Tag Archives: Architectural art

The minute I entered Phyllida Barlow’s Tate Britain commission entitled “dock” I knew I wanted to write something about it. In order to do so I felt I needed to read as many articles and reviews about it as I could. Mostly because I am not an art critic and I felt rather insecure to express my opinion. Almost all of these texts were slightly fragmented descriptions with a poetic air about them. Focusing on different parts of the huge constructions, the writers came up with interesting metaphors that came to their minds when they visited “dock”. However I felt I did not read anything that accurately described the truly powerful feeling I got from this work which most importantly for me I also found truly architectural.


Lately I have been to quite a few exhibitions that attempt to interpret architecture and ultimately see it as conceptual art. I always applaud the endeavour because of its degree of difficulty but also because us architects, do think of ourselves as artists as well and not only as technocrats who constantly problem-solve.


What really struck me with Barlow’s sculptures, is that they are more architectural than any architect’s installation that attempts to be purely artistic. These massive creations speak of volume and scale and start a dialogue between the body and space. Good art has the ability to make one go within, in a psychoanalytical manner. It brings about forgotten memories or even previously unknown realisations and touches us because we identify with it. At least most contemporary art aspires to do that, compared to classical works that were more about creating masterpieces that inspired awe to the viewer.


Architecture closely as it flirts with visual art in borrowing aesthetics and trends from it has its own vocabulary that mostly derives from the fact that buildings are meant to be inhabited by people. Hence they reflect their bodies as they are designed to accommodate them. What I am saying here is that architecture can be very artistic in expressing existing philosophies or views of the world. It can also create entire pieces of the world which aspire to expand people’s understanding of it. However, even the most controversial building’s conceptual references manage to somehow incorporate the human body. This is what is defined as “the human scale” and buildings are often judged by how successful they are in reflecting it.


Standing next to the “dock” sculptures I had an immediate sense of my own body’s size and how big these structures were compared to me. I watched and photographed people walking in, under and around them and I thought I was back in university making rough scale models for some unit project. The figurines though were real people and the scale model that I used to make out of some club’s flyer and sprayed cardboard was hugely blown out of proportion.


I do not want to go into details and share what each of the structures reminded me. There are plenty of articles that do that as I said in the beginning. I also do not enjoy much being very literal. Using a phrase that haunted me throughout my student years from one of my favourite books of all time, Gaston Bachelard’ s Poetics of Space: “The poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”

The poetic dimension of Barlow’s sculptures took immediate root in me. But that did not happen because I have been trained as an architect. It happened because architecture refers to bodies, and I have a body through which I experience the world as much as I do with my mind.


The sculptures will be on display in Tate Britain until the 19th of October 2014

Tate Britain’s site on the exhibit here

Read more about Plyllida Barlow here


Most architectural exhibitions display representations of buildings: drawings, models and photographs. Therefore the exhibits are accessible mostly to architects or architectural enthusiasts who can read the drawings and understand them. This is more or less what I was expecting from “Sensing Spaces” but I was pleasantly surprised. The architects who participated were asked to produce installations that visitors would walk into and explore themselves. Curiosity and excitement was what I mainly observed on people’s faces upon their entrance to each of the exhibits. There was no designated route to follow and I enjoyed being able to sit down for as long as I wanted in each of the rooms and then revisit some of them as well. The short documentary screened in one of the galleries shed more light on the actual structures. The architects who have created the exhibits present some examples of their built work and then explain how their Royal Academy installations express what they usually try to achieve with their buildings.

sensing-spaces1What I found really interesting was that the sensory aspect of the structures was deeply connected to each architect’s theory. This is often the driving force behind the creation of good architecture. Symbolisms clearly emerge from all the installations and they are evoked mostly by the use of architectural elements that refer to actual buildings. The exhibits ultimately produce spaces that one enters to experience their creator’s  image of the world. In that way all of them are good examples of architectural art. Still I believe that architecture is extremely potent because it has the ability to achieve a lot more than just to bring forth an opinion about the world. It actually has the power to address and affect people directly. Of course this particular architectural exhibit placed in a gallery as it is, becomes more conceptualised and symbolic than most realised buildings could ever be. Few installations even manage to make statements that refer to societies and politics and not only to aesthetics and design styles.

sensing-spaces2Diébédo Francis Kéré attempted to do that. Visitors are encouraged to create little structures out of colourful straws provided in the gallery and incorporate them in Kere’s installation. The backdrop for the visitors’ art works is a cave-like corridor where one has to cross and possibly interact with other people as it is quite narrow in the middle. Hence the architect’s aim is to create a sense of togetherness through collective participation in the project. Of course this can prove to be tricky in a space filled with Londoners that by definition are chaotic as a whole because of their very multi-cultural background and agendas.

