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Alsop at The Public

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Will Alsop’s collaborative installation dominates The Public’s new exhibition and leaves little space for vivacity or wit, writes Jay Merrick

Architecture and art is a phrase that has been handed down as a Eucharist to generations of architects. It is conveniently vague. Is architecture, ideally and literally, about the production of art forms that happen to have useful functions? Or is it enough for architects to imagine that their designs carry a sacramental aura of art? And can architecture initiate other forms of art?

Within the big pink portal of The Public in West Bromwich, you encounter a show forcibly disjointed by the architecture of Will Alsop’s Fun Palace. The Art of Architecture exhibition is dominated by various representations of Alsop’s work: a white table whose surface is printed with black text; models of designs for the Fourth Grace, the Blizard Building at Queen Mary College, and the ‘rough luxe’ La Fosca Hotel proposal; colour images of various built projects; and a video showing project development – how, for example, three fat chips can become a Postmodern Unite d’Habitation.

The architect’s collaboration with students from the Birmingham area has created the Box of Delights, a large room filled with brightly coloured mobiles made of paper and card. There is a printed declaration from Alsop: ‘Our towns and cities are occupied by buildings that come out of the ground. This results in a geometric order that gives us streets and squares.

‘People tend to enjoy the less geometric spaces to be found in villages which evolved over a long period of time. Our exploration is concerned with another order which exploits the air space and leaves the earth’s surface to nature, public use and direct lines of walking from A to B. Colour is part of nature.’ Cities didn’t evolve over long periods of time? Less geometric spaces are only found in villages? If oddly formed spaces are so important, why is walking in a straight line particularly meaningful?

The difficulty with Box of Delights(and over-egged architecture in general) is that it does not provoke, or even allow, further imagination. Despite the bright colours and abstract shapes, accentuated by sequences of patterned light, there is no sense of vivacity or wit. The room has the feel of an abattoir hung with the remnants of lost dreams. Despite Alsop’s portentous preface, neither art nor architecture seem present in this space.

The layout of The Public – an extremely large shed containing an intestinal ramp, herniated by bulging rooms and lavatories as it curls upwards through the building – does not help the show, whose segments are spread far and wide. This is a pity, because three of the exhibitions deliver a potent sense of our encounters with buildings, places and spaces.

Twenty Six (Drawing and Falling Things) by John Wood and Paul Harrison, is a thoroughly engrossing film in which the artists act out droll, highly controlled sight-gags that expose the ambiguities of space and containment in a perfectly white, virtually featureless room.

The most brilliantly contrived scene shows one of the artists, filmed from above, standing stock still with one arm outstretched. He drops a dark blue tennis ball – held so that it cannot be seen, initially – and it falls and bounces three or four times leaving dark blue, gobby paint-marks on the white floor. The visual and spatial effects of this geometric sleight-of-hand are a riveting demonstration of dynamic tensions generated within a minimalist composition.

Andy Day’s exhibition, Parkour Photography,achieves something similar. Tightly framed views of extreme urban acrobats and so-called freerunners are captured in various forms of suspended flight or motion in tough city spaces – vaulting across stairwells, body-popping off walls, hanging off grungy facades. Day quotes Foucault: ‘Architecture is not an object but a process, not a thing but a flow, not an abstract idea but a lived thought.’

Day’s images, mounted in a leftover, appendix-like space on the corner of the ground floor, intensify human figures to great effect, but the architectural backdrops do not demonstrate Foucault’s idea in the least: they are morbidly abstract and the only lived thoughts belong to the adrenalised parkourists, who could well have been captioned with a slightly revised version of Richard Hamilton’s famously satirical 1956 collage title: Just what is it that makes today’s architecture so different, so appealing?

That line could apply, in a Venturiesque sense, to the photographs in Rick Davies’ Black Country Stories series, which has been condemned to an even more incidental wall space. His big, panoramic views of messy commercial and public spaces such as West Bromwich bus station, the Star City shopping complex in Birmingham, and the unearthly Showcase Cinemas’ lot in Dudley, are uniformly morose, and uniformly compelling.

They seem alive and dead, shambolic and weirdly ordered, their densely chaotic, flattened details riddled and gashed with anaemic colour. Photographs like these are uncomfortable: they remind us how assiduously we ignore urban details that are unsightly or incoherent. Indeed, how we accept whatever the planners wave through in the name of regeneration, which is too often the creation of commercial junkspace for shopping, then tweeting that we’ve shopped.

This, of course, is a self-critical, cardboard cutout liberal response and it must be balanced against a blunter fact: these places may look like urban and architectural malignancies, but they are often well-used, if not vital adjuncts to countless lives. It is tempting to think of Davies’ images as Piranesian or Gandyesque, as if the scenes that passed through his lens were somehow objects in an artistic composition; or, failing that, raw reportage. But they actually, via Paul Klee, achieve more than that: they make us see.

Upstairs, again, for a last look at the Box of Delights. The mobiles hang mutely, the art-architecture Eucharist reduced to something that does not make us see. The vibe here is rather like the final cityscape of packing cases in Citizen Kane. All it needs is the recorded voice of Will Alsop, murmuring: ‘Rosebud…’

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent

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