Building blocks: What happens when architects turn their hand to art?

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

Unlike artists, architects have practical responsibilities to the people who enter their buildings. With the right mix, however, a special blend can emerge

THE AMERICAN ARTIST Frank Stella once called architects “guys in suits who can’t paint”, and the Swedish-born sculptor Claes Oldenburg said that “the difference between art and architecture is that architecture has windows and toilets”. In the boom, huge building commissions, enabled as much by advances in technology and materials as by enormous amounts of money, gave rise to both the best and the worst of architecture. Alongside the soulless tracts of badly built offices and housing were the crazy shapes of a new breed of buildings that seemed to want to break down the distinctions between art and architecture once and for all.

Not all were completely successful. Unlike art, architecture has a responsibility to its users, and during the boom it sometimes seemed to be in danger of forgetting that. Buildings – ironically enough, art galleries in particular – got bigger, wilder and more imaginative. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao isn’t the best place for seeing art, and many of the spaces and places that followed in its sculptural path, such as Will Alsop’s the Public, in the English town of West Bromwich, quickly became white elephants.

A crossover between art and architecture is inevitable. Artists have often explored ideas of space and place in their work, but what happens when architects give up building and become artists? Do they make different work? Does their former training shape how they see things? And has the recession led increasing numbers to abandon the drawing board and take up drawing instead?

Blaithin Quinn studied architecture at University College Dublin, graduating in 1995. “Back then, the focus was on designing a building, a product,” she says. But an Erasmus exchange took her to the Danish city of Aarhus, where she discovered that learning architecture could also include making sculpture or taking life-drawing workshops. “The teaching in Ireland was linear; there it was lateral,” she says.

Another eye-opener was a trip to Berlin in 1992. “The wall had only recently come down, and it was a fascinating time. It was as if every party, every bar, was an art installation.”

These trips opened up Quinn’s mind to thinking differently about architecture and made her want to get away from the product-driven aspects of the discipline, to think about the wider implications of how society works and how we live.

After working as an architect for several firms, Quinn set up her own practice as a project architect, but she also began to give more and more time to her emerging career as an artist.

She took a degree at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, which she describes as a process of unlearning. Graduating in 2010, she created TransColonia, which aims to use vacant commercial spaces for artistic purposes.

Although she hasn’t entirely given up architecture, would Quinn have become an artist if the recession hadn’t happened? “It gave me the space to do something I had wanted to do for a long time,” she says. “Everything happened so fast during the boom. You were working flat out and hardly had time to think.”

TransColonia projects have included Recharge, from 2010, which looked at unbuilt architecture, and ByPass, part of a series from last year commissioned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, that explored vacant space. TransColonia was also a winner of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland competition 3twenty10, which invited artists to think creatively about the challenges facing Ireland.

Issues of space and society are often key concerns of architects who become artists. Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly, who now live in Paris, both studied architecture at Dublin Institute of Technology. Their Moving Dublin project, from 2009, looked at how we negotiate the city and its suburbs, and since then they have been working on a series exploring visual perception, culminating in Hall of Mirrors, which opens at Farmleigh Gallery in Dublin next month.

They turned to art soon after they decided to move to the French capital, in 1990. “Denis would say we fell in with a bad crowd, hard-drinking, hard-smoking self-proclaimed artists of the Guy Debord school,” says Cleary, referring to the situationist author of Society of the Spectacle. “This was about 1992. Like ourselves, they hadn’t been to art college but reckoned they could change the world and art was the way to do it. To be an architect you have to be a little bit of a sociologist, care about how people live, work, travel and so on. As young architects in Paris in the early 1990s we had the good luck to collaborate over several years with Bernard Huet, a wonderful, elderly and very grumpy urban theorist . . . We spent many all-nighters listening to him ruminate over the problems of the contemporary city – and solutions, of course.”

Sometimes, when architects make art, the results can be disappointing. In 2004, Practising Architecture, an exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy, in Dublin, asked architects to build spaces that would present architecture as a direct experience. It included work by some of Ireland’s most interesting firms – FKL, Boyd Cody, Hassett Ducatez, Dominic Stevens and Heneghan Peng – and the structures they created were fun and fascinating, but one was left with the general feeling that this exploration of how the shape of space can make you feel differently was the kind of work that artists had been at for years.

A similar thing happened with Tom de Paor’s 2000 project for the Venice architecture biennale. N3 was a brilliant structure, created from bales of peat briquettes. Nevertheless, the artist Patrick Ireland (now known once more as Brian O’Doherty) had made something very similar years previously: Rickwas an oratory-style building made from cut turf.

Where artists with an architectural background excel is in using their professional skills to explore social and spatial issues in a more abstract way than architecture allows. The architectural photographers Ros Kavanagh and Alice Clancy both trained as architects. (Clancy still also practises architecture, with Clancy Moore Architects.) And Francis Matthews, who graduated from UCD in 2004, has had success, including at the RHA Annual Exhibitions, with paintings that capture the mood and feel of buildings and cityscapes.

ARTISTS AND ARCHITECTShave worked together on various collaborative projects, although the cliche in design terms was that the artist was always brought in to “do the bar”. It’s also not necessarily flattering to highly creative architects when an artist is imposed to do the “fun bits”. The American artist Robert Irwin, who collaborated with the architect Richard Meier on the gardens at the Getty museum in Los Angeles, likened the “collaboration” to going to war. Irwin described the primary difference between the artist and the architect as being one of responsibility, and it is freedom from that responsibility that attracts architects to art.

Fiona McDonald, another artist who made the switch from architecture, although she still teaches architecture at UCD, agrees. Despite working with O’Donnell + Tuomey, Sheridan Woods and other practices, art gave McDonald the chance to explore her interest in space and perception in a broader-ranging way. She began submitting ideas for public-art commissions more than a decade ago. “I had been craving the freedom to travel and create – although, having said that, it’s very difficult to earn a living this way.”

Taking the master’s degree in visual arts practices at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology let her fully focus on art; as she says, “It put manners on my practice.” Her latest project, the Alternative Series, is a range of designs for objects that you can download at fionamcdonald.ie. “Each is a self-build piece, made as an alternative way of thinking about things.”

McDonald’s Open Source Bench, from the Alternative Series, was shown last summer at Commonage, the art and architecture event that runs each year in Callan, Co Kilkenny. Culturstruction, the art group that, together with Rosie Lynch, runs Commonage, is Jo Anne Butler and Tara Kennedy – and, yes, they both trained as architects.

McDonald talks about the Alternative Series as a gift, while Cleary and Connolly remember those heady early days of trying to change the world. When art and architecture come together, there’s just a chance these changes might happen – and now, when we’re not building so much, could be just the time to try.