Diébédo Francis Kéré installation. Find Kere Architecture website here

Diébédo Francis Kéré installation. Find Kere Architecture website here

The other installation where I felt truly aware of other people was the twig maze created by Li Xiaodong. The illuminated floor made the experience even more peculiar and enhanced what Xiaodong described as defamiliarised space. In such a space people cannot but notice one another. Encounters seem multiplied because of the absence of sense of place. I also liked Xiaodong’s explanation for the placement of the zen garden with the mirror in the middle of the installation, which incidentally I found quite psychoanalytical. He said that he put it there so that people could instantly realise what it means to be able to see, to be orientated, opposed to being disorientated as one is in a maze.

Li Xiaodong Atelier installation. Find their website here

Li Xiaodong Atelier installation. Find their website here

The Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation is one that stands out a lot with its grand scale. Powerful from afar, it gradually unfolds as one realises that it is possible to enter and climb it. This is not obvious from the beginning because most views from within the structure are restricted. Therefore people in it can not be seen from the outside and the whole thing looks like an impenetrable sculpture. Going around the base of it I found the stairs and climbed on the terrace which actually felt like a box without a lid. I cannot say that I particularly liked that feeling. I found it to be a cruel joke that reminds people who is in control: the architects. Two small holes on the wooden walls only allow views to the golden angels’ faces on the gallery’s plasterwork. And for those who decide to get down on their knees and look through an additional hole close to the floor, the room’s doorway is visible. I did not appreciate that gesture or symbolism either because it vaguely felt like a punishment. It seemed that the bold architectural statement was made so that people would remember the firm’s brand even though they felt uncomfortable. I had a similar feeling watching the architects’ interview where they seem quite taken by their own work. They speak of their choice to use a mutated neutral palette of elements but that does not necessarily mean they are humble. Their “being interested in inventing something absolutely new that will be created from scratch without any references” sounded rather pompous. Unfortunately I believe the talented young architects have missed where zen-simplicity ends and the almost totalitarian-brutalist gesture begins.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. Find their website here

Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. Find their website here

Grafton, the architectural practice from Ireland wanted to speak of light. In the video-interview they mention that good architecture does not happen often and also that light is the stuff of their orchestration. Truly, light reveals architecture. It makes the spaces viable but also appealing and sculptural. In Grafton’s installation I entered the brighter room before the dark one although I believe it was supposed to be the other way around. The volumes that have been inserted in the rooms both manipulate the light and also reveal themselves precisely because of it. Additionally it is evident that the space is not created by any partition placed on the floor but by the structures that hang from the ceiling. As Grafton mention themselves the rooftop was the site. I stayed quite a while in both rooms and found them very poetic. I thought it was interesting how people crossed the darker room and settled more in the brighter one. On the contrary I went through the bright one rather fast and sat down for a while longer in the dark room. When my eyes got used to the light I focused on the people and their reactions. How they preferred going in the middle of the space under the skylight that filtered the soft light from the ceiling.

Grafton Architects. Find their website here

Grafton Architects. Find their website here

Alvaro Siza’s installation is placed in the courtyard in front of the entrance of the exhibition. It is three yellow columns, one on the ground and the other two standing. The explanation he gave for them in the interview was that he wanted to signal the “beginning of the column”, the archetypical symbol of it. His installation is a rather minimal intervention, almost undetectable. I think that out of the architects that participated in the exhibition he is the oldest one with the most established architectural practice. His minimal aesthetic and the fact that he has no reason to strive for recognition could have been the reasons behind his choice. However it was not one of my favourites. Similar to his colleague’s Souto de Moura I found it too cerebral and detached. De Moura’s contribution was the cast-reproduction in concrete of two RA gallery doorways. The materiality of their details was stripped off and then they were placed right next to the original ones. Neither too spectacular nor with a really strong statement. At least not one that touched me.

