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Cultural connections

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Recent works which the Scottish artist Alan Johnston has made in Europe and Japan, all precisely attuned to their architectural context, dissolve distinctions between the East and the West

Seeking a share of the attention that Tate Modern has attracted in recent weeks, the original Tate on Millbank - Tate Britain - has just opened a major group show of contemporary art. It is called 'Intelligence'; and in respect of one featured artist - Alan Johnston, based in Edinburgh but exhibiting internationally for 25 years - that title is certainly apt. What distinguishes much of his work, whether in two or three dimensions, is a subtle and carefully calculated engagement with architecture.

In just the last few years he has made installations at the Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna and Inverleith House, Edinburgh, collaborated with Shinichi Ogawa in Japan, and created a series of (often large-scale) drawings in and around Basel.

These can be seen in several buildings by the Basel-based practice Diener & Diener and, notably, in an important early work by the pioneering Swiss Modernist, Hans Schmidt - the Colnaghi House of 1927 at Riehen.

'Growing up in the city of Edinburgh gave me a strong background of accuracy and clarity when it came to architecture, ' says Johnston.This was partly a matter of individual buildings, such as William Playfair's St Stephen, Vincent Street ('vast scale, Grecian severity' says the Buildings of Scotland) and William Chambers' Royal Bank of Scotland, at the east end of the central axis in James Craig's New Town. But it was more to do with 'the total construct of the New Town, the way it's all made - the small adjustments in the interests of perspective when the stone was cut.' What Johnston appreciates also about the New Town are 'individual vagaries within an overall order'- a phrase that could well characterise his own work.

After studying in Edinburgh, Johnston went to the Royal College of Art in London and from there to Dusseldorf; but the travels he undertook were as fruitful as any formal training. 'I crawled all over Italy, ' he recalls, 'including the Piero della Francesca trail. That was an architectonic experience as well. Not just the structure of a painting like the Flagellation of Christ but the urban spaces I encountered on the way - the Piazza Grande at Arezzo, for instance.' Already by 1968 he knew about the Haus Wittgenstein and, though his attempt to visit it then was frustrated, it became for him 'a kind of talisman of abstract form'.

Windows of Basel

For his first one-person show, at the Galerie Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf in 1973, Johnston made drawings in pencil directly onto the wall, and the lineage of the recent Basel works can be traced back to them. They spring more immediately, however, from an invitation he received in 1998 to participate in an artists' exchange programme, which gave him temporary occupation of a studio in a converted outbuilding in the grounds of the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen, at the edge of Basel.

The foundation's collection is, of course, rather opulently housed in Renzo Piano's elongated pavilion of 1994-97, about which Johnston is ambivalent. In conversations with him on art and architecture, certain words, approving or disapproving, recur; and they are worth recording as clues to the qualities he might seek or avoid in his own work.'Clarity' and 'accuracy' have already appeared, but similarly positive in connotation are 'neutral', 'anonymous'and 'restrained'. Among the negatives are 'mannered', 'ostentatious', 'mechanical', 'decadent' and 'contrived'.

So, while Johnston applauds the circulation in Piano's Beyeler Foundation, he finds its stone cladding - Patagonian porphyry - both mannered and ostentatious.

Basel, after all, has a dark red stone of its own, the sandstone from which its cathedral and numerous other buildings are constructed.Of another 1990s gallery/museum admired by many, Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz, he says: 'It's a bit iffy. There's a slightly decadent air to it, and the lighting's almost mannerist.' He is much more positive when discussion turns to Diener & Diener, whose buildings, scattered throughout Basel, he admires for 'their restraint'.

Johnston's works during his Riehen residence were all made on the fabric of his two-storey studio and its small adjacent courtyard. They are pencil drawings sealed with beeswax, ranging in size from the width of a doorway to the width of a wall. Described baldly, they look like greyish frames surrounding areas of white wall, with the larger pieces subdivided vertically, in such a way that sometimes just a slender strip or two of wall is isolated as well as broader oblongs.

