Theaster Gates

A focus on engaging people with the built environment, as part of a wider change in approach to architecture, was highlighted at Designed in Hackney Day earlier this month. In the work of American multimedia artist and cultural planner Theaster Gates, the potential of civic interventions is being extended even further. Based in Chicago with a degree in urban planning, ceramics and religious studies, Gates’ work revolves around the significance of places, collective memory and social history, through the ‘poetic’ renovation of neglected buildings and the appropriation of relics from sites of cultural or political pertinence.

In a recent project, Gates extracted the contents of an entire bookshop after it closed down in 2009. The Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago specialised in art and architecture books, the remaining 14,000 of which have been saved as a permanent collection by Gates in the form of a new ‘public library’, placed in a renovated residence on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago’s run-down South Side as part of the artist’s public archive project: Dorchester Projects.

As one of the USA’s last architecture bookshops, with only two or three remaining in the country, its closure was tragically unsurprising. Yet the books are now freely accessible to anyone in or passing through the neighbourhood, opening up a different potential audience and creating a new life for the collection. As well as the Prairie Avenue Bookshop Archive, Dorchester Projects hosts 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago’s art history department and 10,000 LPs from a nearby closed-down record store. Here, books, slides and records – almost vestiges of a different age, obsolete in an era of digitisation – are imbued with a new kind of dignity and value.

Dorchester Projects. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers.

This act of generosity and civic intervention, coined ‘radical hospitality’ underlies much of Gates’ work, which is often based in or sourced from his local Chicago area but also Detroit, Omaha and St Louis. As part of Dorchester Projects, Gates has purchased two other buildings on Dorchester Avenue, currently serving as a food pavilion and artists’ space, in a gesture indicative of his ideological interest in transforming forgotten neighbourhoods. He is also working on the renovation of an abandoned property in the same area in collaboration with Brinshore Development and Landon Bone Baker Architects, which will become a mixed-income apartment block and cultural centre.

From his unusual standpoint as artist and urban planner, Gates is opening up exciting possibilities of crossover in the realms of art, architecture and community. As well as his interventions, Gates works in sculpture and small-scale installation and has exhibited widely in museums across the USA and in Europe. For this year’s collaborative art exhibition dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, Gates has been working on a project named 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. The artist and his team have transferred materials from within one of the Dorchester Avenue houses that is undergoing restoration to another disused house in Kassel, drawing parallels between the two abandoned residences as they undergo their respective transformations. Gates curated and filmed 12 musical performances in the Dorchester house as a kind of requiem before its renovation began in 2011, and these films are now being shown within Huguenot House as part of its reincarnation.

Using the raw materials from the Dorchester house as components in the reconstruction of the dilapidated Huguenot House, Gates questions what it means to restore a building, leaving traces of the hands that have worked on its recovery. Beneath his community-focused repurposing lies a respect for materials and the weight of history and narrative that they contain; a duality of intention which the artist describes as ‘both practical and poetic’.

Designed in Hackney Day

Designed in Hackney is a new initiative launched by architecture and design magazine Dezeen to celebrate the creative powerhouse that is London’s East End. In collaboration with Hackney Council and curator Beatrice Galilee, a day-long event took place in a pop-up tent last Wednesday in which architects, technologists and designers shared their ideas, values and opinions alongside presentations of their most ingenious projects.

With a focus on emerging architects, an afternoon discussion entitled ‘The Next Generation: Young Hackney Architects’ was chaired by Dezeen’s Marcus Fairs. Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall of the Dalston-based We Made That were the first to talk: a small, six-year-old practice consisting of just four people. They described themselves as having a diverse approach, being not just interested in the architecture itself but in the process, which Oliver pointed out doesn’t necessarily lead to a building. They explore other solutions that address urbanism and the community; a newspaper was the result of one of their projects, and ‘funny installations’ feature amongst their wide-ranging portfolio.