Top photos installation by Alvaro Siza / Bottom pictures installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

Top photos installation by Alvaro Siza / Bottom pictures installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

Finally the last installation that I visited was by Kengo Kuma, an elegant geometric structure made of fragrant bamboo sticks. Its effect is very subtle and poetic. Even thought the structure itself cannot be entered by the visitor like most of the others but is more of a sculpture that one looks at, it manages to create space. In fact it evokes a very particular atmosphere through the way that it touches the senses. It smells beautifully and the dimmed lights at is base give a softness and a zen quietness to the structure. Weirdly most people who entered the gallery where it is placed felt the need to whisper. The one objection that I have is that this installation is not made by recognizable architectural parts and I do not see clearly the connection to architecture. However I liked it a lot, especially for its soft and gentle nature.

Kengo Kuma & Associates. Find them here

Kengo Kuma & Associates. Find them here

This exhibition is already a commercial success because of the appeal that it has on the visitors who feel they can identify with its exhibits. Still the whole experience made me wonder if architecture is somehow lost in the attempt to be seen as conceptual art. However I appreciated the accessibility of the exhibits opposed to most exhibitions that require a certain degree of education and often make people feel inadequate. As Yvonne Farrell from Grafton Architects mentions in her interview, the challenge for their practice was “how to reach people and heighten their awareness of what they see every day”. Most importantly though she said that everyone has the ability to recognize beauty when they see it.

The exhibition will be on until the 6th of April

Royal Academy’s page for Sensing Spaces here

Diébédo Francis Kéré website here

Li Xiaodong’s website here

Pezo von Ellrichshausen website here

Grafton Architects website here

Alvaro Siza website here

Eduardo Souto de Moura wikipedia page here

Kengo Kuma and Associates website here

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset          Photography: Anders Sune Berg

I did not know exactly what to expect from the Elmgreen and Dragset exhibit at the V&A. I had not heard much about it to to begin with, other than it was supposed to be the mock-up of the house of an unsuccessful architect. Generally I prefer not knowing much about art installations, films or theatre plays. I like to enter them in a tabula rasa state of no expectations. If you are like me maybe you should stop reading this post right here. Nonetheless this time my habit worked against me as I was not aware of the fact that visitors were allowed to touch things, sit on furniture and go through the paper work on display.

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset      Photography: Anders Sune Berg

Upon my entrance I realised that the exhibition attendants were in character as butlers, wearing full uniforms. This, combined with my ignorance of the tactile policy of the exhibit, was the reason for my confusion when I saw a lady (who turned out to be a visitor just like me), shuffling around some papers that were spread out on a table. Judging from the attendants of the exhibition posing as servants, I actually thought she was part of the installation as well.

All Installation images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset      Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset      Photography: Anders Sune Berg

It was not until I was home and read some articles about what I had just seen that I realised I could have touched and poked things. Momentarily I was disappointed for not having had the full experience, but that was only my initial reaction. Thinking about it, the purpose for this quite unusual policy must have been to confuse people who are used to treat art as if it is sacred. In some ways I was quite baffled myself trying to figure out if the lady I saw was part of the whole thing or not. Another possible reason for being allowed to touch things could be to bring art down from its pedestal of high importance and make a statement about the art world’s pretentiousness that can be only matched with that of the fashion world.

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset          Photography: Anders Sune Berg

Having come across “Tomorrow” in London Architecture Diary (see here) it made sense to try to figure out the actual connection with architecture. The fact that this was supposed to be the house of an unsuccessful architect was not enough. Part of the installation is an office that looks very familiar to anyone who is involved in architecture, with scale models, sketches, hand-drawings, newspaper cut-outs etc. This hardly felt like a reason to recommend this exhibition to architects because we already know how our offices look like. The fact that architecture is an art but extremely rarely is considered so precious that one is not allowed to touch it could have been the actual connection. There is something very real about it because regardless of the fact that it might be held in high esteem, people enter it and use it. Life is not only reflected on architecture but very visibly rubs off on it as well.

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset             Photography: Anders Sune Berg

The whole experience also made me think about what does it exactly mean to be a successful architect. More than any other time in history, an architectural showbiz is flourishing. Designers who have not offered to the world much more than a certain style or as usually mentioned a “brand” are rising to rock-star-status fame. According to the press and of course the all-mighty social media these are the people who are mainly considered successful. Everyone else is a failure. In this particular case I found it extremely amusing that someone who is supposed to live in the lap of luxury is seen as unsuccessful.

