Vice Versa

The following article first featured in November 2003’s issue 3 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article highlights rather than an interdisciplinary approach to art and architecture, a challenge to the traditional artist and architect roles of who can be viewed as the ‘creator’ of public art and architecture.

Vice Versa – The work of architects as artists and artists producing buildings

Recently, the Manchester based ‘Centre for the Understanding of the Built Environment’ announced, through the vehicle of it’s touring Best Studio programme, an ambitious aspiration to serve the entire northwest region. That Cube is seen by many to be one of Europe’s most exciting architecture and design centres: “dedicated to broadcasting the ideas and issues that lie behind the buildings, spaces and environments making up our built environment” is clearly no false vision. Indeed, it is one of the major advocates for the ultimate concept of architecture-as-art form. Director Graeme Russell recognises that architecture today holds a unique position within contemporary culture, including, what he terms “the complex interrelationships between art, architecture and design”. It is within such a relationship, in a hybrid world of public art, where both architect and artist continue to explore mutual opportunities for expression – areas often involving an inversion of their traditional disciplines.

Two examples of architects demonstrating such vision are to be currently experienced under the Cube ‘brand’ in Manchester. One is a piece of “emotive architecture” by David Adjaye, set within the hallowed portals of Cube itself, whilst the other is a highly evocative temporary installation within a new Cube public gallery in the Metro interchange of the recently refurbished Piccadilly Station.

The Asymmetric Chamber by David Adjaye is a superb internal intervention that incorporates a gateway into the main Cube gallery through a two-way experience of architecture to connect both a sensory and emotional level. Crafted in materials, light and space the installation also incorporates an abstract musical composition by Adjaye’s brother David which was specifically created for the pavilion to help visitors feel the space as much as to see it.

In complete contrast to a clinical gallery installation, and focusing on the nearby World Heritage site, Ancoats Stories by architect Dan Dubowitz involves light-boxes placed in alcoves on the central platforms of the Metro interchange. The giant illuminated photographs illustrate the extent of the serious yet pleasing decay reached by the famous Ancoats mills before their current regeneration programme was initiated. The beautiful images are contrasted with moving and witty recollections of local residents that are piped unobtrusively into intimate niches on opposite platforms.

The architect acting as artist is of course not a new concept, but what of vice versa? In an age of increasing deregulation, with many technical professions now classing themselves as architectural designers, what additional purpose could the artist provide within the architectural design world? The answer is that the artist can assist in exploring new ideas and working methods within the built environment. Unsurprisingly though, this artistic involvement relies largely on the vision of innovative clients and cooperation of technical support teams being in place to facilitate it. One such exemplar client is the Liverpool Housing Action Trust, one of six UK Non-Departmental Public Bodies set up under the Housing Act in 1988. Liverpool HAT was originally tasked with securing sustainable regeneration to a portfolio of 35 primarily high-rise sites around the city, whilst aspiring to achieve a social and cultural renaissance to the communities inhabiting them at the same time – some brief! Consequently, a key delivery mechanism to this was their crucial early implementation of a public art strategy, a percent-for-art funding policy and a public art maintenance ‘dowry’ that helped the Trust put their ambitious plans into action.

A current project, that Liverpool HAT are progressing in conjunction with community consultations and partners the Guinness Trust, involves a proposal by Turner Prize short listed artist Vong Phaophanit (Laotian born Vong was short listed in 1995 for Neon Rice Fields) with Claire Oboussier to create “a unique sculptural and architectural object” called The Outhouse. The work involves creating a useable but aesthetic space between a series of polarised tower blocks in Woolton and is based on a scaled reduction of the basic plan of a terraced house built on the site that was designed by architects the Owen Ellis Partnership. It is suggestive of a glazed community den that is both reflective of its wooded context yet transparent. The Outhouse is lit from the ground by four strips of red neon, which will run the length of the sculpture to produce, at night, what the artist sees as a “floating glow within the wood”. The multi-functional sculpture proposes an inversion of transparent and opaque surfaces on the exterior of the structure. Thus, where, in the original house there are transparent windows or opening doors these surfaces become opaque and where there are solid walls the surfaces become transparent.

In a similar fashion, this continued exchange of traditional professional responsibility helps explore a concept of who can be viewed as the ‘creator’ of public art and architecture. It is a challenging notion that Arts Council England feel should be freely considered by architects as well as artists – because it must benefit all parties to broaden their visible horizons of professional ambition and creative understanding.

Categories: Writing

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