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Search for dialogue between disciplines

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Art and Architecture At the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 25-26 April

Projected on the wall behind the podium was an aerial view of a city. A large, circular covered stadium could be seen near the centre; to its left, not far away, and of similar dimensions, was a gigantic hamburger on a sesame-seed bun. The artist Claes Oldenburg explained: ‘On the left is art, and on the right, architecture.’ The audience of some 600 people who, in many cases, had travelled great distances to hear ideas on just this topic, laughed with relief and delight: at last, a concrete answer.

Over the weekend of 25-26 April, artists Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen (his partner and wife), Robert Irwin, and Roni Horn joined architects Jacques Herzog and Frank Gehry as well as scholars James Ackerman and Michael Benedikt to speak at a two-day symposium, ‘Art and Architecture’, hosted by the Chinati Foundation, the world-class contemporary art museum in the remote and dusty border town of Marfa, Texas (aj 2.10.97).

An apt location for a discussion of the relationship between the two disciplines, Marfa is where the late artist (and architect) Donald Judd practised his ideas of how art should be installed in both public and private spaces. In addition to buying and redefining many of the town’s unused buildings for his personal use, he founded the Chinati Foundation, housed at a one-time army base, where he altered and ‘clarified’ the light and lines within the buildings so that they might best display the art within them.

‘Don Judd hated my work,’ Frank Gehry said at the outset of his lecture. ‘But we were friends.’ Gehry described how his own ideas about museums were shaped some years ago in Los Angeles, when a group of artist friends came to him one day (it was the artists’ community there that embraced his work there more than the architects at first), and put to him the question of what kind of museum works best. He replied in the way he thought he should: ‘the art is first’ and ‘the museum should be a neutral building … like the invisible puppeteer in Japanese dances’. The artists protested: ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want an important building, one that calls attention to itself … and draws people to it.’

Gehry has acted on that idea ever since when it comes to museums - most dramatically and recently with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but also at the Minneapolis Art Museum, among others. Michael Benedikt suggested that Gehry’s bold, voluptuous buildings reflected his position at the forefront of modern architecture’s movement to become ‘animate’, more of a performing art that captures ‘frozen motion … human gesture and poise’. But Gehry said he also makes it a point to leave the museum’s interior ‘so the artist can manipulate it’ without the ‘fussy detail that causes problems for artists’.


Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron, on the topic of buildings made for art, said that for the Goetz Collection in Munich the architects wanted the two floors of the private gallery to be non-hierarchical, so that one would not be considered a better space in which to display art. Using a ‘simple geometry’ to create a ‘complex spatial existence’, they sunk the first floor so that the rooms would be equal in size. Birch plywood on the exterior plays off the birch trees surrounding it, and at night the building, with its bands of light through etched glass, becomes ‘more like a lantern in the garden’.

For the in-progress Tate Gallery of Modern Art, Herzog and de Meuron felt the need to reverse the effect of the one-time power station that the museum will be housed in, which was to keep people away from it. In order ‘to ground this brick mass’, they made entrances on all four sides so that the ground level would become an open public space from which the entire gallery could be seen, with nothing hidden below it, and with glass monitors indicating the exhibits and their location to provide orientation ‘so people don’t feel lost’. They also wanted to ‘expose the existing space’ of the old turbine room which is ‘cathedral-like’, and to contrast the old rough, industrial aspects with the new glazed pieces.

In the panel discussion later, Coosje van Bruggen criticised Herzog & de Meuron’s design for playing up the cathedral aspect of a museum at a time in history when so many artists are engaged in the project of working against monumentality. Herzog said he had been misunderstood, and again that he was interested in the non-hierarchical quality of the exhibition spaces and was not interested in making a cathedral of the space.

Anti-heroicism and anti-monumentalism lie close to the heart of Oldenburg’s and van Bruggen’s ‘obstacle monuments’, where mundane objects (a button, clothespin, plug, flashlight) are vastly enlarged to ‘become architectonic structures’ and yet still remain recognisably themselves. The artists place them in front of buildings, without pedestals, and the sculpture is not just a decoration for the architecture but interacts with it.

For the Nelson Atkins Mueum in Kansas, which is housed in a heavy Neo- Classical building, the artists wanted to add a feeling of lightness, so they placed huge, feathery badminton shuttlecocks at different angles and positions across the oblong expanse of green lawn, none on the centre axis of it as they were requested. Their interest in the architectural nature of objects led them to collaborate with Gehry in the Chiat/Day building in Los Angeles, where Gehry asked them to make big binoculars to ‘give curves to the facade’ - their only object with an interior. ‘He gave part of his facade to a sculptor,’ van Bruggen said, then paused. ‘And he’s regretted it ever since.’ The three also worked to design a camp for children with cancer that was never completed. But a model shows the dining building had a boat-shaped porch, an eating hall shaped like a receding wave, and a milk jug for a kitchen. ‘The difference between art and architecture is that architecture has windows and toilets,’ Oldenburg said.