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset          Photography: Anders Sune Berg

The crack across the dining table the hyper-realistic statue of the schoolboy in the fireplace (whose photograph and portrait is also featured in almost every room of the house), the mess outside of the office and the general feeling of abandonment convey a deep sadness. This sadness though combined with the luxury and the fallen glory do not evoke any sympathy to the visitor. The architect’s identity in particular is used to make the absent host look even more spoiled and obnoxious. Supposedly he had an expensive education and also comes from a wealthy family but he did not manage to become famous and now he is feeling sorry for himself. He is a lost little boy hidden in the fireplace. I believe that the majority of visitors want to just say to him “get over it mate”.

This installation stirs many feelings about the architectural profession in general and in some ways it is rather psychoanalytical. I do not believe that it does any favours to the architect who’s house we are visiting nor to any architect for that matter. I still found it very interesting and I do recommend it. It will be on until January the 2nd

Exhibitions website here

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography: Anders Sune Berg

All Installation images courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London © Elmgreen & Dragset          Photography: Anders Sune Berg

Collage of visitors posing. All photos by the writer

Collage of visitors posing. All photos taken by the writer

The installation I am writing about no longer exists. However it triggered some thoughts that revolve around the concept of architectural art that seem discussion-worthy. Dalston house was designed by Leandro Erlich and was placed in an empty plot right behind Dalston Junction which is currently one of London’s most fashionable areas. Its production was also attributed to the Barbican and Dalston’s local cafe Oto that is involved in many interesting art projects. The installation was a façade of a small terrace house placed on the ground with a mirror hanging over it in a 45 degree angle. The visitors could lie down on the collapsed “building” in various positions and their reflection would create the visual illusion that they were hanging from the roof or sitting on a window sill etc.


When I first saw the press release and some photos of Dalston house I thought that it was a clever idea. In fact I still think it is a clever idea but the truth is that I was not actually that impressed when I visited it. The reason though had little to do with the actual exhibit.

Barbican’s exhibitions get a lot of exposure. Too much to be exact and I have missed many of them because in order to have seen them I would have to literally queue for hours. The artificial rain exhibit at the Curve gallery (the Rain Room) for example had a minimum of four hours waiting time on most days which meant that I never saw it. This is why I was a bit intimidated by Dalston house. Fortunately one had the possibility to see the exhibit and photograph it without queuing to enter it and naturally I preferred that option.

Photographed from the side

Photographed from the side

How it worked was that every visitor, or group of visitors had a few minutes to assume positions and have their photo taken often by the exhibition’s attendants. When the countdown started they all did their best to pose as creatively as they could. What annoyed me was not the background that the house offered but the crowd that armed with their iphones were striving to get a truly original photo of themselves possibly for their facebook profile pic. I saw little joy, less play and even less spontaneity not to mention the abundance of vanity.


Being a part of London Festival of Architecture, Dalston house got me thinking about the nature of the exhibit. Was it an art project? Was it really related to architecture? Is there such a thing as architectural art and what exactly does that mean? If architectural art exists (as it has been previously discussed in this blog mostly on account of the Serpentine pavilion), its purpose seems to be to trigger people to contemplate on architecture or life within and around buildings. In fact quite a few architects aspire to do so nowadays with their work. They want to believe that their buildings can somehow “enlighten” the users to question the existing social structures. Ambitious to say the least. Being the sceptic that I am I very much doubt this could ever really happen.


As I am increasingly interested in what influences architectural decisions (which I often find that is related to politics and the infliction of power), I believe that projects with strictly aesthetic purposes are less relevant than ever. I am not totally sure about Dalston house’s original intention but my hunch is that its creator meant for it to be playful and intriguing. However for me it ended up being interesting for a different reason. The attraction of a large number of people is the usual measure for how successful a work of art is. Sadly it is not often that commercial success coincides with spontaneity and playfulness. In other words, the queue, the time limit for each person’s visit and most importantly the feeling of one being watched and potentially judged, play an important role on how free one feels to be playful.


From my point of view Dalston house oddly managed to reflect contemporary society’s voyeuristic tendencies. Being photographed while doing something in order to share it in various social media seems more important that actually experiencing anything. Unfortunately art is another product to be consumed. People want to visit such exhibits because they are fashionable and having seen them reflects some coolness upon them. Even more so if they have the photographs to prove it. I might sound a bit too harsh but I stayed and observed for quite a while and I saw no one that entered the exhibit solely with the intention of experimenting and playing with it. Well, this is not entirely true, there was a group of children that looked as if they wholeheartedly enjoyed themselves to the maximum, even though they did have their picture taken too. It actually made me wonder if any of us is even able to just experience an exhibit like this one without secretly craving to be watched.

Barbican web page for Dalston house here

Leandro Elrich’s web site here

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