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Are Architects Really Artists?: Event Report

Westbourne Studios

10 September 2003

Richard Cork and Spencer de Grey addressed this and related questions to a packed house at Westbourne Studios, London , last Wednesday evening. The atmosphere was informal and relaxed - the two speakers had an air of sharing a cup of tea and a chat in a London café somewhere.

Following a brief talk by Spencer de Grey on Foster Partnership projects past and present (including the Stansted Airport Terminal Building, the Millennium Bridge over the Thames, and the striking Swiss Re building in the City of London, affectionately known as 'The Gherkin') the two discussed how architects' perceptions of themselves and their working practices had changed since the Sixties, and differences in the public response to new architecture - criticism of modern architecture has become a major topic for discussion in the media since Prince Charles took the debate into the public domain.

The art critic's perspective was that at that time architects were looked upon as independent and somewhat macho figures, while the architect recalled that at that time there was something slightly embarrassing about admitting that one was interested in, or inspired by, art, and that his fellow students on his university architecture course had looked upon the History of Art department downstairs as the 'pansy' department (where, as it later transpired, Richard Cork had himself been a student).

The speakers also made clear distinctions between artists being brought in to add art works to completed buildings, and collaborative projects with artists, where they were a part of the process from the building's conception.

Spencer de Grey looked upon artist's projects such as murals, within buildings that have already been completed as 'rescuing' buildings - (also rather poetically described by Richard Cork as 'putting lipstick on a gorilla' ), and praised properly collaborative projects, where the artist is involved from the outset. He illustrated this by discussing the relationship between Anish Kapoor and the Foster partnership, when they were working on a design for the World Trade Centre site in New York; he noted that Kapoor been able to look at the project from a certain distance and been able to make much more of the form and surface of the building, while the architects had focused more on the physical demands and requirements of elements of the site. Similarly the Foster Partnership collaborated with Sir Anthony Caro, in designing the London's Millennium Bridge .

Additional topics discussed included:

  • The ways we look at ruined buildings and the concept of architecture being picturesque - the idea that ruined buildings tend to get described in pictorial rather than sculptural terms; they can become pictorial only once they have been robbed of their function.
  • A building can't succeed unless it creates an emotional response. Buildings now have to move people. Architecture as a bodily experience.
  • Looking at architecture as one would look at art, and the possibility of teaching people how to look at architecture in a new way. In the context of the street, one is still burdened with everyday concerns and issues such as functionality form part of a critical regard when looking at a building. In an art gallery when regarding the merits of a work of art function is not an issue.

Richard Cork talked of Tate Modern and how there one could look at art within a gallery context and then look at a building or structure ( St Paul 's, the Millennium Bridge ) through the gallery windows and start to judge it as a sculptural object.

This event was organised by the National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund) as part of its Art Happens series in Autumn 2003.

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