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True colours

Stirling Prize 2003

Michael Craig-Martin, the artist who made the Laban Centre work as a colourful, beautiful building, believes contemporary architecture is putting modern art in the shade

Do a Google search on Michael CraigMartin and you'll find various references to this genial, successful, Prada-clad man as hailing from the Pop Art school.

He hates that.

'I'm a very difficult person to place, as an artist, ' he says, preferring that simple term 'artist' over any other - largely because it is wide enough to take in all his work, including boundary-blurring architectural projects such as his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron on the Laban Centre. And it is also a bit like calling this Irish-born, American-educated and accented, 60-something London resident 'British', which he equally applauds.

'I started my career in a conceptual approach to making art in the '60s, ' he says, 'and in my early work it was much easier for people to see it in that frame of reference. In the late '70s, I started to deal with making imagery through drawings, and essentially now I'm making paintings. But if you call me a painter, it seems to me that it's not accurate. I don't make paintings like Howard Hodgkin makes paintings - I'm coming from a very different point of view.'

And from very different backgrounds.

Born in Dublin in 1941, Craig-Martin moved with his parents to Washington DC five years later. He 'came back' to England aged 25 in 1966, taught at Goldsmiths, and is happy now working in a studio off the City Road and living in a place in Kentish Town designed by his friend, John Pawson. Happier still today because he has just heard he is a grandfather, thanks to his famous photographer daughter Jessica, in New York.

Craig-Martin's 'fascination' with particularly contemporary architecture stems from his student days at Yale, where buildings from Saarinen, Johnson, Rudolph, Breuer and others were going up around him.And since then, his art - typically applying 'very high, impolite' colours to line-drawn, utilitarian objects - has shifted up a scale to meet architecture, or what he calls 'art with a public function'.

'I'm very interested in the point of conjunction between art and other things, and I've always thought that's one of the most interesting places to be: the conjunction with architecture, advertising, sign-making, interior design - all these things that are peripheral to art and parallel, but are not art.'

Happily, Craig-Martin found an enthusiastic ear with Herzog & de Meuron. The two parties first met when Craig-Martin, one of the Tate's artist trustees, was judging the Tate Modern competition.

'I was rather stunned, ' he says with a laugh, 'because I had had so much interest in architecture over the years, and suddenly I was in a situation where it was useful.' Herzog & de Meuron impressed by refusing to treat the former power station simply as a 'big box with the machine taken out', or as a casing for the building they had wanted to create, if demolition had been allowed.

At Laban, the same outfit delivered 'an unbelievable bargain of a building'.

Craig-Martin recalls how they convinced their 'architecturally naive' clients by uniquely requesting a site visit and dialogues with all concerned about what they liked and didn't like about their current facilities. This was evident in their submission. Then, having already had the idea of using a polycarbonate skin, and acknowledging their own inexperience in using colour, they called on Craig-Martin.

Where did the art start and the architecture stop?

'I felt it was seamless, and felt very comfortable with them. They seemed to think in a way that was much more like the way artists think about what they do than the way, in my experience, architects think about their work.'

At Laban, colour could not be dealt with without looking at materials;

materials couldn't be tackled without looking at light, and light couldn't be dealt with without looking at windows, etc. 'So there were a number of complex design issues and the architects involved me in all the principal discussions about this ever-increasing number of discussions.'

He was, crucially, on board early enough.

It was Craig-Martin's proposal that each of the three corridors dissecting the building would be in a principal colour, from a palette - magenta, bright green and turquoise blue.

The walls would be in 'intense' colours and each would 'break' into windows, where it would be as if it had 'leaked' into the plastic.

They had toyed with Craig-Martin imagery in the polycarbonate, and dealt with worries that too much colour would render the dancers in odd hues, such as green. So all the colour was concentrated in the public spaces - with black and white and silver grey in the calm, understated studios.

'I have found that when you use very electrifying colour, it can lift people's spirits for some reason that seems almost corny - it does make people feel good. People are afraid of these colours but, in actual fact, they walk into these spaces and their hearts lift.When I go to the school myself it feels unbelievably exciting and vibrant to be in those passageways.'

Craig-Martin has also worked with other architects. At Regent's Place, the British Land scheme on London's Euston Road, he worked with architect Sheppard Robson to create 'the fan', a colourful frieze that acts as an enormous lightbox on a '60s building. He says the fan is a little joke about the Euston Tower downdrafts, chosen because fans 'are manmade objects that bring to mind the weather'.

He also prepared a proposal for the Dome.

This was essentially a garage-like building on a pole, from which huge lights beamed out across the Meridian line hourly, like a giant cuckoo clock or 'slightly stranded boathouse'.

Craig-Martin has also worked with Sauerbruch Hutton on Berlin's British Council building, and with David Chipperfield on the Bundesbank in Gera, Germany. And he's working on an interior for Foster and Partners, to jazz up the everyday lives of accountants at Ernst & Young ('They always choose the most controversial designs', he chuckles).

But Laban is his most successful art and architecture collaboration to date. Was he surprised it won the Stirling Prize?

'From the minute I saw the plan they asked me to work on, I thought to myself: 'This is an incredible, amazing building and an absolute gem'. I thought that throughout the whole project, and it got better and better. It never occurred to me that it wasn't the best building.'

He was a little miffed that Channel 4 cut a tribute to his influence on the project from Harry Gugger. But he is clearly deeply proud and hopes to work again with Herzog & de Meuron, who he places high up in a thriving global scene.

'It's an incredible moment in contemporary architecture, with interesting projects being done all over the world that are truly experimental, involving technologies and forms and materials that haven't been used before. What's going on in architecture strikes me as much more open-ended and exciting than what seems to be happening in art.'

He assumes this is to do with computer technology in both design and fabrication.

And that architects are no longer looking at computers as replacing draughtsmen, but grasping their true potential, informing their 'expansive confidence'.

'Always the great moments are the moments when people don't quite know what it is that's happening. And it seems to me that's the moment we're in.'

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