Paleys Upon Pilers by Studio Weave

While admittedly ‘cute’, their work reflects a serious concern with finding ways of engaging people with ideas for positive change in their locality. As part of their ‘Fantasticology’ project, We Made That designed the largest piece of public art for the Olympics: a meadow of wildflowers planted in the footprints of former industrial buildings, coined by Holly as a ‘floral memorial’ to the site’s history. ‘It’s architecture but without the capital ‘A”, said Oliver.

Marcus Fairs remarked that, as a general trend, younger architects are ‘not just slapping buildings up’ like the ‘last generation’. ‘Aloofness’, they discussed, is another trait associated with the previous generation of architects that is being eradicated, a reflection of the changing ways in which architects are approaching their work in general. This non-aloof perspective was echoed in the sentiments of Susanne Tutsch from Erect Architecture, who was next up on stage. Based in the Broadway Market area, the German architect described their work as being ‘architecture with a capital A’ – a phrase already being used in a sheepish, apologetic manner – but also encompassing ‘soft’ works, such as a summer school experiment in which they used timber offcuts from building sites to create new installations in the woods, and an Olympic Park project based on the UK’s ecological heritage. They lay their focus on learning, for both the user and themselves, again seeing architecture as a continual process.

Maria Smith and Je Ahn are the duo behind Studio Weave, the third practice to present their work. Based on Mare Street, their focus lies heavily on making, as the name implies. A recent project commemorates historic Aldgate resident Geoffrey Chaucer with a latticed timber hut, a re-imagining of the author’s dreamlike fictional palaces, which also marks the direct route from the City of London to the Olympic Park. Studio Weave encourage autonomy in the skilled workers that are involved in their projects, including their creations as part of the final product rather than confining them to their usual prescribed roles. Their interest in making use of people’s skills in different areas is shared by Gort Scott, fourth and final of the practices, who see their work as a way of connecting communities. Run by Jay Gort and Fiona Scott, the Dalston-based duo share a fascination with the physical structure of London and its historic roads, making use of the unprecedented abundance of empty shops and spaces in the recessional city.

As these up-and-coming practices suggest, architecture is not just about buildings anymore. It has to centre upon engaging people with the built environment as part of an ongoing process that is more than just ‘building a building’. As Marcus Fairs observed, the aspiration towards ‘iconic’, self-congratulatory ‘statement’ buildings of the previous generation is being rejected in favour of hands-on, community-inclusive, lateral-thinking architecture, in which the architects themselves are decentred.

Ways of seeing

As the world’s gaze turned to the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday, our attention was drawn to the nineteenth-century shift from the rural to the industrial, and its eventual culmination in today’s urbanised, post-industrial society. While Danny Boyle’s spectacle naturally drew upon the particular impacts and subsequent effects of these changes upon Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is of course a socio-cultural transition familiar to countries far beyond the UK.

Mark Dorf - from the series, 'Axiom and Simulation'

With an increasingly urban outlook, our collective perception of the natural landscape has undergone dramatic changes over the past two centuries under the direction of artists contemporaneous to each age – from the Romantics’ fervent reaction to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, to the Neo-Romantics’ portrayal of the countryside in the aftermath of the Second World War. We now exist in an era characterised by digital symbols and new media-produced representations of reality, and it is within this environment of coexistence between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ that today’s artists, designers and architects are operating. It was with this in mind that my attention was drawn to American photographer Mark Dorf, who presents typical scenes that one might encounter whilst walking in the woods, yet with subtle alterations; digital and scientific interpretations of the trees, rocks and lakes are interposed within the familiar, romanticised portrayal of the landscape, blending the realms of the material and the digital.

Mark Dorf - from the series, 'Axiom and Simulation'

His ‘Axiom and Simulation’ series prompts an awareness of the schema that lie behind our everyday perceptions, which force us to understand scenes, spaces or objects in prescribed ways, depending on the context in which they are presented to us. By merging the different schema – the ways in which we perceive an actual forest, a scientific specimen and a digital representation on a computer screen – he destabilises these prescribed perceptions, creating strange, hybrid landscapes that defamiliarise the most familiar scenes. “As a developed global culture, we are constantly transforming physical space and objects into abstract non-physical thought to gain a greater understanding of composition and the inner workings of our surroundings… As a result of these changes, we can lose all reference to the source,” the artist explains.