Closer scrutiny of these drawings reveals further characteristics.Typically, each side of what at first might seem a simple rectangular 'frame' proves to be of a different width (maybe just a matter of millimetres). The drawing will be positioned in response to specific architectural cues: the height of a lintel, perhaps, or the depth of a horizontal band on an adjacent gate, or the fact of a solid surface between two openings.The discreet asymmetry already present because of the variable width of the frame will be emphasised further by the placement of any vertical divisions.

Dimensions and intervals aren't derived from any pre-existing proportional system but determined in preliminary sketches when Johnston has selected his site.

Separate works may mirror each other - at Riehen, for instance, two drawings in the courtyard either side of the metalwork gates - but not exactly.Then there is the mark, or host of interconnected marks, that Johnston makes as he draws. It is difficult to tell where one pencil stroke ends and another begins, and in appearance these drawn areas are like a skein, with white ground showing through the nervous flickering graphite.As a consequence the frames are airy and partly dematerialised.

These drawings are unassertive, undemonstrative; and there is nothing mechanical in their execution, they are clearly hand-made. If one sought an aural equivalent for them - and Johnston encourages such analogies - it would be a whispering or rustling sound, the quiet accompaniment to life that we can bring into focus if we choose. They recall a favourite quotation of Johnston's, from John Cage: 'The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting.'

As one explores the studio inside and out, it becomes clear that Johnston conceived these drawings not as independent works but as an ensemble - both in their placement and in the formal echoes that occur. Soon afterwards, at the Colnaghi House, he could expand on this approach.

'When I was prowling around Riehen I saw some terrific houses from the 1920s. I thought how much I would like to make some drawings in one of them, ' says Johnston. By a most fortunate coincidence, the visitors to his Riehen studio included the owners of one of the buildings that had attracted him - the Colnaghi House - and they were happy to commission him.

The house is on a hillside that has the air of a prosperous residential enclave, of comfortable exclusivity. Properties are part- concealed by mature trees and lush foliage, and are seldom attention-seeking - 'They suppress their eminence, ' says Johnston approvingly. From the approach on Wenkenstrasse the Colnaghi House is hardly visible, as it is set back up a slope to one side.A narrow path ascends towards the short flight of steps at its front door, and two of Johnston's drawings come into view (see cover).

Hans Schmidt who, in partnership with Paul Artaria, was the architect of the house, may be little known in the UK, but he was prominent in the early days of the Modern Movement.With Mart Stam he co-edited the Basel-based journal ABC: Beitrage zum Bauen, which publicised new architecture in Switzerland, and participated in the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (whose first meeting was at La Sarraz, Switzerland, in 1928).He spent much of the 1930s in the Soviet Union.

When Schmidt died in 1972 he was largely forgotten in Switzerland but subsequently both Herzog and de Meuron and Diener & Diener have acknowledged his importance for their own work. To judge from the 1993 Zurich catalogue on his career, Hans Schmidt 1893-1972:

Architekt in Basel, Moskau, Berlin Ost, Schmidt's creative highpoint came with his three late-1920s houses in Riehen, the Colnaghi and its near neighbours, the Schaeffer House (restored in 1990 by Herzog and de Meuron) and the Huber-Zweifel House.

The owners of the Colnaghi House, responsible for its restoration by architect Thomas Osolin as well as Johnston's commission, are Hans Ulrich and Maria Iselin, respectively a doctor and a politician. Sleekly horizontal in form, especially when seen from its garden front, and well-supplied with south-facing balconies and terraces, the house is of steel frame and concrete block construction.

'Structurally it was sound when we acquired it, ' says Hans Ulrich Iselin, 'but a lot of the qualities of the house were masked. Its previous occupants didn't like this cool style. But we were ready to do something extreme - to be in a living-room without curtains. That may be nothing in the Netherlands but this is Switzerland!'

One artist's contribution to the Colnaghi House was already significant. Research during the 'unmasking' revealed a Theo van Doesburg colour scheme for the doors, window-frames and other woodwork, whose subdued polychromy (dark blue, grey, yellow) has been recreated. Now Johnston's drawings have become as integral to one's experience of the house but in a different way.

Picking up on his practice at the Riehen studio, Johnston conceived a series of eight works at ground-floor level both inside and out, distributed in such a way that the occupant or visitor continually encounters them and registers their interrelationship. Their positions, on both the north-south and east-west axes of the house, are marked on the plan (see opposite page), though an axonometric projection could better convey their configurations and alignments.Discovered in succession, they bring memory into play as well as perception.

