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Investigating space and surfaces

Visitors to the Henry Moore Institute at Leeds in summer 1996 were subtly disorientated. They found the ground-floor galleries, three adjacent rooms, entirely colonised by a white-walled construction of small interlinked chambers, sporadically toplit. There was the strong suggestion of a labyrinth, but a labyrinth without a centre, for as you made your way from room to room - either beckoned by the light or drawn instead to dimmer recesses - you had continual choices of route but never the sense of arrival. Empty room gave onto empty room; no one space took precedence.

This highly architectural insertion was by a French artist, Laurent Pariente, who was born in Oran in 1962 and now lives in Paris. It was among a series of gallery-based works, increasingly complex in character, that he made during the 1990s. But Pariente does more than bring architecture into the arena of art: at the same time that he was constructing his labyrinth in Leeds, his design for Le Panetier, an industrial building near Boulogne, was being realised. Present projects include a radical reordering of the choir of Vannes Cathedral, Brittany, and a permanent pavilion - une folie - in the city of Orleans. His practice blurs the boundaries between architecture and art.

The living-room of Pariente's Paris apartment, above a quiet street in the 5th arrondissement, is dominated by a table stacked with cardboard maquettes. His interlinked chambers proliferate there in miniature, adjusted to expansive and constricted spaces alike. But their genesis lies in a (seemingly) much simpler work which Pariente made at the Galerie Jean- Francois Dumont, Bordeaux, in 1990.

'This was a very important piece for me,' he says. 'For the first time I found a way of combining painting, sculpture, and architecture.' At the centre of a rectangular gallery, in a space defined by two heavy timber ceiling-beams, Pariente placed an L-shaped wall that was almost the height of the room. It was covered entirely with a moist reddish-coloured clay and, seen head-on, when the viewer was more conscious of surface than structure, looked much like a large monochrome painting.

At a more oblique angle, the solidity of the wall reasserted itself while its L-shaped form, concealing some spectators from others as it reconfigured the room, invited exploration. In the manner of a Minimalist sculpture, there was no fixed point from which the work was disclosed as an entity; it could only be understood as viewers made their way around it, varying their distance from it as they did so.

With this Bordeaux exhibition Pariente found his focus: the interaction of space, material and light, which he went on to explore systematically in subsequent constructions. At the Lyons Biennale in 1991, his walls, covered once again in red clay, defined a series of passages and half- open rooms; for the circulating viewer, an assembly of shifting planes. By the time of his large-scale work at the Galerie de l'Ancienne Poste, Calais, in 1993, Pariente's structuring of space had become more comprehensive, for this construction included not just walls but ceilings, pierced at intervals by square-shaped skylights. Contradicting the apparent solidity, surfaces were now finished in a mixture of soap and clay, which made them vulnerable to the slightest touch.

Continuous passage

Though Pariente later made a still-more extensive construction on two floors of Le Creux de l'Enfer, an arts building in Thiers (1997), and another variant at Galerie Cent 8, Paris (1998), his work at the Henry Moore Institute is worth examining in detail because it sums up his concerns.

A labyrinth without a centre: as you only realise belatedly that your route through the successive chambers has no goal, the illusion of a labyrinth persists for a while, with whatever associations this archetypal form might bring. Mazes are so various in character and intention: they are found worldwide from the Bronze Age to today. Some may be lucid diagrams - picked out in turf perhaps, or, as at Chartres Cathedral, in paving stones. Others are more enveloping: the architectonic topiary of Hampton Court. And cities (Venice, Fez) can seem like labyrinths, enticing or malign.

Pariente's labyrinth is clearly an enveloping one in which viewers' experiences are likely to be equivocal. The cellular repetitions, the multiplying routes, the sense of a destination deferred might be exhilarating for one person, a source of anxiety for another; most likely, something in- between. Once recognition dawns that there isn't a privileged space at its heart, the construction can be appreciated on its own terms: a place without hierarchy, without axial determinism, without a calculated promenade, without an imperative to turn left rather than right. One can't overstate how decisively Pariente subverts our spatial expectations, returning us continually to the specifics of his particular space.

'My work is always about passage,' says Pariente. Viewers are continually in transit, invited to explore; invariably there are other corridors and chambers in sight. His use of materials abets this. Surfaces at the Henry Moore Institute were finished in chalk which, like his earlier clay and soap, partly dematerialised the construction, gave it luminosity - and marked any clothes that brushed against it.

While elsewhere, in the absence of a seat, you might lean against a wall to take in your surroundings, here there was no such support. Instead of a contemplative savouring of space, Pariente provokes a tenser, alert engagement with it; though, as the photographer has done, you might pause to make the most of a pleasing composition.

Industrial aesthetic

At the Henry Moore Institute, and in his other gallery constructions, Pariente has only to think of his aesthetic ends; with Le Panetier, the industrial building near Boulogne for the Compagnie Lefranc, came a precise programme. So how did he reconcile the functional and the artistic?

Pariente acknowledges that he was lucky in his client, who commissioned him on the basis of his Calais exhibition: 'It was a privileged relationship - a dialogue with a few committed people, not a large institution.' The Compagnie Lefranc distributes components for machines - 'every little piece you might need,' says Pariente. For its new building it required a large storage area, workshops and offices.