Mark Dorf - from the series, 'Axiom and Simulation'

The ways in which artists and architects are responding to Nature in the digital age are as wide-ranging as they are fascinating. Recall the works of David Benjamin Sherry with his intense, dreamlike hues immersing wild landscapes, and Matthew Day Jackson’s huge anthropomorphic rocks resurfacing to claim the earth after millennia of human destruction; Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland, which confronts our obsession with land ownership and control of the natural world; and Peter Zumthor and Piet Oudolf’s encapsulation of the wilderness in the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. Then there are the emotive, indefinable images of Mica de Ridder, depicting clusters of trees fading into abstraction, and Brooklyn-based artist Letha Wilson, who interpolates three-dimensional, man-made objects like cement, styrofoam and cheesecloth into c-print photographs of wooded landscapes, at times interjecting the architecture of the gallery space itself into her photographs.

Mark Dorf – from the series, ‘Axiom and Simulation’

The fact that over half a million people flocked to David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy this year is testament to our longstanding fascination with this subject matter. The landscape will always be a uniquely human concern – after all, a landscape only becomes a landscape when framed by the human eye – and its changing appropriation in art and design is a continuous and vital reflection of the evolution of our relationship with the environment that surrounds us.

Out of the woods: adventures of 13 hardwood chairs

For the last part in a series of London Festival of Architecture-focused events that have predominated on the Culture Blog lately, we’re taking a look at an unusual transatlantic collaboration.

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) – who may be familiar from the incredible Timber Wave sculpture that was erected outside the V&A last year – has teamed up with London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) for a project in sustainable design.

While ‘sustainable’ is already becoming a vague, hackneyed term that often has little meaning outside the realms of marketing and PR, it is encouraging to see projects that are really taking its importance to the core of what they do. This is one of them. The AHEC challenged 13 students on the Product Design course at the RCA to design innovative and functional seating using an American hardwood of their choice.

Putting its groundbreaking Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) research into action for the first time, the AHEC is enabling students to fully understand, communicate and compare the ‘life cycle impacts’ of their designs, and each piece will be environmentally profiled using the LCA modelling system. As if that didn’t seem thorough enough, the AHEC is in the process of producing the first ever Environmental Product Declaration for American hardwood lumber and veneer, which will be used by the students to produce a ‘cradle-to-grave’ analysis of the environmental effect of their designs. No room for vagueness here.

The students developed their seating ideas into working prototypes at Terence Conran’s Benchmark workshops last week, and the results will be exhibited at the V&A in September in an exhibition called Out of the Woods: Adventures of 13 Hardwood Chairs.

Under the leadership of tutors Sebastian Wrong and Harry Richardson, the use of wood and its life cycle impacts have become a part of the Product Design course curriculum at the RCA. Richardson says, ‘it is not only a case of designing a chair that will survive physically far into the future, it is also to produce a chair whose design will remain relevant far into the future.’

Luminous London

After three years of gradually creeping above London’s existing skyline, The Shard’s controversial pinnacle was finally reached last week. Renzo Piano’s bold tower, snugly adjacent to London Bridge station, has caused a polarity of opinions since its construction began in March 2009.

At over 308 metres high, The Shard now stands as the tallest completed building in Europe – a statistic still childishly perceived as an accolade it seems. Perceived by some as a positive vision of the modern, globalised city, to many it is a tasteless monument to bankers and oligarchs, dominating the skyline and dwarfing other buildings such as St Paul’s. It has been described as ‘magnificent’ and ‘boring’, ‘increasing architectural variety’ and ‘a dreadful symbol of Dead Britain’.

But now the apex has been reached, the anti-climactic laser show has been and gone and the onset of the Olympic Games lurks ominously around the corner. The Shard’s moment in the limelight has already passed and attention is being turned to other luminary architectural displays. While the inaugural light show at The Shard seemed little more than a publicity stunt to try to convert those fence-sitters into fans, architect and designer Jason Bruges will be putting on a genuinely interesting light art spectacle this week at London’s South Bank.