At one point the guiding logic behind Johnston's interventions becomes particularly clear.

From the lobby in the south-east corner of the house, it is possible to see three small drawings simultaneously: two above the adjacent doors that lead into the dining room and hall, and the third above the door from the dining room to the living room beyond. (That axis, shifting slightly, then continues past another work on the east wall of the living room to emerge outside on the veranda, where a further drawing is found on the southfacing wall at its rear. ) Johnston says that he is interested in 'little movements of space', which his works both derive from and indicate. The two adjacent doors are of different dimensions, the one on the left being both lower and narrower than its neighbour. The drawings above them begin at different levels but align exactly at the top; and when the work in the next room is brought into play we see three distinct configurations of frame and enclosed white oblong - all variants in a way of the windows, with their strong horizontal division, that light the lobby and the dining room.

'Like my works at Haus Wittgenstein, these drawings are about fenestration, ' says Johnston.

'They are also to do with the void.' As well as the immediate reference to the windows of the Colnaghi House in their placement and intervals, they bring the long history of 'windows in art' in their wake. In a Renaissance painting, for instance, the framed view of a meticulous distant cityscape; in Matisse, the cursory bands of sea and sky beyond the hotel curtains; in the room of Rothkos at Tate Modern, a foggy indeterminate scene. Johnston's 'windows' are singularly spare and reductive: he makes borders around emptiness, the uninflected white wall.

Key references for him are the landscape paintings of the fifteenth-century Japanese artist-monk Sesshu, where forms are only sketchy and partial, and where space seems all-pervasive.

Sesshu also made a garden, Joei-ji, at Yamaguchi in Japan, which Johnston discovered in the 1980s.

There, a number of irregularly-placed stones - each with its own profile and dimensions - punctuate space and, in a sense, create it, making emptiness more palpable than it would be in their absence. The borders of Johnston's drawings - their variable width activating the void that they enclose - could be likened to those stones.

In their totality, Johnston's Colnaghi works modulate rather than replicate the governing order of the house; they interpolate their own order but, again, unassertively.'They have a plastic value. They've become part of the house, ' says Maria Iselin. This sense of integration is confirmed by the drawings being included in the Colnaghi House's category-A listing in the Swiss national schedule.

Another visitor to Johnston's Riehen studio was Diener & Diener partner Dieter Righetti, who responded with the enthusiasm of the Iselins. Johnston later joined Righetti in visiting some his practice's Basel buildings, to find suitable sites for making works.

In the monograph Diener & Diener: Projects 1978-1990 (Rizzoli, 1991), Righetti and Roger Diener make a distinction between architect and artist, saying: 'We do not expect an exclusive absorbing scrutiny of our buildings, but rather a casual one determined by their use.Here our possibilities differ from those of Minimal Art.For us, a door remains a door, a window a window.'

They then elaborate on their intentions.'We are not interested in images in a trivial way.We try to get as close as we can to certain types. They stand for fundamental human experiences: the vertical window, the horizontal window, the door - they all relate to people.'

From the evidence of buildings that Diener & Diener has completed since that monograph was published, this emphasis persists. Certainly the window - in its configuration, in the rhythm of its placement in a facade - is always a highly studied element, so an overlap with Johnston's interests is clear. But in his works for Diener & Diener, Johnston did more than allude to windows - at the St Alban-Tal apartment block, the Barfusserplatz offices and the Vogesenschulhaus school, they became the physical support for his drawings.

To make them, Johnston used a lacquer which he discovered in Japan. In their appearance - their variable borders and voids - they obviously relate to the Beyeler studio and Colnaghi House pieces, and though the medium is no longer pencil, their execution is still not mechanical. The film of lacquer is a pale grey but - like many surfaces which at a glance are monochrome - this grey is not entirely uniform but nuanced.