Roni Horn created a permanent piece in Spain where, in a circular plaza of granite cobblestones ringed by travertine, she removed a wedge and replaced the area with 22 tons of lead cobbles. The lead cobbles produced much softer footfalls and had an ‘invisible’ effect at times. (This ‘permanent’ piece was eventually removed, Horn said, for ‘minor political reasons’.)

In a project for the Munich Weather Bureau, she chose words that describe humans and weather (‘sultry’, ‘clammy’, ‘warm’, ‘frigid’, ‘tranquil’, ‘beautiful’, and her favourite - ‘torrid’) and inlaid them in chartreuse rubber in black rubber matting at the entrances and in the railings along stairs and balconies all the way up to the tower, keeping in mind the way the eye moves around a room and where it rests. Currently, Horn is at work on a pathway that will run in front of six buildings. She has taken a moulding of a scallop-patterned basalt field in Iceland, which she will use to make a pathway of two kinds of orange rubber, one hard and one soft, that can be distinguished by touch but not visually.

Robert Irwin described his gardens for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as ‘a sculpture in the form of a garden that aspires to be art’. And while his gardens run right up to the edge of architect Richard Meier’s buildings, ‘you’d never define a collaboration in those terms’. In fact, the relationship was more like a war: ‘Meier saw me as someone painting on his canvas. I understood his discomfort, which he still has. But I take some pride in that I chewed him up and left him for dead.’ Irwin tried to bring an ‘intimacy’ and a ‘floating geometry’ to the garden using a ‘spectacular palette’ of flowers that ‘gets more and more hysterical as you go down - exuberant by the end’. He thought first in terms of the plants’ and trees’ colour and density, and then learned about them horticulturally. He also came up against codes that architects face, such as the question of disabled access which determined the zig-zag course of the path down the hill.

Equal terms

Herzog & de Meuron’s collaborations with artists Remy Zaugg and Thomas Ruff have been far more willing ones. They have shaped the way Herzog & de Meuron exhibits its projects, and the architects have incorporated artists’ work into their buildings. Using a special technique, photographs of flowers were printed on glass panels in the Ricola building. And recently, they have ‘tattooed’ the glass and concrete facades of a library at Eberswalde, in eastern Germany, with archival newspaper photos belonging to the photographer Thomas Ruff. The images ‘mask the box’ of the building, but, Herzog noted, the effect is unlike Pop Art, as these photographic images are clear from far away and fade out as the viewer approaches. The images on glass disappear altogether when light pours out of them at night, and they have stirred controversy as some motifs include people escaping through houses when the Russians built the Berlin Wall in the 1960s.

In fifteenth-century Italy, the atelier training did not distinguish between art and architecture, as the scholar James Ackerman pointed out. Artists such as Bernini were trained as an artist, architect, and sculptor; the focus was on drawing. But the divide began when artists started to work on spec, and architects continued to work on commission. Even now, Benedikt said, architecture schools are divided between those that ally themselves with schools of engineering and schools of art. Art such as Irwin’s and Judd’s, Benedikt said, gives the viewer a sense of standing ‘in the presence of ineffable authenticity’. And it is his particular hope that architecture will move more in art’s direction; however, he said, the best buildings ‘never get tired of being good’.

At the outset of the symposium, Ackerman had posed the question: ‘Is it possible for art and architecture to function interactively, or is architecture so commercial that art can only comment on that?’ By the end of it, the answer to this question was most definitely yes, it is possible. Art has options besides commenting on commercialisation in architecture or functioning as a piece of decoration for a building; interactiveness is possible.

Art and architecture is ‘one of the great dialogues’, said Horn. But after her ‘permanent’ installation of lead cobbles - which required no space, no maintenance, and was virtually invisible - was removed, she made it a point to collaborate only with people who approached her as an equal and knew her work. Herzog & de Meuron likes to involve the artist as part of the whole team early on, ‘not just drop sculpture in’. Van Bruggen said of her and Oldenburg’s work: ‘Crossing over [between disciplines] is dangerous. This tension attracts us.’ But, as Gehry pointed out: ‘If you learn to make a fool of yourself you can collaborate much more easily.’

Daphne Beal is a journalist in New York

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