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Through the windows

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Through the windows of her East London tower-block flat Jes Fernie sees the city's landmarks in a panorama stretching from St Paul's Cathedral to the Dome. The skyline is studded with cranes as construction continues apace. But, professionally, Fernie's view extends beyond the capital to embrace new building nationwide. Her focus is collaboration between architects and artists and - as project manager for the rsa Art for Architecture Award Scheme - she is instrumental in funding it.

Some aspects of Fernie's Norfolk childhood seem especially formative. Her father is an art historian, her mother an artist, while architecture featured in family excursions. 'There were trips to Norwich Cathedral - my dad was an expert on it,' she says. 'And we used to visit the ruined abbey at Bury St Edmunds. After a while dad would take out his tape measure. That was when we would run off and play hide-and-seek in the ruins.'

architecture went further. 'They knocked down some of the ground-floor walls of our house and built a flat-roofed extension,' says Fernie. 'I still dream about that place. Glass blocks in Norwich in 1976! I remember thinking - this is radical. They were cool parents.'

Having been educated 'locally and very badly', Fernie studied art history at Manchester: 'I didn't do much work there. I lived my teenage years at university, I certainly didn't live them in my teens.' As for her subject, what she particularly recalls now are the paintings of the fifteenth-century Flemish artist, Rogier van der Weyden, and Lynne Walker's feminist architecture and design course.

Fernie's future began to crystallise after she left Manchester with a period of 'temping' at the Hayward Gallery. Director Susan Ferleger Brades and senior curator Greg Hilty were both 'very supportive - I learned so much in a year'. For her thesis on a subsequent arts administration course at City University, Fernie's subject was what artists could do outside of the gallery - an interest she pursued on the course's completion in working with independent curator Isabel Vasseur. Her involvement with the rsa award scheme was a logical next step, first as assistant to Michaela Crimmin (the then manager) and in charge of it since 1998.

While Fernie is passionate about the value of art, she doesn't overestimate its likely impact. 'I used to be naively enthusiastic about the difference that artists could make,' she says. 'I've come to realise that, in the short term at least, it's maybe not much. And there's a lot of crap artists out there! But art will always reach a small minority - and, beyond that, it's important to create a heritage, a sense of history. Artists play an incredibly large part in creating that sense of history and cultural identity.'

What might artists bring to collaboration with architects? 'So much of architecture is about compromise. Architects get worn down by qss, by clients, by contractors. Artists have much more autonomy. They're good at picking things to pieces and analysing them. They're able to spark ideas across disciplines. They're keen to talk philosophically, conceptually, about the nature of space - and architects welcome that opportunity. That's why I like funding artists who are erudite.'

The idea behind the award scheme is to fund new artist-architect collaborations. Grant applications are considered four times a year by a multi-disciplinary panel chaired by Lord Palumbo; its members include riba Architecture Gallery director Alicia Pivaro, architect and teacher Katherine Shonfield, artist Yinka Shonibare and architect Renato Benedetti. The amount at stake is modest - no more than £10-15K for each award - but discussions are often 'intense'. Fernie stresses that the search is for 'quality' and 'adventurousness': 'The idea is not just to confirm what the artist or architect already does but to move onto another level.'

During her time at the rsa, Fernie has become increasingly drawn to architecture. 'In the past, when I visited a city I would make an art pilgrimage. Now I find it more interesting to take the place on its architectural merits.' A recent trip to Chicago left her full of admiration for Mies van der Rohe. 'I love the rationality of his buildings, the purity, the aesthetically pleasing proportions. You walk round Chicago and see lots of copies of Mies but you know they're not by him.' Back in London, the canal-side cluster of gasometers near her home are a favourite: 'I like them formally, their structure is so pleasing. And I like the way they are placed in the landscape, industrial in a residential setting.'

The rsa post is part-time so Fernie is able to pursue creative interests - she's a photographer with a studio in Southwark - as well as other projects. One now in its early stages involves St Paul's Cathedral, so prominent from her tower-block window. Fernie is drawing up a long-list of artists for a permanent commission within the building to be completed in 2001.

Now almost 10 years old, the rsa award scheme was evaluated very positively in a recent report by Hugh Pearman and Sandy Nairne. It could be tempting for Fernie to coast on its success but she has other plans. One possibility is that an artist may take up residency at an architectural practice for six months or so, contributing ideas not just to one project but a range of them. Moreover, the whole scheme might be 'redesigned, renamed and relaunched'. It's clear that, for Fernie, what collaboration might mean, what it might provoke or provide, is still uncharted.

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