At night, when the lobby of the St Alban-Tal block is illuminated, the drawing on the window by its entrance - otherwise scarcely visible - can be registered from the outside.Primarily, however, these are works for the buildings' occupants, for those looking outside from within. From that vantage point, the external architectural cue to, say, the placement of a vertical division, becomes apparent (a door jamb at St Alban-Tal). At Barfusserplatz, Diener & Diener's broad, symmetrical, two-light window is made asymmetrical by Johnston, with lacquer frames that recompose the world beyond.

As a devotee of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, Johnston cites a passage from A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) in which Hume develops an argument about perception and cognition by reference to a globe of white marble, a globe of black marble, and a cube of white. This black-white polarity often informs Johnston's paintings, with their structured oppositions of colour and shape; as seen, for instance, in his installations at Haus Wittgenstein and Inverleith House. But Hume's tangible evocation of simple geometric forms might also seem to underpin the three-dimensional pieces that Johnston makes.

At Inverleith House (by David Henderson, 1774), a work that Johnston showed was, unusually for him, titled, and called Hume's Cube. One face of a cube of Craigleith sandstone - the stone of Edinburgh's New Town - was painted white and drawn upon with pencil, while its immediate neighbour was coated with charcoal and beeswax.Another component of the same installation was a black cylinder resting on a white one, in direct allusion to Robert Adam's cylindrical David Hume Monument in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burying Ground.

Inverleith House, like the New Town it overlooks, is both a product and symbol of the Enlightenment; indeed, the critic Mel Gooding has described the New Town as 'the finest European manifestation of Enlightenment speculation as to the possibilities of civilised life'. One of Johnston's intentions with his Inverleith works was that his audience would contemplate that inheritance and the values at its core.

But the cube, of course, is not a culturally specific form; and some years before the installation at Inverleith House, on a visit to Japan, Johnston came across a building by Shinichi Ogawa - his Cubist House of 1989 at Yamaguchi, a home-cumartist's studio contained in a 6m x 6m x 6m glass cube.'I felt an instant empathy with this clear construct, ' says Johnston, 'and saw all sorts of connective ideas.'

What has come from this 'instant empathy' is a collaboration with Ogawa, which still continues.

The principal built evidence so far is the 'Two Cubes Project' at Akiyoshida International Art Village in Japan. One cube was of glass, the other, identical in dimensions, of white-painted wood; and both were a repository for Johnston's drawings - lacquer on the glass, pencil on the wood.

Visitors were able to enter the cubes, which stood on a terrace at Akiyoshida at such a distance from each other that they could seem self-sufficient while still being held in relationship.

The complexities of that interrelationship, in changing weather and light, can be inferred from photographs if not described exactly. But among the people who experienced them at first-hand was Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall Architects.

'The drawings on the glass cube set up diagonals which, in certain light conditions, were reflected into infinity, ghosting out over the landscape, ' says Gillespie. 'And the pivoting door created multiple reflections and fractured the views. Perhaps the timber cube was not so obviously beautiful but it touched a more primitive chord. Its interior was dark and unpainted, with a strong smell of cedar. The actual act of construction was memorable too. We watched from a stepped auditorium as the Japanese students worked under floodlight, moving back and forth between the cubes, assembling them over many hours.'

Commuting between cultures, from West to East and back, as he does, Johnston can't help but register contrasts. In his native city of Edinburgh, for instance, 'blanket conservationism' is a problem: 'There's been disaster after disaster architecturally because of that ingrained attitude, that blinkered cataloguing mentality.There's no dialogue between past and future - as there is, say, in Basel.' In Yamaguchi, on the other hand, traditional one-storey dwellings are being rapidly replaced by high-rises and garages: 'The past is being swept away - there is a loss of urban form.' To Johnston, however, such apparent differences may mask a deeper unity.

On a sunless spring afternoon back at the Colnaghi House, the small oblong drawing on its south front is almost spectral. Meanwhile Johnston's talk ranges seamlessly, persuasively, from Hans Schmidt to Hume to Sesshu, from the West Coast American painter John McLaughlin to Diener & Diener. For a moment, in this sequestered Swiss garden, these disparate sources are fused. Through his works, Johnston explores not just the integration of art and architecture but what connects cultures across space and time.

With an eye on the essential or eternal, they quietly transform the everyday.

'Intelligence' continues at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1 until 24 September

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