PRINT April 2014



Martin Boyce, A Thousand Future Skies, 2014, painted steel and glass. Installation view, Glasgow School of Art. Photo: Keith Hunter.

THE WORK OF architect Steven Holl and artist Martin Boyce fundamentally alters the way we think about the boundary between their two disciplines. Boyce, who represented Scotland at the 2009 Venice Biennale and was awarded the Turner Prize in 2011, is celebrated for his explorations of the legacy of modern architecture, probing the field’s potential as an expansive formal language even as he examines the ways in which architecture, nature, and public space interact. Holl is renowned for creating innovative spaces in which to make and display art—including the 2006 Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa; a major addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, completed in 2007; and the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum in China, which opened in 2013—as well as for his dedicated pursuit of direct collaboration with artists such as Vito Acconci, Richard Artschwager, and Walter De Maria.

In 2009, Holl won the international competition for the design of a new studio and administration building at the Glasgow School of Art; the finished structure opens this month. The site is located across the street from the institution’s physical and cultural heart, the iconic 1909 Arts and Crafts structure designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Responding to this demanding context—itself representative of a historic period of synthesis between architecture and art—Holl sought out Boyce, a graduate of the school who lives and works in Glasgow, inviting the artist to create an installation for a dedicated space within his design. Boyce’s resulting steel-and-glass construction, complexly layered just behind the striking translucent facade of Holl’s Seona Reid Building, alters its site even as it sensitively echoes the subtle stained-glass detailing of Mackintosh’s neighboring structure. Outstripping the sculpture-in-the-courtyard model of so many banal art-architecture partnerships, Holl’s and Boyce’s overlapping spatial and material strategies give rise to an intensely symbiotic connection—one befitting its storied multidisciplinary context.

Julian Rose

STEVEN HOLL: I consider the School of Art’s original home to be among the most important buildings of the twentieth century. That was the challenge; contributing to the campus was like trying to add on to the Parthenon. There was no way I was going to upstage Mackintosh. So I opted for a blank, sober design that was very respectful of his structure. From the beginning, I also envisioned a flourish of colored glass marking the entrance, which would relate to the beautiful stained-glass work of the original building, one of the many handcrafted details for which it is famous. I have always considered architecture to be a form of art—part of the reason I find Mackintosh’s Arts and Crafts synthesis of the two so appealing—and, I thought: Mackintosh designed the colored glass in his building, so of course I should design it in mine.

But as the project moved forward, I wasn’t happy with any of my ideas. Even after the building was under construction, I still had five different versions of a glass installation, and I knew none of them was right. I was actually getting angry. Finally, I realized that an alumnus of the school should do it, an artist who had spent time in the Mackintosh building and who had a deep connection to the city and the institution. I had recently met Martin at the 2009 Venice Biennale. I was very impressed by his installation there, and I knew he would be perfect. I just had to convince him to collaborate—which wasn’t easy.

MARTIN BOYCE: Well, artists don’t like to be told what to do, and Steven was adamant that the piece had to be made in colored glass. I proposed several other things, but he kept bringing up that specific material. As we continued our conversation about the stained glass in the Mackintosh building, though, I understood why using the material made sense as a response to this new site, and I realized that Steven’s contextual approach was directly connected to my practice.

At the School of Art, I had studied in an unusual department called Environmental Art, where the mantra was that context is half the work. And this inevitably means that architecture is something you become very aware of. When I was in school, for example, I only studied in the Mackintosh building for my foundation year; then I joined Environmental Art, which was housed in an old girls’ high school. There, we were separated from the more medium-specific departments like painting and sculpture, yet we had this whole building to explore. It was slightly derelict—there was a large section of it that we weren’t supposed to have access to because it was dangerous—but of course we made installations and interventions everywhere: in the basement, on the stairs. That old high school became our playground, and I have always felt that the Mackintosh building provided a similar environment. People talk about this building as a monument, but we had no sense of that. It was just our school, and we had this very intimate relationship with it.

