Thursday, 11 March 2010

11 Flourishes From February and March

^ Four concrete posts on Gloucester Avenue, Camden

^ Closing Mobile Phone shop on Oxford Street
^ Split pediment board, Wardour Street, Soho
^ Primark Palace, Oxford Street
^ Toaster, friend's house, Clapham Junction
^ Art-Deco painted steel columns, Picadilly Circus Station
^ Pergola terminating a facade, with a little rickety staircase for access, Tottenham Court Road
^ High-Pomo axis, Poland Street, Soho
^ Hair, Riflemaker Gallery, Beak Street, Soho

^ Bed, Hampton Court Palace, Surbiton, Surrey

^ Storage Room (with bacteria killing UV lights), China Town

Monday, 8 March 2010

Op-Art Architecture: The Victor Vasarely Foundation

Next to a business park, by a motorway, on the outskirts of Aix-En-Provence stands the somewhat dilapidated Victor Vasarely Foundation, a giant shed of a building surrounded by struggling lawns and a rather forlorn looking 'reflecting' pond that looks like a paddling pool from Pripyat.

Victor Vasarely, helped along by his origins in graphic design, had always believed in there being a natural relationship between Op-art and architecture. He managed some other experiments on that scale, like "Le Ciel, Le Mer, La Terre' in Monaco, but here, in his own foundation he set out to start exploring the relationship between Op-Art and Architectural Space. In the strong Provencal sunlight the facade is on first glance strangely flattened, but starts to alternately jump out and recede from you, depending on how long you look at its black or white elements. It is a subtle, tentative breaking down of form in space, via our optical perception, later directly picked up in more flamboyant, but entirely derivative fashion by Fernando Peixoto's Brazilian towers.

The plan of the building is a collection of Hexagons, the corners of which are cut off (seen below), an omission which acts as circulation, and links the spaces together. Because of the missing corners, when standing in one of the tall hexagonal rooms, you can always see through to several other rooms at the same time, and like colour-drift within an op-art painting, the large installations in the other rooms mingle at the edges of your vision with the colours and patterns directly in front of you, affecting one another and concentrating detail at the periphery. This overlaying turns spatial depth, and perspectival scale, into methods of enriching the experience of moving through the place into a chromatic kaleidoscope that shifts depending on what is closer, further away, at the periphery, or in the centre.

The division between the form of the space (the extruded hexagons), and the planes on which the works are placed (the surfaces defining the edges of the hexagons), acts as a 3 dimensional structure of relationships between the installations. The arrangement adds a scale of optical structure that functions similarly to the grids and radial organisations in Vasarely's individual compositions, but here with whole compositions taking on the roles normaly held by blocks of one or two colours. The dynamics of chromatic and optical movement in his paintings, which is brought about by the shifting of the eye across patterned and distorted 2 dimensional surfaces, is here being embedded within a broader spatial choreography that uses the roaming of the body, together with the wandering of the gaze, to turn his aptitude for coruscating effect into a more bodily, immersive experience.
The form of the space itself, however, always remains an agent of structure, always stays at the level of the unfilled, undistorded grid that lies behind the agents of effect, ordering and setting relations between what is within itself, but never quite taking part.

But there are great moments, like the one above, where there is a hint of what it might have been like if Vasarely had totaly broken out, with his optical distortions, from the two dimensional (transforming the body of the spaces themselves), and launched into a deeper experimentation into the relationship, often tense, and perhaps too tightly defined in the foundation building, between form, pattern and colour. There is an antinomy between the three, often extrematised when it comes to architecture, where they each seem to have worlds unto themselves, which seem irreconcilable, with clear internal logics that completely contradict one another. But occasionaly, when they come together, the most gorgeous things can happen. Perhaps Vasarely, like all the Op-artists, was trying to be too scientific about his work, and perhaps by the time his meticulous research reached the topic of form, there was no time left for the life-time's worth of painstaking analysis that he would have demanded for it from himself; and so what we are left with is a proto-Op-Art Architecture, a careful composition of dizzying 2dimensional planes, set off by the occasional sculpture, which hints at the fun that might have been; and everything together, architecture, paintings and all, falling apart, peeling away.

Although the building is not in the best of conditions, at least it is open, which it hadnt been for some time in the 1990s, following the 12 year presidency of the Foundation by Charles Debbasch, a French Technocrat who allowed it to fall in to disrepair whilst embezzling funds and stealing artworks, crimes which led to his firing, subsequent flight from France, and which eventually helped fund a coup in the Republic of Togo, in which he took part, and consequently now enjoys a senior government position in the West African state (perhaps he just cant stay away from strident patterns). It wasnt just him, but apparently also many members of the Vasarely progeny stole from the collection, one even being arrested on the job in a storage facility in Chicago, leading to court battles and a final decision that his grandson Pierre Vasarely take control of the estate, which is now being slowly (very slowly) rejuvenated.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Welcome To London

This great little piece of public ornament is now semi-permanently gracing the north-western entrance to Leicester Square.

Warning of the amorphous and shadowy presence of some sort of unspecific, generalised "criminiality", out to get whatever you consider to be valuable in the space between your flesh and your outermost pocket, the sign (one guesses) is supposed to increase the reach and efficiency of the law through public awareness and vigilance. But because it looks like it has been hastily left by the retreating side in a battle of which there are no traces, like an apologetic warning to initiate self-policing from the government of some occupying power being forced to withdraw, instead of instilling communal self-policing and confidence it is unintentionally pathetic.

It doesnt have the sinister gaze of the discrete observer that shrouds cctv cameras with their very particular aura of malignant control, and singular purpose; instead it has the rather sad aspect that comes from a sign which is attempting to do something as serious as control criminality, but is having to nonetheless balance this with the role of needing to welcome people to an area, to somehow positively represent that area, to efface itself at the same time as pronouncing itself, hence the "WELCOME TO LEICESTER SQUARE", then the dire warnings, put as neutraly as possible, like the traffic-jam signs on motorways that tell you to drive carefully when there is no information to relay, and finally the ambiguous "HAVE A SAFE NIGHT", not "HAVE A LOVELY NIGHT" or "MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A SAFE NIGHT OR ELSE: ITS UP TO YOU!", but the rather sweetly confused median. One feels for the sign, it doesnt know what it is, it is pathetic, and Kawai, sweet.

I wonder whether it ever has other messages posted on it from different governmental depts or the GLA, perhaps like "Welcome to leicester square; the food served in some establishments here has been proven to be detrimental to your health; Order with caution; Have a healthy evening".
Because there is something so forlorn about the wheeled-in sign, with its little guardian sentry rails that allow it to conform to Health and Safety regs, and its confused task, I wonder if it could be brought to life and given its own sad, pleading personality, like a very British Marvin The Paranoid Android in another guise, or a more down-to-earth, london 2010 version of the Highway sign in LA Story that instead of helping out like a post-modern benevolent techno-god, here looks back at you from the works of man and offers up a confused and pitiful mirror, in LED and aluminium, for your own relationship to the city around you.