Viewpoint: Rise Toward Heaven

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Phil Gusack reviews the London Arts Health Forum seminar on Integration of Art in Healthcare Facilities, in association with Architects for Health, London 16 November 2006

200,000 years after his ancestors stood up and wandered out of the rainforest and onto the savannah, man discovered the caves at Lascaux, central France, and decided they were a perfect machine for living. It was the birth of the European lifestyle – man as hunter-decorator. 17,000 years later, thanks to low-budget airlines, the French countryside is more popular than ever. And for almost all of that time walls were not only used to keep the undesirable out, but also the only sensible place to hang pictures. Then, suddenly, the first world war exploded across Europe. The blast split the DNA of art and architecture forever. Each mutates, recombines and mutates again, according to its own internal codes and ambitions. In twenty years the modernists changed everything, architecture was reinvented and walls and the art on them went out the window.

The propaganda for the brave new world played up notions about the integration of art in architecture. Opening the Weimar Bauhaus in 1919, Walter Gropius proclaimed ‘Let us create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of the new faith.’ Very Wagner, very vague and not verifiable. Thee modernist photo album we have all studied shows one iconic composition after another with flat roofs, huge glazing and unadorned white walls; only precisely positioned signature chairs save us from the embarrassment of mistaking a Corb for a Breuer. The mood is monastic. Our reaction is reverence. Art is there all right, but it is the art of the architect.

Whether it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower forcing Britain and France out of Suez, or Rock Around The Clock driving British audiences to tear cinema seats out so they had room to jive, 1956 was obviously the tipping point in the ascendancy of American culture over Britain. And what America had was born-again Mies van der Rohe, his pre-war ambition that his was the true German architecture washed clean on his Atlantic crossing. His 1951 house for Dr Edith Farnsworth reached the apogee of transparency. He had done for architecture what another immigrant, Werner von Braun, had done for aviation: rendered human occupants and their art objects obsolete while producing objects of unprecedented precision and timeless beauty.

The British reaction was recorded by Reyner Banham’s 1966 book New Brutalism1. It covers the story of architects in post second world war Britain, their participation with artists in The Independent Group, their gatherings at the ICA, then in Dover Street, and their collaborations in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at The Whitechapel in 1956. The most memorable work, Richard Hamilton’s collage ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ is a clear marker that whatever the real context that artists now worked in, and it was definitely not, (nor had it ever really been) a unity with architecture. Banham, a diarist as much as a historian, charts the splits between neo Swedish brick detailers, new brutalist concrete shapers and the agent provocateurs – Cedric Price and Archigram, each a search for a way round the scary glamour and extravagance of Mies, just as the spaceship tries to get round the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. In Black Box2, his poignant parting shot, Banham sees architecture as a sort of self-perpetuating tribalism, primary concerned with its own ambitions, adhering to its own rituals and rites of passage, ready to sacrifice whatever sciences and arts that do not fit in. He concludes: ‘… many students will have heard something which I personally heard at that time, the blunt directive: “Don’t bother with all that environmental stuff, just get on with the architecture!”

If any further proof that architecture occupies a position that Banham called ‘cultural privilege’ is needed, we need only look at the perversity in art museums and galleries in recent decades. Exquisite torsos hooked on the hyperbolic steroids of critical acclaim. What else are the architects – Wright in Manhattan, Gehry in Bilbao, Hadid in Cincinnati, Cook in Graz – saying to artists? ‘ Now follow that!’

As British political aspirations arced from James Keir Hardie’s real Labour Party to Tony Blair’s New Labour, British belief in the institution of the marriage of art and architecture has arced from William Morris to Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which encourages civil partnerships and cohabitation as well. Ms Jowell is self-designated Government Design Champion3: she is also chief match-maker. Her dating agencies include The Arts Council (now receiving £455 million and distributing £410 million a year) and CABE (now receiving £12 million, or 200 Prescott homes a year). Regarding CABE, she said ‘The difference that good architectural design can make to improve the lives of ordinary people and to deliver ‘liveability’ is at the heart of CABE’s work.’ Good news for the ‘ordinary people, since they’re the ones who have spent billions on lottery tickets that helped reboot British architects after the last property market crash.

With no constitutional clarity such as French fraternite or the American pursuit of happiness, New Labour ideology now ranges from form foreign imperialism to domestic empiricism. Jowell’s rationale is that culture, lisle sport, is good for our health. And the Arts Council has dutifully commissioned Your Health and the Arts by Dr Joy Windsor. It is a superb example of evidence-based research that has been imported from Texas A & M. As AfH members know all too well, Texas Professor Roger Ulrich’s advisory role at the Department of Health has sidelined British hospital experts as Billy Graham sidelined British clergy. Dr Windsor’s work may be encapsulated as follows:

  1. Hypothesis: art is good for your health;
  2. Conclusion: art is good for your health;
  3. Methodology: 2,500 telephone interview

Nagging questions:

  1. How many calls were made to people out at Tate Mod?
  2. How many calls were made to people out at hospital A&E?
  3. How many calls were made to people who went to Tate Mod, where they ere hit by runaway buggies and ended up in hospital A&E?

