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OSA/Merzen at CUBE

Architects OSA pay tribute to post-war artist and scavenger Kurt Schwitters by creating a living, evolving collage, writes Richard Waite

OSA/Merzen is showing at the Centre for the Urban Built Environment (CUBE), Manchester, from 18 February to 16 April

Collage pioneer Kurt Schwitters was a Womble. Just like the creatures of Wimbledon Common, the German artist fetishistically collected cast-offs and detritus that he would later re-use and turn into art; a process he called Merz. Between 1923 and 1937, Schwitters created his masterpiece – a many-layered, avant-garde fantasy world, built from junk (and occasionally personal gifts) inside a family home in Hanover.

This creeping, organic landscape of stalagmites and stalactites – the legendary Merzbau – eventually spread through at least five rooms of the house. It was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in October 1943 and only three photographs of it remain.

By the time it was flattened, Schwitters had moved to the north-west of England, where he started his Merzbarn (Ambleside, 1948). Over the next few months his work and life are being celebrated across Manchester.

The highlight of the city-wide Merzman festival is an ambitious re-creation of the Merzbau – or more correctly, Schwitters’ rubbish-to-triumph methodology – at the Centre for the Urban Built Environment (CUBE). It is being handled by art/ architectural mavericks, the Office for Subversive Architecture (OSA), which is based in both London and Berlin.

The Germans are already known for their eye-popping installations inside the drained (and now demolished) Leeds International Pool and at Greenland Street in Liverpool. But here they are working with somebody else’s material with a strategy to build something that continually responds to the space as it grows.

These materials are all donations, most notably (both in number and scale) from Manchester City Council, which has handed over ‘dead’ street furniture including abused street signs and seat-less benches. There are tiles, cogs, stones, old computers, wood off-cuts and garden fencing. Thousands of back-copies of the Manchester Evening Newshave already been given a new home in a recess along the stairs.

This beautiful, rigorous arrangement of abandoned objects has given them a precious quality. A black rubbish bin with its front door lifted up is filled like a treasure chest. Perhaps this is not quite how Schwitters would have sorted his material pre-installation. In fact, it says more about OSA’s approach to the project as architects. They call it their ‘B & Q market’.

The Merz philosophy starts in the street. Outside, the exhibition is signposted by a tatty door hanging from a window bar with the Merzen lettering rescued from a long-gone café, stuck to an aquamarine tabletop. ‘We wanted to go out further into the parking space in front of the gallery but the City of Manchester didn’t allow it,’ says OSA’s Bernd Truempler.

Inside, the 3D collage is in its infancy. There is still one more weekend of work to go. However, the space already has a new architectural language imposed on it with a new ceiling made from roadwork barriers, the central void filled with an iron frame and air vent, and fencing and painted boards hanging from balconies. A wooden extension of the handrail heads up to the RIBA bookshop and looks set to burst through. The creation is taking over the gallery.

Schwitters’ collage YMCA Flag, Thank You, Ambleside, 1947, has been a reference point for the colours and form used by OSA. The collage is worth €120,000, and the practice has joked about putting a price tag on its own installation, to instigate debate about the ‘value of art’.

Rightly, OSA has stayed away from creating a copycat Merzbau. They have focused on the method, which is fascinating in its own right; something that the re-creation of the Merzbarn currently on show in the Royal Academy forecourt misses completely. But the fingerprints of an architect, rather than an artist, are all over this. It is Schwitters, but wearing a straitjacket. Albeit a loose-fitting one, belonging to a draughtsman.

CUBE Gallery TALK: Office for Subversive Architecture
6:30pm, Monday 28th March 2011

Cost: £4.00    Students: £3.50    CUBE Members: Free

To win a copy of Kurt Schwitters’ book (Hatje Cantz) go to architectsjournal.co.uk/critics

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