So when Steven showed me his studio’s research on the complements of the colors Mackintosh used in his stained glass, that became my way into the project. Among the colors that presented themselves were varying tones of green and autumnal oranges—these organic, natural hues—and I knew I wanted to work with them. For years I’ve been working with a palette of shapes and forms that find their origins in four abstract, almost Cubist, concrete trees made by sculptors Jan and Joël Martel for a garden designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. I’m fascinated by the formal collapse they represent: a language that is—paradoxically—both architectural and natural. These trees have touched almost every work I’ve made since 2005; I’ve reconfigured them into stepping-stones and chandeliers in Venice, telephone booths marooned in a forest in upstate New York, even a complete typeface. For the new art school building, I began to think of the trees becoming a screen of hanging vines in the complementary colors Steven had found, marking the threshold of his building.

Steven Holl Architects, Seona Reid Building, Glasgow School of Art, 2014. Photos: Iwan Baan.

SH:In the finished installation, this threshold became a whole volume. I had carved out a void for the glass installation in my design, but when you’re walking beneath the piece—turning and twisting to look up and down and watching as it’s activated by the sunlight—the space changes in an amazing way and you suddenly become aware of an unexpected depth. In my work, I’m always exploring this same question of how a moving body can activate a space, so I feel that Martin’s piece is fundamentally connected to the building. It becomes part of the philosophical ground of the architecture.

MB: Steven’s architecture actually helped me think through just how to use colored glass in a three-dimensional way. In our initial conversations, I kept saying that the work should have a strong element of craft, of the hand, to connect it to the Mackintosh. But Steven emphasized that we should be looking toward the future. Of course the Mackintosh is an important reference, but at some point you have to turn your back on it and look forward. And so, for example, rather than looking for handblown glass, I started researching the latest lamination techniques for producing colored glass panels.

I’m always struck by how much public space Steven is able to introduce in his architecture. This civic inclusiveness is crucial in a city like Glasgow. The previous building had a moatlike light well separating it from the street. In Steven’s new building, the street runs at the same level straight up to front door and feeds right into the building. This is open, sociable architecture, with a very dynamic energy that I wanted to respond to.

SH: Of course, we also wanted to respond to the craftsmanship of the Mackintosh building, but we knew full well that we wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of handicraft that was possible in 1909. So we focused on echoing the underlying spatial ideas of the Mackintosh building, particularly the way light enters his structure. We organized our building around a number of large volumes cut out of the building’s mass, which bring light inside. The cutout voids are very complex conic sections, and we never would have been able to model, let alone build, these shapes without the aid of digital design and fabrication technology. There is an extraordinary amount of precision in the construction—in the end, just as much attention to detail and materiality as you find in Mackintosh—but it’s not handmade detail; it happens at a different scale and in a different way.

This technology also made the collaboration easier. We’re no longer in the era when both sculptors and architects share the same craft-based approach; you wouldn’t find them working side by side on a building site, but they can be working from the same digital files—dealing with the exact same geometry—and it is possible to integrate their work with total accuracy. This is one reason that it’s a very exciting time for the two disciplines to come back together.

MB: At the same time, it’s important to recognize how unusual it is for an architect like Steven to place so much trust in an artist. This isn’t just about putting a sculpture in front of a building. It’s introducing a work that is going to have a profound effect on how people experience the architecture, and I’m only fully appreciating that now that the piece is up and the building is being used.

There’s always a danger when commissioning artwork for a building that all the vitality and momentum will get drained out of the collaboration by logistical and bureaucratic issues. As an artist, it’s easy to look at the energy that goes into these processes and think, “I just want to do a show in a gallery or a museum where I can do whatever I want and I’m not flying off somewhere to sit in a meeting about how the plumbing is going to affect my work.” But of course there are unique opportunities that are presented by collaboration. I don’t think that these interactions between art and architecture need to be long, earnest conversations, or particularly democratic for that matter. Collaboration isn’t about a fifty-fifty split; it can be a series of informal, even fleeting exchanges. The secret is to try to keep it alive.