Bruges, who has previously worked on countless large and small-scale design projects including Becks’ Green Box Project and the re-branding of More4 (worth a watch), has been commissioned by high-end lighting firm Havells Sylvania to create an interactive movement and light sculpture under the Hungerford Bridge.

The ‘21st Century Light Space Modulator’, as it has been optimistically named, will blend Eastern and Western influences and pays homage to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Space Modulator’ of 1930, a pioneering piece of kinetic light art. A spokesperson for the collaborative project states: “It’s an interactive installation and Jason and team will be evolving it over the next few months, but the basic concept is to take a really under-loved area of the Southbank and turn it into something which people enjoy, experiencing using light and movement.”

The project will initially go live under the bridge on Thursday, but will continue to develop until its final unveiling in the autumn of 2012. So there will be light at the end of the Olympic tunnel, after all.

The Architect’s Eye exhibition

The ‘playful city’ theme of this year’s London Festival of Architecture has provoked something of a carnivalesque atmosphere across the capital, from the Hatwalk to the Urban Picnic Contests, but not all projects have taken such a lighthearted approach.

A talk being held this Wednesday aims to bring to light the multifaceted relationship between architecture and photography. The discussion panel – which brings together Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Jack Pringle of Pringle Brandon Architects, architectural photographers Luke Hayes and Grant Smith and Building Design Editorial Director Amanda Baillieu – will analyse the different approaches of the architect and the architectural photographer, and the way in which the contrast between the architect’s familiarity with the work and the detached perspective of the photographer might inspire new ideas.

The prestigious group will also discuss the nature of dialogue between architect and photographer in order to achieve a desired image, the interest of the photographer in imaging architecture and architects’ views on this element of control in the photographers’ hands. The panel will also consider architectural photography as a publicity tool, discussing what the media expects and requires from a photograph when featuring a project.

Winner: Simon Kennedy, Heygate Estate (Architecture &Place)

Held in the Roca London Gallery – the most recent London project of Zaha Hadid Architects – the backdrop to the discussion will be an exhibition of 19 winning photographs from the Architects’ Eye Competition 2011. The competition, which has been running since 2007, is organised by ‘corporate art advisors’ International Art Consultants, who ‘developed the idea from observing architects’ enthusiasm when photographing buildings’ and is judged by leading figures from the architecture and photography communities.

The work on display is split into two categories: Architecture and Place, and Architecture and People, highlighting the importance of context – in terms of aesthetics in the former and interaction in the latter – in both instances.

It seems a topic of particular current interest, as the Royal Institute of British Architects recently launched its first architecture photography competition for its members, with the open brief of capturing interpretations of ‘architecture in 2012’ in any form.

Winner: Neil Dusheiko, Unit é d’ Habitation (Architecture &People)

An architectural photograph can describe the way in which people interact with a given environment, but it can also emphasise or even dictate the mood or quality of a space, and it is in this power of portrayal that the difference lies between photographs of architecture – which affect our interpretation of a space – and architecture itself.

In an age in which photography is growing increasingly prolific and images are encountered more often than the ‘real thing,’ it seems a relevant time to be highlighting the fact that, while the subject matter of architecture and its photography remains the same, its meanings differ greatly.

The exhibition runs from 23 June to 8 July 2012.

Wide Open School

When I saw the words ‘Wide Open School’ titling the new event series at the Hayward Gallery, I was less than enthused. Yet upon further reading, I was pleased to discover that this is not an event aimed solely at children; and that most unappealing word – ‘school’ – is being used here in the loosest sense, to encapsulate a much more exciting idea than it initially conjures up.

In what the gallery describes as ‘an unusual experiment in learning’, the project is bringing together over 100 artists from around 40 countries, to devise and deliver alternative ‘classes’, which anyone – at any age – can attend. But although led by artists, it is not just about art. It is a physical, labyrinthine forum of workshops, collaborative projects, discussions, installations and performances based on any subject that the artists’ imaginations extend to.