Personally I am all for art in hospitals, surely the most appropriate place for (say) Gilbert and George’s Fundamental Paintings such as Spit and Piss. Bad taste? No more than the lung x-ray look-alikes’ that Vital Arts recently hung in the Barts outpatient waiting area. Its not quite as crass as you might think, because it is too dark to really see it for what it really is. AfH member LeAnn Barber, who runs Contemporary Art Projects, tells me bad lighting is a bigger problem than getting Trust’s to sign on and, she says, fresher brighter uplighting doesn’t help if it depends on wall-mounted fixtures that, by definition, spoil the view.

With these many issues in mind, I was very pleased to attend the LAHF seminar4 and see presentations of two new-build architect-artist collaborations. The first of these is at the Moorfields International Children’s Eye Centre presented by Architect Sunand Prasad, art consultant Isabel Vasseur and artist Alison Turnbull. In a DoH Procure 21 contractual arrangement, Prasad had the room to manoeuvre to bring an artist in to the team. Isabel Vasseur organized the shortlist. Prasad’s team had already designed extensive south-facing glazing that would be shaded by large horizontal louvres. This was Turnbull’s blank canvas, which she would transform beyond the mere prosthetic. I have to admit I did not really follow her account of her private work method but I do appreciate that it is there. No matter: the end result, raises the building from corporate to delicate. It is not an eyelid, it is an eyelash. No mascara required.

The second project is the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital (GRH) a PFI scheme, presented by Architect Claudia Bloom and art consultant Jane Wills. The idea was Wills who was contracted by the Trust. Their discreet observations suggest Le Carre tradecraft, the PFI contractor being the baddies. Wills organized 20 custommade pieces and raised funds from seven sources totalling £325,000. From her description I think they range from Blue Peter to science show, the general intention appearing to be distraction of the nervous by enlivenment of the interior.

The problem here is really very little to do with these collaborations and much more to do with my unrealistic expectation of some sort of emotional disagreement. No I didn’t think an artist, enraged by a philistine PFI contractor, was going to cut an ear off in protest. Even in Hoxton Square, Britart’s Harley Street and/or London’s West Broadway, where East London’s estimated 10,000 artists meet, when someone asks if the empty seat at my café table is free, and I quip’ Sorry, I’m waiting for Tristan Tzara,’ they don’t get it. The history of art over the last 100 years is surely one of provocation, but if I can’t find it in Hackney I’m never going to find it at this seminar because LAHF is not there to investigate the aesthetic constraints of therapeutic art – it exists to promote the business for artists in the hospital building boom.

If it is possible to extrapolate any trend from only two projects, it is that the market makers – the art consultants will expand market share working with Primary Care and Hospital Trusts but won’t have much luck with PFI. Even before Claudia Bloom’s discreet remarks about the GRH experience, I had resigned myself to the fact that the blue paint on the site fencing now encasing large chunks at Barts is as much art that the Skanska Innisfree gangmasters will pay for. It’s a different story on the fences on the numerous office and apartment blocks, decorated with marketing graphics, they do impart some information. But then Barts is a pre-let, so why spend the krpne? Come on Skanska and come on HOK too. It will soon be Christmas.

It would be ungrateful and holier than thou to suggest that AfH occupies higher moral ground than LAHF. LAHF may be getting an Arts Council bung, but AfH ranks are swelled by PFI. The point is that AfH thrives on diversity and tolerates its discontents. Hopefully it will put the questions about therapeutic art to further test. Its not a matter if evidence, because you know perfectly well that the evidence submitted by Joy Windsor, Roger Ulrich et al does not prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. The bigger questions are:

1. Is artwork intended to be therapeutic really art?
2. Is artwork made for specifically to go in or on a building art decoration?

If we learn anything from Simon Schama’s stunning films on the Power of Art5, it is that art is powerful when artists do what they want, not what we want.

Phil Gusack
phil@gusack.com
21.11.2006

Footnotes:

  1. New Brutalism, Reyner Banham, pub Architectural Press, Nov 1966 ISBN: 0851394604
  2. A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham (Centennial Books) by Reyner Banham, Paul Barker (Editor), Sutherland Lyall (Editor), Cedric Price (Editor. The article originally appeared in ‘New Statesman and Society’ , 12 Oct 1990, pp 22-25. In the foreword Peter Hall writes about this; “The posthumous 1990 piece is particularly significant, not simply because it was his swan song, but because he knew it was and wrote it that way”
  3. AJ 100 Breakfast Club, London, 02/02/2006
  4. http://www.architectsforhealth.com/library/integratedartinhealthcarefacilities.html
  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/powerofart/intro.shtml

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