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Seeking synergy

review

Situated in the Science Area of Oxford University, the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology occupies a red-brick 1920s building by EPWarren in William-and-Mary style, and a late 1960s concrete block by Sir Leslie Martin - neither architect's finest hour. These have now been linked by Llewelyn-Davies' Edward Abraham Building, which rather over-compensates for its stolid neighbours, but whose double-height cafe and common room are no doubt welcome.

In the process, a new courtyard garden, overlooked by all three buildings, has been created by artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, with Clive Guyer of LlewelynDavies (supported by an RSA Art for Architecture grant). It is one of several nowcompleted 'Year of the Artist' projects at the university, which set out to explore 'the interface between science and art'. Other participants include photographers Catherine Yass and Susan Derges, whose work is also on display in Oxford now.

At the centre of the garden are two elongated, approximately oval pools, fringed with slates that are laid on-edge and angled upwards to contain the water more emphatically. These pools are set at roughly 90degrees to each other in a truncated oval area of flat slate paving surrounded by grass which, in turn, is bordered by more paving - this time of limestone. At one end, an old Gingko tree is ringed by more on-edge slates, while a slate path crosses the courtyard to one side - its straightness in contrast to the curves that otherwise predominate.

Because the garden is meant not just as a place of relaxation but to be seen from above, the artists wanted to provide 'a feeling of clarity' in their design. Given the exact demarcations between materials and areas, its geometry is certainly explicit, though the overall effect is more diagrammatic at present than it will be in the future. You have to imagine the bamboo screen, now only vestigial, that will run parallel to the slate path;

the 'living wall' of Boston ivy (bright red in autumn) that will climb up the tower of Martin's building; and the 'shaded recess' of gentians and ferns.

There is the sense of something embryonic. The disparate nature of all that surrounds the courtyard - three such different buildings - is still obtrusive. Whether in time the garden's identity will be strong and cohesive enough to combat this is an open question. Perhaps a starker, simpler design - a positive emptiness - would have been more telling.

As for the art/science interface, one field that the school investigates is molecular cell biology; and, says Harvey, 'the pools themselves were taken from microscope images of cells, so at some level the garden could be said to be thematic'. Rightly, though, he does not labour the point, and visitors are free to find their own allusions.

Also working at the Sir William Dunn School in the past year has been Catherine Yass, whose triptych of large light-box photographs, Double Agent, is on show in the new common room. Strongly horizontal, they are still-life images of cluttered laboratory shelves, but not simply documentary in intent (see below left).

What Yass has done is fuse a positive photograph with a negative one, taken moments later, so colours go awry - highlights flaring blue, for instance - and the scene becomes both recognisable and unreal. It is her signature technique, applied over several years now to subjects as diverse as Bankside Power Station, Hungarian spas, and Japanese hotels.

In a text on the wall nearby, virologist Dr William James, based at the school, observes that 'nothing could be more workaday, more unremarkable to a bioscientist, than a photograph of a laboratory shelf stocked with Schott bottles, Falcon tubes and Petri dishes' - except that in Yass' case, 'the image is disturbed in many ways'.

After making a connection with the way that scientists use artificial colours, indexed to physical properties, to clarify molecular structure, James speculates about the lay person's response to instruments that he and his colleagues take for granted, and how that is reflected in Yass' images. 'They are not familiar and tame, but imbued with a sense of the arcane. . . The prosaic containers are filled with the hopes and fears of the observer at the door.'

But perhaps Yass' method of making the everyday seem strange is itself now too familiar, even formulaic - its visual discrepancies subject to the law of diminishing returns. Susan Derges' Natural Magic photographs, by contrast, though at first sight more conventional, prove more potent (see below right).

They profit from the context in which they are shown: the basement corridors of Oxford's Museum of the History of Science which occupies the Old Ashmolean Building of 1678-83. On one side are vertical display cabinets with items which Derges has selected from the permanent collection, and on the other are her own photographs - like Yass', presented as light-boxes.

The exhibits are structured around the four elements, so in the 'Ignis' cabinet, for instance, we find an astrolabe, an ivory sundial, a tiny crucible, a solar microscope and a miniature celestial globe - so vast in what it represents but small enough to hide in your hand. The corridor is a place of intricate mechanisms and the gleam of incised brass.

Isolated in this confined, subterranean space, which is rather dimly lit but for Derges' light-boxes, these instruments have a strong aesthetic appeal - and, for the nonscientist, a certain mystery. Derges' photographs intensify this effect. They are mostly of receptacles filled with vapours or liquids, each vessel emerging from the surrounding black with a luminous clarity and immediacy. Just what is happening may remain obscure but some images have the magnetism of an icon.Here an artist, Derges, makes science seem a vivid source of wonder.

Write to the administrator, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3RE to view the works there, by appointment

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