Lucy and Jorge Orta, from the UK and Argentina respectively, led a two-day workshop on their utopian concept of Cloud Architecture; offering ‘invented living spaces for social interaction that can change according to use, built with recycled or sustainable materials.’ The session was introduced by a discussion seminar, followed by a hands-on workshop that enabled participants to construct maquettes. The Cloud Architecture workshop has now passed, giving way to the next wave of events in this liberal pedagogic extravaganza, but the idea lingers. What particularly struck me about Lucy and Jorge’s work was highlighted in UK newspaper The Guardian, which recently questioned a group of artists participating in the WOS, including Lucy and Jorge, on their visions of cities of the future.

The pair responded by presenting a project they did in 2007 called ‘Antarctic Village – No Borders’, a scattering of fifty domed tents erected on the Antarctic Peninsula and blanketed with patchwork ensembles of flags from around the world. Their chosen location of Antarctica was selected for a very particular reason that resonates with the social ideologies that the artist duo consistently works towards. “We have selected Antarctica as a symbol for this new community. The Antarctic treaty signed in 1959 by 12 countries, set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, environmental protection, and banned military activity. This was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War. Drawing upon this visualisation our Antarctic Village could be considered our last fragile hope for a more equitable world, a continent that allows all nations to coexist harmoniously and a community that strives for peace and social progress.”

Their approach to this project seems to typify the mood of the WOS. It really is about artists exchanging ideas with the community, where the focus lies not on the heroic figure of the artist as ‘teacher’ but on the enriching experience these reciprocal projects might create for both the artists and the visitors. This notion mirrors the overarching concept of the Hayward’s event series – to create an equalising, all-encompassing learning experience that renders the traditional notion of the ‘teacher teaching students’ temporarily – and perhaps blissfully – obsolete.

Google Earth in 2012: A milestone for modern cartography

After months of expectation, Google has officially announced its plans to expand the current capabilities of Google Earth with the introduction of a range of groundbreaking new features. Most impressively, this will include fully 3D, photorealistic and interactive mapping of entire cities for Google Earth mobile apps by the end of the year, with the desktop equivalent to follow later. Furthermore, users of the Android version of Google Maps in over 100 countries will be able to download maps for offline usage.

While the company has included photorealistic imagery in Google Earth since 2006, it has only ever been fragmentary. Many users will be familiar with the frustrating areas of inaccessibility in the interactive map, caused by the fact that Google Earth has previously relied on multiple sources to create a patchwork impression of the urban landscape. Now, as a result of new rendering processes that enable the automatic creation of 3D cityscapes from aerial photography, including detailed models of buildings, monuments and even trees, this hindrance will soon be a thing of the past.

Example of Google Earth for mobile

Another aspect is that Google’s existing coverage will extend to areas not currently reachable by Google Street View vehicles. For the armchair explorers out there, the new Google Street View Trekker will grant virtual tourists unprecedented access to the most obscure parts of the wilderness. It has also announced the introduction of a Tour Guide service, which suggests places of touristic interest as users navigate their way around Google Earth.

Example of Google Earth for mobile

While perhaps a chilling prospect in terms of Google’s increasing monopolisation of the (virtual) world (and apparent determination to remove all wonder and mystery from the lesser-known parts of planet Earth), in a pragmatic sense this could become an indispensable tool for architects, enabling detailed views of every corner of a city in a ‘personal helicopter’-type capacity. This immersive experience will undoubtedly assist architects in gauging a real sense of scale, detail and proximity of site surroundings for current or future projects – particularly those in countries distant from their own – that can be referred back to at the touch of a button.

The timing of Google’s announcement on 6 June is being regarded as a preemptive strike, as Apple is expected to announce at its WWDC conference this week that it will no longer be using Google Maps as its default service, replacing it with its own version in the upcoming iOS 6 software. So while Google seems set to render the term ‘uncharted territory’ obsolete once and for all, the focus will now turn towards Apple in anticipation of its own plans for the future of cartography.

Monumenta at the Grand Palais

For the sixth year running, the vast interior of the Grand Palais in Paris has been transformed by one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. Following Anish Kapoor, who filled the 13,500 sq m space last year with the visceral ‘Leviathan’, this year is the turn of French conceptual artist, Daniel Buren.

