There is a very particular way that a current batch of architects are working with artists which involves no sculptures, no murals, no art plonked in lonely spaces and no malfunctioning water features. These architects work with artists because they are interested in their ideas, thought processes and philosophy, rather than any ability to make two or three dimensional work. Where once Mies van de Rohe and Richard Meier deigned to allow Alexander Calder and Frank Stella to make work for their hallowed architectural spaces, we now have Jacques Herzog and Adam Caruso working with Michael Craig Martin and Eva Lofdahl on an equal footing, making buildings, conversations, exhibitions and books together from the initial stages of a project's life.
What is important about these collaborations is the fact that the artists involved are not, and have no interest in being, architects and vice versa. There is no da Vinci-like desire to blur boundaries and morph from artist to architect to engineer. Jacques Herzog who has been working with artists since the 1970s has said: "Over the years we've come to understand…that artists shouldn't do architecture and architects shouldn't do art."(1) Art and architecture are two very distinct disciplines which work at very different levels and perform very different functions. Architects make spaces which provide a particular function: somewhere to piss, sleep, work or eat. The shape of architecture is dictated by the shape of human beings - our scale, how far we can lift our arm and how many paces it should take to reach a desk. Artists make work which provides a comment on society. This can be manifested in multiple ways: through an act (Maria Eichhorn's creation of a public limited company, for Documenta 11), a walk (Janet Cardiff's walk through Munster for Munster 1997) or a web-based light sculpture (Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's interactive installation at the Zocalo Square in Mexico City) . Art, like architecture, provides a much needed function, but it is not so direct. Art gives us a sense of who we are, where we have come from, what we are doing and where we are going.
There is a misguided sense that because artists are not bogged down by the intricate details and demands of architecture, that they are somehow 'freer' than architects. This is true in one sense - the architect must ensure that the roof doesn't collapse - but artists have a responsibility to their work which can be far more daunting than any health and safety issue. Good artists don't make work to please themselves in a kind of self-indulgent, 'free' way (something the British press refuses to accept); they grapple with life and things and states of existence which feed directly into deep societal needs.
Ironically, it is this idealised notion of the artist as a free agent which sometimes allows for the inclusion of an artist onto the design scheme of an architectural project. David Adjaye of Adjaye + Associates admits that when he was working with the artist Chris Ofili on the refurbishment of a small Victorian library in Kent, England, he sensed that Ofili was able to say things around the design table which would be deemed to be too naïve for an architect to proffer. "When an artist asks 'What's behind that wall?', it is somehow more romantic; the investigation process is given more validity and intrigue".(2)
The library floors were covered with layers of local authority linoleum and unearthed dust. In the middle of a design meeting, Ofili began to pick at the corners of the floor covering to see what lay underneath. A section of exquisite mahogany parquet flooring was revealed (this turned out to be the only section, unfortunately). When word got out, everyone in the building wanted a mahogany parquet floor which they felt could somehow be 'magically revealed' by the artist.
Artists may not be free but they are autonomous. This, I think, is what architects find so intriguing about artists. Where architects are part of a machine which involves a huge number of people, demands and budgetary constraints, artists work mostly as independents, making the work at their own pace. This autonomy allows artists to step outside of the quagmire which makes up much of the design process and pose questions, turn things on their head, draw out the qualities of a site and, along with the architect, define the territory and ambitions of a project. In some instances this autonomy also emables artists to question what architecture is and what it is not.
Adam Caruso of Caruso St John Architects is interested in the autonomy of the artist and considers that it is part of the architects role to "protect the artist"(3) in a collaborative situation. Architects, he says, are trained to worry about building regulations and loading capacities; it is his role to fight for the artist and to ensure that their ideas are not diluted or compromised. Caruso says that he works with artists because they stimulate him. Like many architects who consistently work with artists, Caruso's interest in art has a firm foundation: he studied Art History (Jacques Herzog was an artist before he became an architect and David Adjaye trained as an artist). He is deeply interested in, and influenced by, contemporary art. He makes weekly visits to art exhibitions across London and very, very rarely goes to architecture exhibitions ("They are pathetic"(4)). In the same way that it is often easier for an artist to comment on the work of an architect, Caruso says that it is easier for architects to go to exhibitions and engage with the art work on a direct level - artists can often be too close to see it clearly. He often sees the effect of his interest in a certain artists work immediately: after attending the sculpture exhibition Early One Morning at The Whitechapel Art Gallery in the summer of 2002, the influence of Gary Webb became apparent in the furniture he designed for the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London - Caruso was influenced by the formally driven, unresolved nature of Webb's work and found the "dumb materiality" of it inspiring.
This close, personal involvement with art and artists is reflected in the way that artists and architects 'select' each other for the projects they work on. David Adjaye is a close friend of Chris Ofili and has worked with him in a number of different capacities, as architect of his house, as collaborator at Folkestone Library and as the designer of Ofili's recent exhibition Freedom One Day at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Jacques Herzog's collaboration with Michael Craig Martin on the Laban contemporary dance centre in Deptford, south London, began with their work at Tate Modern where Craig Martin was a member of the Board of Trustees. Tony Fretton's current project with Katherine Clarke on the refurbishment of the Camden Arts Centre in north London is based on years of friendship and interest in each other's work.
This interest can result in partnerships where the artist and architect play off each other and produce work which highlights or draws out aspects of the other's approach. David Adjaye's work, for example, could be described as contemporary baroque; his delight in the use of material, colour, texture and light is always kept under wraps, with each element of his projects relaying a sense of order and control. Chris Ofili's approach is more fluid; he revels in the luxuriant and plays games with adjaye's right angles.
Perry Roberts does something similar, but his influence is manifested in very different ways. Roberts has just finished working with the architects Driesen/Meersman/Thomaes on the design of a series of new buildings for the University Faculty Saint Ignacius in Antwerp where his involvement is most evident in the colour programme for the site. Roberts' aim was to make the walls appear autonomous by painting them in solid blocks of colour. But this project is not as straight forward as it may seem: there are elements of Roberts' scheme which subverts this autonomy and plays with the architecture in which it sits. On one of the stairways the blue paint stops short of the right angle to which it is applied, to reveal a stretch of bare concrete. The aesthetic beauty of this project aside, the artists and architect (most notably Adinda van Geystelen at DMT) are playing with each other and in doing so highlighting the boundaries of each other's disciplines.
And finally, there is the very odd partnership of Herzog & de Meuron and Michael Craig Martin at the Laban. Artist and architect have worked together to devise a way of integrating the solid interior surfaces of the building with the translucent effects of the exterior surfaces. Craig Martin has devised a series of 'wedges' throughout the building which are painted Craig Martin turquoise, pink and blue. The shimmering pastel coloured polycarbonate which makes up the exterior walls has a fight with Craig Martin's scheme. I'm not sure who wins or whether it works, but the voice of the artist and architect are speaking loud enough for all to hear.
This collaborative way of working is interesting on many different levels: it helps us understand what art and architecture is and what it is not. It shakes us up and plays with our expectations, it provides us with odd and incredible structures and it helps us take some different (and sometimes difficult) steps on the path to thinking about the significance and weight of art and architecture in today's society.
1. Natural History, Herzog & de Meuron, edited by Philip Ursprung, published by Lars Muller 2002
2. David Adjaye, interview with the author, 1999
3. Interview with Adam Caruso in 'den stora skalan', published by Statens Konstrad, 2001
4. Adam Caruso, interview with the author, 2002