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Brits on tour

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The ‘Meeting Architecture’ series at the British School at Rome has a packed diary over the coming years. Francesco Garofalo reviews its first exhibition of Thomas Demand in collaboration with Caruso St John

The collaboration between Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Thomas Demand is regarded as a very successful example of what architects and artists can do together when their sensitivity is complementary and the work is filled with mutual respect and curiosity.

Their exhibition and conversation at the British School at Rome does not contradict this widely shared opinion. However, this review will try to explore why this opinion is not necessarily appeasing and reassuring, at least for architecture’s role in the relationship.

At first, the exhibition Madame Wu and the Mill from Hell seems to confirm the usual reading. The room is covered by wallpaper, reproducing the curtain from the Neue Nationalgalerie exhibition in 2009 in which Caruso and St John solved the problem of creating spaces in the transparent Mies van der Rohe pavilion without partitions. These spaces made it possible for Demand’s work to acquire distance, form sequences and avoid the risk of ending up in the basement where two-dimensional work is often shown. The textile exhibition by Mies and Lilly Reich from 1937 was an appropriate historic precedent. With a large work by Demand hanging on the long side of the room in Rome, one could say that the essence of the Berlin exhibition is recreated.

The second project is the Nagelhaus, the collaborative proposal for an art and architecture competition in Zürich. Instead of using the repertoire of landscape elements, street furniture, paving patterns and anything resembling a public art project, the three authors proposed to build a replica of a house in China that resisted demolition until it was left perched on a precarious pile of earth and then torn down. If this ‘stubborn nail’ reappeared in the middle of Zurich, it would have tucked itself under the large concrete highway viaduct crossing Escher-Wyss-Platz. The proposed use as a Chinese restaurant and the paper lamps hanging from the viaduct complete a clear agenda. The project did not get built, after it was approved and developed, because its opponents played their cards well in the game of bureaucracy and media, until a municipal referendum buried it by a narrow margin.

The third project appears to be more conventional. After years of fruitful collaborations, the artist commissioned the architects to renovate a house for him in Hellmühle, near Berlin. The project is presented with beautiful black and white photos by Hélène Binet and two bound volumes of impeccable construction drawings.

The exhibition begins revealing its complexity in the adjacent room, during the almost two-hour conversation moderated by Mario Codognato, a respected and soft-spoken Italian art critic and curator.

All three projects, in their different collaborative natures, challenge the pretence of architecture

All three projects, in their different collaborative natures, challenge the pretence of architecture to wilfully shape an environment. This should not be misunderstood: it is precisely because Caruso and St John’s work is so good and specific that the dilemma presents itself in all its philosophical clarity.

First there is the question of the installation. Adam Caruso told the story of their collaboration starting with Demand’s exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Again a transparent building, they needed to avoid being confined to the basement. Problem Solving is the title of a short text by the architect that can be read in the exhibition. It is not a sign of modesty. Most of the time, the problem to solve is the absence of ‘space’. In Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the richly decorated, untouchable walls suggest the construction of a giant set of furniture. At Bregenz Kunsthaus by Peter Zumthor, curtains form another enclosure within the gallery’s open field. During the conversation, Demand complains that architects usually see artwork as an object, not an idea; Caruso St John’s ability to ‘solve the problem’ without resorting to conventional elements is part of the reason for working with them. In the artist’s words: ‘I stopped pondering and just let them do their part. Results were mostly baffling and I kept thinking a good while about them, even if I believe I got the proposition right away.’

Is the house a more conventional case? Not entirely. Demand says that he loved the place, but that he did not need a country house. The project is not simple either: the original mill is centuries old, but during the Nazi period it was given a very Völkisch appearance that the conservation authority now considers worth preserving. This paradox did not discourage the designers who subtly loosened the fabric while superficially restoring it.

British School at Rome

Source: BSR

Finally, one can discuss the Nagelhaus and its ‘knight move’ in the game of public space. A proposal that questions the arrogance of architecture and conventional public art practices ends up creating more friction. Is the lack of humour of the Swiss right wing enough to explain its defeat? It is necessary to visualise it built and after some time: when the conspicuous position of the house under the viaduct could have suggested to those who did not know the story that the somewhat generic house predated the infrastructure, as in the original Chinese reference. In Italy, there is a great abundance of these situations, often unintended. Not far from the British School, the site of the MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid was created in 1998 by a careless severance of pre-existing barracks. Inside the envelope of the museum, a trapped house remains, still occupied by a family of army tenants. It can be seen as a parallel of the Nagelhaus, but perfectly accomplished because it was not designed.

Architecture is very present as a disciplinary question in this collaboration, precisely because it is consciously absent. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the programme ‘Meeting Architecture’, curated by Marina Engel in partnership with the Royal College of Art, will continue to provide such insights. The programme scheduled over the next few years, with the first six dates already set, proposes more architecture (Reinier de Graaf), more art (Vivien Lovell), cinema and architecture (Amos Gitai) architecture and music (David & Peter Adjaye and Cecil Balmond with Daniel Libeskind). With events involving Eric Parry among others, the British cultural scene is the drawing pool, although not exclusively. The ambition of the programme reflects the role that the British School has gained as a venue for architecture and multidisciplinary events in Rome.

  • Francesco Garofalo, director of Garofalo Miura Architetti and professor at Faculty of Architecture of Pescara, Italy


Madame Wu and the Mill From Hell, The British School at Rome, Via Gramsci 61, 00197 Rome, Italy, until 19 November.

The exhibition is part of the school’s Meeting Architecture programme, which runs until December 2015, exploring the nature of collaboration between architecture and other creative processes.




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