The annual exhibition, ‘Monumenta’, is organised by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, and encourages artists to create original responses to the singular architectural space. Buren’s site-specific installation, named ‘Excentrique(s)’, emphasises the magnificence of the original architecture with a multiplicity of huge, translucent discs of blue, yellow, red and green, suspended on stilts, towering over the visitors that pass beneath them.

The rawness of colour and light are integral to Buren’s work. As ‘Excentrique(s)’ harnesses the natural light that filters in through the glass-domed ceiling, it submits to its shifting intensity; the shape and form of the work in situ alters as the sunlight gathers and diminishes throughout the day. As the room floods with light, the stained glass colours evoke a sense of ecclesiastical transcendence.

But as well as visual perception, sound and motion – in this case, that of the spectator – are also central to the concept of Buren’s installation. Its spectators are encouraged to actively meander their way through its network of form and colour, in order that it might reveal to them the full complexity of its existence. In the same way that Buren approaches much of his work, its sprawling, mazelike presence permits infinite viewpoints: “There are no longer one or two viewpoints fixed in advance, but a multitude, without any hierarchy or order, which interact, interfere with and induce one another, in a process of mutual enrichment and contradiction. Each viewpoint has a meaning of its own, which does not annihilate the others.”

The artist has previously transformed the Guggenheim in New York and the Cour d’Honneur at the Palais-Royal, and choreographed a ballet that physically took place amidst the banality of daily life in the districts of New York. Constantly aware of the interaction between the artwork and its environment since he began producing work in 1965, Buren’s work has almost always been created in situ, inextricably connected with its surroundings. The artist never transports a ‘work’ to another site, as its context is central to its meaning.

Like much of his work, ‘Excentrique(s)’ must be seen in fragments. Yet the order and perspective in which these fragments are perceived depends upon the journey that is chosen by the viewer; each must navigate his or her own experience of the installation, and in doing so, each perception will be rendered unique.

Monumenta 2012 is open until 21 June. Images courtesy of Monumenta.

Olympic Metamorphoses

In the years leading up to the London 2012 Olympics, East London-based artist Anne Desmet has been documenting the transformation of the site, including the controversial development of the Hackney marshes. Having seen the initial plans and artists’ impressions of the projected construction when the Olympics were awarded to London, the artist became fascinated with the ensuing metamorphoses taking place in the area in which she lives and works.

Desmet’s response to these observations has manifested in a series of wood engravings and mixed media collages, with a particular focus on the construction stages of the main Olympic Stadium and the Velodrome, all viewed from above. These circular forms, already abstracted from their familiar ground-level appearance, are layered upon one another to create single, static representations of their continual evolution, reminiscent of ancient Roman arenas or mystical crop circles. The works have been brought together in an exhibition at the Studio Gallery, PM Gallery & House in West London, under the name Olympic Metamorphoses.

Using razor shell and roofing slate, stone and glass as well as pages torn from the London A to Z, the artist retains traces of the site’s history which emphasise the geographical and cultural upheaval that this relatively fast transformation is causing in its wake. In fact for many, the negative impact of the London 2012 Olympics outweighs its advocates’ claims of patriotic glory and increased income from tourism. While the consequences of rising rent and artisanal coffee shops in the Borough of Hackney have been a creeping issue for its residents over the past decade, the recent rapidity of its gentrification is sparking debate about the immediate future of this area previously renowned for its thriving arts scene.

It is difficult to tell what Desmet herself thinks of the process; her work presents a certain detachment, a pure interest in topographical shape and form which is reflective of the themes of geographical metamorphoses and mythical architecture that characterise much of her work, taking inspiration from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the biblical Tower of Babel. From her distant perspective, Desmet seems to be telling a story of the cycle of urban destruction and renewal, aiming ‘to suggest the sense of timelessness and solidity that architectural forms can convey, as well as their impermanence and vulnerability’; not just of London in 2012, but of the continual metamorphoses of all cities, everywhere, throughout time.

The exhibition runs at the Studio Gallery at PM Gallery & House, Ealing until 27 May 2012. Images courtesy of PM Gallery & House.