Drawings in glass for the new Marunouchi Building in Tokyo, installed in June this year, have continued her relationship with that formative site of meditation and personal myth.
Shima is a Japanese word, meaning both island and garden, denoting, as the text points out, qualities of boundary and containment. A philosophy of place has gradually accumulated around the word; a governing principle that provides a benchmark for a work's sense of completeness.
The Cornish garden provided a particularly intense example of place as the intersection of opposing and converging forces: storm exposure, subterranean mineral protrusions and the encroachment of indigenous moorland on the one hand; creative husbandry, and the introduction of new and exotic species, on the other. The boundary of shima is in constant evolution, an equation between resistance and permeability.
Entitled 36 Elements: Glass Wall, the Marunouchi project sees a compression of the kind of spatial play which characterised her earlier architectonic sculptural works, as in the grounds of the British Embassy in Dublin (AJ 23.11.95) or the northern courtyard of Hackney College (AJ 2.10.97). In Tokyo, Heron is ostensibly dealing just with a surface - a glass wall, 14m high x 14.6m wide, which separates the building's fifth floor 'Hanging Garden' from the elevator well. Nevertheless, through a precise mixing of opaque and transparent surfaces, reflection and shadow, the spatial play in her work has, if anything, intensified here.
Drawings were produced for the centre of each of the wall's 36 panels - etched and sandblasted versions of half-scale originals in ink. Seismic security factors contributed to this compartmentalisation of the surface, and a minimum distance had to be left between the worked areas of glass and the edge of each panel.
Unlike Heron's works on slate, it was also a project in which the final phase of production was handed over to artisans. A workshop in Tokyo etched the panels - the task of transferring the drawings from paper to glass was carried out by a single craftsman, who had worked for the company for some 70 years. Communications during this phase were coordinated by the Contemporary Sculpture Centre in Tokyo.
For a glass engraving project of similar scale and ambition, we would have to return to John Hutton's west window for Spence's Coventry Cathedral. That screen provides a rare moment of total transparency in British Modernism, and presides over a complex interaction of modes and speeds of space.
Heron is aiming for a similar effect - for the glass to be more than a dividing surface, and to visually activate a spatial field across different zones of movement.
A narrow, dark, granite-lined pool at its base provides an interval between the glass and the seating area for a garden restaurant - a raised wooden platform with four hempbound ash trees. The building's designers originally understood the pool to be a suitable position for a waterfall and lighting for the wall. Heron, however, saw it more in terms of a still, reflective medium - a device by which to conceal the limits of the wall and its means of structural liaison. A playful mimicking of the construction of this part of the building, the image of Heron's etched wall, apparently continuing downward, effectively substitutes for the actual glass wall, which physically passes through to the floors below.
A minimal act of stage-setting this may be, but it implies a shift in status for the wall, giving it its own, distinct spatial logic. The slice of water marks a break in space; a discreet alteration of the continuity of architectural surfaces, which primes vision for the complexities in the drawings themselves.
The initial period of drawing involved a conscious re-engagement with the notion of containment inferred by shima. As a starting point, Heron returned to drawings made in 1992 for a limited boxed edition of the Shima book. These were made in charcoal - circular gestures creating cell-like or invertebrate forms, made with the side of a charcoal stick, pivoting from a centre point. Solid line then plays through resultant form, or describes radiating appendages to glutinous cores.
Brush and ink, though, became the medium for the Marunouchi drawings, enabling a precise definition of form that could more easily translate into the glass processes. This is limited to just two different inscription depths for the creation of a spatial separation of line and field.
Heron points out that the technique of the Tokyo craftsman and her own drawing process shares the use of side-lighting and the frequent referral to the appearance of the image as a shallow topography, seen at an oblique angle. Consideration of shifting viewpoints became a particular preoccupation in the evolution of the Marunouchi glass forms, as they would be subject to the sliding gaze of elevator passengers, as well as the more static attention of those in the atrium restaurant.
The dual imposition of the grid and an economy of mark strongly influenced the nature of the forms, leading to a graphic or even diagrammatic clarity. This evolved them toward a repertoire of characters, some of which are repeated, but in an adjusted state - reversed or tonally altered.
The suggestion of a cell or primitive entity, which first emerged in the Shima charcoal circles, became a persistent and systematically permuted theme. The 36 panels could be likened to a grid of lenses, revealing micro events of cellular life: spiral growth patterns, division, mutation - graphic particles in analogical play. Heron mentions such analogies as a cut through a plant stem (like Karl Blossfeldt's photographs), or through some precisely engineered component. Influences from the ambient culture of Tokyo city are also present - a general reflection of the tenor of its graphic/visual culture.
However, as Heron explains, the implications of the forms are by no means limited to isolated references. 'The scale of these drawings is not fixed - hence the name 'elements', ' she says. 'I do not see them specifically as microcosm or magnification; they are essentially abstract, drawings born of drawing. They are not unlike a vector or a refined essential sign for something. They are simply themselves, but we cannot help making our own associations.'
The reintroduction of shima into its culture of origin sees it transported from full, three-dimensional space (the sculptural ensemble in a garden or public plaza) onto the surface of a dividing edge. In Tokyo, shima becomes the fugitive, unifying factor in the compartmentalised screen, and negotiates between graphics and tectonics, image and architecture.
It is also, as ever, the basis on which the work is relinquished to begin its influence within the physical and mental life of a place: 'The reading of the drawings comes after they are made. They are accumulative images, made active by each other, the viewer and the site.'
ON HERON'S STREET
The major activity of Heron's studio is currently the engraving of four 3m x 5m slate panels, each made up of 18 slabs, the product of the Brathay quarry in Cumbria.
These will be incorporated into her project with Bennetts Associates called 'Street': a 60m-long covered pedestrian passage linking John Islip Street with Millbank, part of City Inn's new hotel beside London's Millbank Tower. The views from both entrances are designed to make it clear to passers-by that this is a public space.
The panels, says Heron, will form the vertical section of a series of broad slate bands which cross the passage, alternating with transparent glass and opaque areas in the roof, and with freestanding concrete columns, to create moving bands of light and shadow. Other elements of the scheme include trees and a 'reflecting wall'of etched and silvered glass.
As at the Marunouchi Building, there will be an integration of pedestrian circulation and restaurant seating. Unlike the Japanese project, however, Heron was commissioned to work closely with the architects from an early stage, and should be able to treat the whole place as the work of art.
CLIENT Mitsubishi Estate Co
ARCHITECT Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei Inc
ARTIST Susanna Heron
PROJECT MANAGEMENT Contemporary Sculpture Centre, Tokyo
ART AGENT Modus Operandi
GLASS Asahi Glass, Tokyo