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Art and architecture: Richard Deacon on working with Eric Parry

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Artist Richard Deacon writes about his collaborations with architect Eric Parry, including a design for the Millennium Bridge and the colourful ceramic facade on London’s Piccadilly

Architects and artists are different but can have similar concerns about craftsmanship, materials and visual weight; and both architecture and art exist in the real world. There is no reason why we should get along, although it’s nice when we do – successful collaborations between the two disciplines are rather wonderful, but too often artists are invited along as decorators. I happen to think that people started making highly sophisticated sculpture long before they began making sophisticated buildings, and that the terms of the relationship between building and sculpture are changeable. If a building is an object, the contained or juxtaposed sculpture is its subject. What would it be like if it were the other way round? – the Statue of Liberty is perhaps a case in point. What is more interesting in the relationship, especially if the artwork is incorporated into the fabric of the building itself, is the sense that the combination has to work as a whole; the architectural elements and the artwork have to come together so that one could not exist without the other.

Model of Eric Parry and Richard Deacon’s design for the Millennium Bridge.

Model of Eric Parry and Richard Deacon’s design for the Millennium Bridge.

My collaboration with Eric Parry started in 1996, when we were put together as a team for the Millennium Bridge commission. Neither of us can remember who paired us up (it was a requirement that architects teamed up with artists in preparing their submissions). However it happened, it was an inspired choice and, as demonstrated by the bridge model at our recent exhibition, Bridge, Bangle & Cornice, we had a very good idea! In fact Eric and I had both been at the Royal College of Art in the mid-’70s – he in Environmental Design and myself in Environmental Media, on the seventh floor of the Darwin Building, to the right and left of the elevator banks, so it is highly likely that at some time or other we shared the same lift. There is considerable symbiosis between Eric’s interests and my own – including structure, materials and methods, but also history and context. In our proposal for the Millennium Bridge it was this shared interest in structure that drove the project forward.

30 Finsbury Square, ceramic ‘bangle’ facade installation, drawing study by Richard Deacon

30 Finsbury Square, ceramic ‘bangle’ facade installation, drawing study by Richard Deacon

Despite not winning that commission, there was a sense of unfinished business, that there could be a project we could do together. In 2000 Eric invited me to contribute to the office building he was designing at 30 Finsbury Square. What fired my imagination was his radical persistence in making a modern building in stone. He also paid me the compliment of having engineered a suitable location for the artwork on the facade. Although the building was built, the sculptural intervention did not happen. Nevertheless, that sense of there being a possibility of working together had been reinforced.

A joint project was finally realised at One Eagle Place, the office and retail building on London’s Piccadilly (see AJ 04.07.13). The main attraction for me was the use of faience for one of the facades, with the implication that it would be practical to consider ceramic in building – and not just surfacing – the 39 blocks forming the cornice.

The blocks for One Eagle Place in a dry lay prior to installation.

The blocks for One Eagle Place in a dry lay prior to installation.

I began a steep learning curve in the production and installation of architectural ceramics, and the strengths of being associated with a multidisciplinary practice became apparent. The work of the artist follows different dynamics than that of the architect. Artists have the luxury of time to fiddle around with what interests them and don’t have clients in the same way architects do. In fact, I almost never work to a brief. However, some of the challenges of working with an architect – being part of a team, ability to meet deadlines and willingness to take on board others’ opinions – are challenges (and opportunities) artists also face.

The facade at One Eagle Place is on one of the busiest and most prominent thoroughfares in the country – looking across from Eros you see the building. It is really important that not just that particular facade but the whole development respects that context and adds to it. The architect paid attention to making sure the line of the cornice ran through the entire block, raising the level on the adjacent, retained, facade. This gave my contribution a key role in knitting that line together. There is also something a bit syncopated about the way in which the variety of profiles is seen as you go down Piccadilly from either direction. Approaching the building, colour and pattern on the fronts of the blocks become more visible, the complexity of their combinations across the angled surfaces is a muted reference to the cacophony of signs and colours at Piccadilly Circus itself – also reflected in the gloss faience of the facade.

The blocks in place at One Eagle Place. Photo: Dirk Lindner

The blocks in place at One Eagle Place. Photo: Dirk Lindner

I suspect that there are overlaps in the way both architects and artists start to think about something. A critical difference is the absence of a brief for the artist. In the studio it’s broadly true to say that I make most of my decisions during the process, working with the material and at 1:1. The thing I make is (mostly) off-site. An architectural and building process is very different. Many, many decisions are made, and multiple different elements and procedures are brought together at the site. There are trials to make sure things work, but ultimately it all comes to bear at one place. This level of complexity doesn’t exist for me, and I have enormous respect for the architect’s ability to retain and project clear ideas in the light of this.

In general, when I am working, my ideas become clearer as I go along, and I foster a level of fuzziness in order to be able to take the thing in a different direction. Working with an architect involves adapting these two approaches. The very positive side is that I get to meet and exchange ideas with people who have very different ranges of expertise from me. Hopefully that somehow feeds back into the fuzziness. You would have to ask an architect whether the reverse is true.

An exhibition of the collaborative work of Richard Deacon and Eric Parry was held at the British School at Rome as part of Meeting Architecture, the school’s architecture programme. Deacon and Parry will discuss their collaboration at a talk at the Royal College of Art on 16 December.

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