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Illuminating Spaces


By Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in the ‘Art & Architecture’ special issue of the Architects’ Journal, 2 October 1997


Boundaries between artists and architects are blurred in work marked by subtle manipulation of colour and light

My interest in the art of space and light was provoked, I suppose, by dissent from Le Corbusier’s definition of Modern architecture as ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’ which is about form rather than spatial experience and about light as steady and bright rather than fugitive or palpable. Chartres is excluded.

Similarly, I found myself dissenting from that other idea of Modernity as complete transparency – not being there, not separating inside from outside (the Farnsworth House, for example). We forget that the development of transparent architecture originated in German Expressionism with the mystical aspirations of Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut. Perhaps in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 (now reconstructed) – in the combination of grey transparent glass, double-etched glazing with lighting between, bottle-green glass, onyx and highly polished green marble brought together in a building without any explicit function – we see, not just Modernism, but the manifestation of architecture as pure experience, a link between Scheerbart and the work of today’s space and light artists.

Historically, the starting point for me is the late eighteenth century, and the space and light artists are Turner and Soane. Their interest in the experiential effects of space and colour parallel contemporary experiments such as de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon. These were theatrical events in which combinations of scrims and lighting sources could magically reveal a series of spaces and scenes beyond expectation, and coloured light was used to affect mood, as it does in modern theatre. There is an affinity between these theatrical diversions and Turner’s revelatory images of the interiors of Petworth.

Another of Turner’s devices was the use of coloured glazes. Like lacquers, glazes have the effect of arresting focal length just short of the actual picture plane. They create an uncertainty of perception engaging to eye and brain, of a kind now exploited in complex ways by artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell. In Soane’s work the tinted glaze is transformed into amber or red glass to infuse his interiors with colour, what he called ‘lumiere mysterieuse’ – most powerfully in the Mausoleum at Dulwich but also in parts of the Soane Museum. Such a use of colour profoundly affects our customary sense of reality. Le Corbusier understood this when he combined colour and projections of coloured lighting in the chapel at La Tourette. The artist Martin Richman uses colour in this way to transform architecture.

Like the eighteenth-century picturesque landscape tradition, experiments in theatrical settings by artists such as de Loutherbourg explored and confounded spatial expectations with colour and light. This is what Soane did in his house and museum, most succinctly in the breakfast room, which influenced our [MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s] chapel at FitzwilliamCollege, Cambridge; the idea of enclosure is contradicted by the luminous periphery. I also think Soane was influenced by Pompeian wall paintings, of which he collected reproductions. Arguably his architecture involves three-dimensional reconstructions which release the painted, episodic perspectives of the Pompeian interior into three dimensions.

We are witnessing comparable ventures in architecture and art today. The simple transparencies of Modernism in architecture have given way to an interest in translucency, opalescence and subtly graded reflection. Luminosity of this kind is characteristic of the work of Jean Nouvel and, recently, Sir Norman Foster – in particular, the lightwell and foyer of the Sackler Galleries at the RoyalAcademy. Benson and Forsyth’s Oratory at Grange over Sands created a similarly opalescent space of extraordinary tranquility.

Herzog & de Meuron’s Goetz Collection Gallery in Munich uses white glass as a diffuser internally and as a device for floating the timber body of the building when seen externally. The quality of reflection at the base which takes in both people and landscape is comparable to effects in the pavillion works of the glass artist Dan Graham. The quality of the interior is comparable to early works, using scrim, by Irwrn. These effects are meditative, and a sense of weightlessness applies as much to the solid construction as it does to the light-emitting surfaces. (There is something of this effect in the current installation Nothing Matters by John Frankland in the Royal Festival Hall.)

Another unbuilt project by Herzog & de Meuron, which would have achieved an extraordinary spatial ambiguity, was the Greek Orthodox Church in Zurich. A pristine rectangular volume of glass and ceramic by day would, by night, have revealed the irregular outline of inner rooms. Internally, translucent marble panels, continuously silk-screened with icons, would have created a figurative three-dimensional art work of a highly decorative kind.

If this is architecture approaching the condition of art, then the works of Irwin and Turrell, who have shifted their art away from the making of objects towards the experience of situations, have widened the arena of art by approaching the condition of architecture.

