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Two Minds: Artists and Architects in Collaboration

by Jes Fernie, Editor
Black Dog Publishing, London, UK, 2006
176 pp., illus. 200 col. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 1-904772-26-9.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Collaboration is difficult. Architects often have a vision for a site that provides answers for every location and surface, down to the smallest detail. Many contemporary artists like to experiment, test and try things, make mistakes and then re-incorporate them into provisional new directions, tendencies very different from the architects' necessary (and economically driven) precision. In an attractive, browsable book (that deserves an index for further reference), Two Minds presents a series of collaborative projects in the United Kingdom in the past 15 years that included the participation of artists to varying degrees.

An introductory essay lays out issues and difficulties of collaboration, with a historical overview from Michelangelo and Bernini, through the Whitechapel Gallery's 1956 exhibition "This is Tomorrow" that brought together Pop artist Edward Paolozzi with architects Allison and Peter Smithson. Philip Ursprung then examines the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, as applicable to the architects Herzon + de Meuron's projects with Thomas Furff, Karen Sander, and Lutzow 7–the latter involved in the design of a flat fountain.

A section on groundscapes features photomontages of one possible reworking of London's Southwark Street Camden Arts Centre, plus a proposal to lift Gillet Square residents in a giant crane for a new view, and artist Mark Dion’s work with landscape architects on a "Carboniferous Garden" at the Earth Centre, Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Lise Autogenis makes use of the acoustic mirrors in the UK and France that were set up in the early decades of the twentieth century for listening across the Channel, sites germane again at a time of increased governmental eavesdropping and surveillance.

Other projects may have grander claims than are evident in their completion. Richard Wentworth suggests a critical garden at Manchester Museum whose very existence would interrogate current cultural practices of ethnography and history. Though trade show architecture certainly deserves attention, the support structure designed by Gavin Wade at Economist Plaza is invisible to the point of insignificance, no matter however many "New Situationist" rationalizations in which the artist cloaks it. Joep vanLierhout's Kingsdale School Auditorium, Dulwich, London is simply not as transgressive as the authors make it out to be.

Perhaps the authors had to stretch for examples of fruitful collaborations, for sometimes the reader wonders if the artists are perhaps too grateful for scraps rather than deeper involvement in the architectural and environmental design. Michael Craig Martin's participation was to suggest a color scheme to the transparent cladding and interior color scheme of the Urban Cenre, Deptford, London, designed by architects Herzog + de Meuron. Simon Moretti chose a subtle pink evoking childhood for Bethnal Green Museum, London. One essay departs Britain to examine creatives "agitated" by Los Angeles, with a nod to the influence of architect Frank Gehry. There Taalman, Koch Architecture designed a custom house, conceptualist Chris Burden constructed a 36' tall, four-story "quasi-legal" small skyscraper, and Robert Irwin argued with Richard Meier over the design of the grounds of the Getty Museum.

It is interesting to see artists take unexpected roles, and their breadth of concerns and abilities. Chris Offli is best known in the US for a controversial painting of the Virgin Mary that included elephant dung and genitals, denounced by the Italian-American Mayor of New York city Rudy Giuliani. Yet for the Folkestone Library, Kent, Offli proves to be a man of taste who chose natural decoration in wood, and subtle tree motif panels for the Victorian staircase balustrade. Only one artist seems to address planar surfaces as the site of figurative imagery, in Diego Ferri's proposed photographic murals at Faith House, Dorset.

The "Mobile Porch" by Kathrin Böham and Stefan Saffen seats four uncomfortably in a 10' drum that also folds out to form a stage for performance, perhaps street-corner political harangues. One of the most accomplished works found in Two Minds is the "Minotaur" maze by Shona Kitchen, a life-sized maze in Keilden Castle's Forest of gambion walls filled with crushed basalt and blue collet glass. The architect Nick Coombe claims to be influenced by the Situationist theory of a space's "psychogeography"; in any case he has supported a provocative work in his landscape design at Keilden. On the other hand, "Bull Ring" on grounds of Compton Vierney, Warwickshire is gratuitous metal structure by Keith Wilson. Shown photographed surrounded by oblivious cattle, it boasts of alluding to a cattle pen or auction ring. So? Such an intervention might be thought-provoking in an urban setting, causing passers-by to scratch their heads and momentarily rethink their environs and its hegemonic unspoken expectations. Yet if a bovine audience finds pleasure scratching against Wilson's ring, I suppose that's all right.



Updated 1st October 2006

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