Built of concrete, monolithic and austere, Le Panetier is 'secretive, with a blank surrounding wall on the outside,' says Pariente. 'But once you enter it everything is very open, very light.' In a largely symmetrical plan, the storage space is at the centre with offices and workshops all around. Much of the budget went into the treatment of the pitched roof, whose broad beams are quite close to head-level but whose ridge, with its series of transverse skylights, is a further 3.5m above.

Pariente suggests that, seen from the storeroom below, this roof has some of the qualities of his gallery constructions in its ordered play with space and light, and his generous client has kept the height and amount of shelving to Pariente's prescription so that these qualities aren't obscured. A further echo of his constructions comes in the corridors that open onto the offices, as the latter's slot-like doorways are recessed and the rooms momentarily concealed. A turn to left or right discloses them; once inside, natural light floods through a central skylight, the ceiling bevelled to expand its reach.

Clarification

Le Panetier confounds the norm for a modern industrial zone, with a gravitas that sets it apart from standard-issue sheds. It's no surprise to hear that Pariente admires such architects as Boullee, Ledoux and Ando - but why, in addition, Rem Koolhaas? This is, he explains, an attraction of opposities: while Koolhaas revels in crowded, messy juxtapositions, Pariente's first inclination is 'always to make a void'.

Hence, in discussion of his Boulogne building, Pariente stresses the 'spatial rigour' of his initial conception, which has been realised without too much compromise. His impulse to clarify spaces, to eliminate clutter, no doubt explains his current commission at the cathedral in Vannes.

Essentially this is to re-order the choir which, dark, cramped and obtrusively furnished, has proved problematic for clergy in celebrating their rituals. Vannes Cathedral is, of course, a listed building (un Monument Historique), so any scheme must meet close scrutiny. The maquette of Pariente's proposal is in distinct contrast to the current arrangement; what comes in-between, as the many drawings and montages in his sketchbook show, is a long process of distillation. 'I work with what exists and gradually adapt it towards a new solution,' he says.

So, for instance, in bringing the stepped floor of the choir 2m further into the nave, Pariente was slow to relinquish its existing Baroque outline, but eventually arrived at the orthogonal platform seen in the maquette, which will be executed in polished white concrete.

'The spirit is to make something bright and simple - an integrated entity without distractions,' he says. Altar, ambo, bishop's chair and seats for celebrants are planar and block-like, but material and colour partly counteract mass. The altar is made from thick sheets of plexiglass, polished to increase luminosity, while the bishop's chair, also in plexiglass, is unpolished but coloured red. This chair incorporates a podium to give its occupant the necessary eminence without extra steps on the choir floor, while the ambo, similarly sculptural, is 'a place you can enter', like an aedicule.

Though stripped of its present encumbrances, and much more 'user-friendly' for its clergy, Pariente's newly ordered choir keeps history in sight. In a bold move that accommodates liturgical change in the Catholic Church but doesn't mask it, the new altar - suitably central in the foreground - is brought into dialogue with its Baroque predecessor, resited in a raised position some 12m beyond.

Different disciplines

'I wouldn't have been able to design the furniture at Vannes without making the work in the galleries,' says Pariente; which, on reflection, becomes understandable. One notes that he always refers to those gallery works, maybe two months in the making, as constructions not installations: 'As soon as you enter them you understand the difference. They seem to have been there for a long while.' In its form the furniture too has a substantial, rather timeless feel to it, but just as soap or chalk qualify the apparent solidity of the constructions, so polished plexiglass counters the impression of mass in the altar at Vannes.

In broaching the bounds of other disciplines, Pariente doesn't pretend that he is anything other than an artist, in which guise he is preparing for a major exhibition at the Musee de Grenoble in autumn 2000. In this mid-career retrospective he will allude to earlier work while making new constructions, including a vertical sequence on five levels of a Medieval tower.

But Pariente is an artist whose engagement with architecture has intensified over the last decade to a point where, on his own terms, he is keen to build again. The folie at Orleans is a modest move in that direction: a public art commission whose design may stem from the massive plexiglass altar block at Vannes. Pariente, however, has a more ambitious project in view: a building conceived in its entirety as 'a work of art', a permanent feature in a city with interior spaces that would develop the themes of his gallery constructions. 'I would make the envelope as well as the contents. For me, and for the visitor, it would be more complete than anything I can do in a gallery.'

What comes to mind when Pariente mentions this is Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin - just as it is now, without exhibits. Not that Pariente shares Libeskind's tragic agenda, but he might well bring a comparable conviction to fusing inside and out. Whether or not this 'ideal' project is ever realised, however, one thing is sure - Pariente will not just make ephemeral exhibitions.

Laurent Pariente has just been commissioned to design new galleries and offices for the Fondation Regional d'Art Contemporain de Lorraine. They will be situated in the Hotel Saint-Livier, built between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries in the city of Metz. A 300-page bilingual monograph, Laurent Pariente, Works 1986-1999, by Rene Denizot et al will be published next month by Galerie Cent 8, 108 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris, tel 00331 42745357, fax 00331 42745318

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