Turrell was trained as a psychologist and worked with Irwin and an experimental psychologist for the Art and Technology project at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 1970. This show, involving more than 70 major artists and even more scientists and mathematicians, was a major statement of contemporary space-age Zeitgeist in which science and art were supposed to merge. The Irwin/Turrell collaboration anticipated subsequent public interest in meditative states.

The extent to which the work might be perceived as a scientific experiment prompted a statement – almost a manifesto – of phenomenal art. ‘A problem may arise with this project in the minds of the art community who may regard it as “non-art” – as theatrical or more scientific than artistic or as being just outside the arena of art. Although it is a strong alteration as far as methods, means and intent, we believe in it as art, and yet recognise the possibility of a redefinition needed to incorporate it into the “arena”’. Maybe such a redefinition also requires a redefinition of architecture.

Irwin has continued to work in an extraordinary range of media on installations which intervene in architecture and landscape. One particular piece, which has interested me in relation to our project for the ScienceMuseum, is Scrim Veil – an installation at the Mizuno Gallery, Los Angeles (1975). Here the scrim seems to set up three precise perceptual alternatives which claim the viewer according to changing light conditions. The scrim itself, although transparent, is a rectangular textured surface which arrests focal length. Behind the scrim the volume of the room is more or less apparent, depending upon the levels of light on its surfaces relative to the scrim. Below the scrim a rectangular void, delineated by a black steel bar and black painted lines on wall and door, may claim attention as the most definitive part of the installation. Yet within the frame there is a conflict between the virtual picture plane of the rectangle and the real perspective behind, which refuses to adhere to it.

Turrell and Irwin inherit a world of metaphysical colour and light from Mark Rothko and Yves Klein, and take it further by releasing it from the painted surface and entering into it as spatial experience. Turrell is a prolific and ceaseless investigator of the art of perception, and the range of his work extends from the excavation of a volcano, the Roden Crater in Arizona, a gigantic astronomical re-enactment of the Pantheon, to gallery installations which mix light frequencies so as to defy spatial definition. Apertures in walls from which coloured light is emitted appear volumetric and palpable. The experience of these works, over a period of say, 20 minutes, is that the rectangle of colour perceived in a darkened space grows in intensity and appears to move out towards the viewer, Turrell has discovered that this perceptual phenomenon is true of looking at the sky through his ‘sky spaces’. The sky becomes figurative like a Magritte cut-out, improbably substantial. We found this effect fortuitously in the oculus at the centre of our Cable & WirelessCollege, Coventry.

Amongst Turrell’s earlier and more architectural works was a fluorescent light installation called ‘Rondo’ at NewportHarbourArt Museum (1969). Here, back-lit false walls and floor create an evanescent haze of blue space within which the gangway traversed by visitors appears as a black abyss.

In conclusion, there are two projects in our office which are space and light experiments. At Southwark Station (for Bankside Tate) we have been working with artist Alex Beleschenko to create a reflective conical lining for the intermediate concourse from silkscreened blue glass. The glass ranges from blue at the base to virtually clear transparency at the apex. Daylight is funnelled down behind and in front to create conditions of luminosity, reflection and blueness to make a paradoxical underground experience.

For the Science Museum Wellcome Wing project we are creating an entirely blue enclosure. It may have something to do with Klein blue in the Yves Klein exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in spring 1995. A friend’s reaction to this exhibition was a strange, vivid and lovely dream in which she found herself suspended in an infinity of blue, the atavistic experience of sea and sky. The psychological intention of the project is to create a blue radiance provoking elation and wonder, a frame of mind for approaching an exhibition of modern science in a building which we have called the Theatre of Science.

Working with Hollands Licht/Rogier van der Heidenn Amsterdam, we have modelled part of the interior at 1:5. The intention is to dislocate visually the solid one-hour fire-resistant wall with a fabric scrim in front of it to arrest focus. Using fluorescent light with reflectors and blue filters in battens, it should be possible to achieve an almost perfectly even spread of blue light which will seem to emanate from behind the scrim. The horizontal gaps defined by the light battens, which also hold the scrim taut, seem to enhance the effect by offering an alternative prospect of blue, so narrowly framed that it is hardly possible to judge its depth.

I am aware that this venture is probably inconceivable without the work of artists such as Klein, Irwin and Turrell, but the idea of peripheral luminosity still has something to do with my old hero, Soane.