Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Cafe Oto by Assemble Studio

Assemble Studio is a collective of young architects and artists. Graduating into a recession, they have taken an unorthodox route into practice by engaging in self-build and community projects. Their work involves a strong research element, sometimes into alternative forms of construction. Building not drawing lies at the heart of the studio, though some of their drawings are in fact quite beautiful.

They already have a diverse portfolio of built work for fringe venues on minimal budgets in forgotten spaces. Previous notable works include ‘The Cineroleum’ - a temporary cinema in a disused service station on Clerkenwell Road and ‘Folly for a Flyover’ – also a cinema erected in the left over space below the east and westbound lanes of the A12.

Here in Dalston they were approached by Café Oto, who wanted a performance space of approximately 50m2. The music venue has a two year lease and the site is reserved for future Crossrail development. The lease may be extended to allow them to operate here longer.

The site was an empty lot. Before that, it was a depot for TfL and before even that a development site for flats. Piles and the ground floor concrete slab went in before the development stopped. Assemble discovered the slab during excavation and have used it for their foundations.

The existing surface was covered with sub base and other debris, which Assemble have used to make the building’s walls. The outside is finished with a thick layer of what they name ‘rubbledash’, which is also full of large chunks of brick and paving. The site is literally pressed into the walls. They foreground this ‘nothing’ material, investing it with poetic qualities, making visible the journey from site to building. Being rendered, the walls are monolithic and massive. They appear archaic, as if long standing and now eroded. The aesthetic is far removed from today’s aesthetic of modular facings and light weight rain-screens.

The walls themselves are also made from rubble bags. However, viewed externally this construction is largely invisible. The only place where the bags are left exposed as laid is along the rear wall abutment with a neighbouring building.

Rubble bag construction is a close derivation of earth bag construction. Robust bags are filled with rubble, laid in courses and rendered. Both methods are inexpensive and straightforward. Both are typically built with semi-skilled labour. Assemble’s Alice and Frances Edgerley (cousins) did the bulk of the manual labour with a group of dedicated volunteers, using diggers, breakers, tampers and shovels. Assemble also obtained technical guidance from CAT (The Centre for Alternative Technologies).

The rubble gathered from the site is crushed to form a balance of aggregate sizes and mixed with introduced sand to improve compaction. The long walls are buttressed for stability. Timber spikes are hammered through the bags. ‘Chicken’ wire is laid at regular courses to improve the friction between the rows. Rope is wrapped around the bags to tie one course to the next.

The bag construction is fully revealed inside. The exposed bags are pliant to touch and the space is acoustically warm. Associations with bunkers or anti flood measures are inevitable, though Assemble themselves do not make this allusion.

Above the walls sits a ply clad structure. Its shape clearly recalls a pediment. Many of Assemble’s projects freely employ classical motifs. They do this without disguise, irony or mannerism. It is reasonably easy to think of other young British architects who also take classical types as an available tool and limiting devise. This frank usage of classicism could be viewed as a generationally defining feature.

The pediment projects beyond the sides of the earth bag walls, protecting them from the rain. This is ‘correct construction’, though less of a requirement than had the walls been earthen. The overhang is as much about proportion as technique. It forms an equal and opposing volume to the walls below. The overhang also creates a zone for hinged panels to flap down inside, providing the room with ventilation.

Inside, a series of thin member timber trusses span between the long walls. These are set fairly low down, giving the space a quasi roof-like feel. The plywood volume construction is basic and albeit far from perfectly level, the detailing is considered. Even though made of standard members fixed with gang nail plates, Assemble take evident pleasure in the ply volume’s articulation. There is something Taliesin West about the quick rhythm of members and stepping of section sizes. Whether Frank Lloyd Wright is a specific reference is not, Assemble don’t say. Frances Edgerley does however speak of the studio having a ‘sweat equity’ business model and that is she notes was a concept employed by Wright.

Assemble Studio’s work demonstrates a specific vision, purposefully articulated and radically practised. They explore the qualities of found spaces and ignored places. The site is the material from which they develop each project for each new building is an act of participation in an existing context. They work with the ‘natural’ waste of industrialisation. By their physical labour and intellectual effort they transpose the site’s man made geology and the forces which have shaped it.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Robert Irwin: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue³ III

Pace London
June 21, 2013 – August 24, 2013

The set up is simple. Three big glossy panels rest flat on the floor. Three panels hover directly above, suspended from a cat’s cradle of wires fixed to the ceiling beams. Six coloured mirrors mirror each other. Each of these six panels is made up of nine smaller rectangles: the rear six are black, the front three are respectively red, yellow and blue; as the work’s title.

You enter through an arched opening centred on the room. Opposite are eleven tall windows. Beyond is a view onto a neighbouring brick wall. Between the planes march the gallery’s white painted columns.  And on paper that is it. That is the set up.

The suspended plane has been positioned so that from the entrance it cuts off the heads of the arched windows and in mirroring the windows, near doubles them in height. They project an unnatural amount of light into the gallery; unnatural because whilst you know you are seeing a composite of the real and reflected, you sort of park that observation and accept them as true. Even then, small details inform the mind that this image is not quite right. When looking at the ‘real’ windows, the daylight of course shines down on the glazing bars. However in the doubled half of the image, the window’s glazing bars are lit from below as if by hidden lighting.

When you look towards the windows, the natural light that hits the surface makes the black super glossy. But where you get the un-lit zone below the window reflected in the nearest panels, the black surface appears matt. It is reflecting a surface that is itself lacking reflected light.

The image of these massive windows is mirrored in the floor plane. This reflection is mirrored once more in the suspended panels above. And so on. This recalls a ‘Droste effect’ which occurs when two mirrors face each other, the image multiplying and receding forever. However the reflections in this installation differ. Here, the image reverses orientation with each reflection. The first reflection is upside down. The reflection in the reflection is the right way up. You can just make out the reflection in the reflection of the reflection.

These images continue right across the breadth of the room on the panels to the left, centre and right. The mind connects the three images into one. But the image is cut up by the insistent rhythm of the columns. Imagine Irwin had blown up a photo of the gallery into a huge silvery print, and then taken a scalpel to it. From the entrance, the space vibrates between the violent cuts, the multiplying reflections and the classical order of the existing architecture.

The mind comprehends the simultaneous existence of the real and reflected, the part and the whole. But it can only make sense of so much conflicting information for so long. In seeking a simpler order, it must discard confusion or end up doubting what its own eyes are seeing. In this, the work induces a sort of dizziness.

The installation is so immersive, on my third visit I went back and photographed the work through a camera’s viewer so as to freeze these images onto a stable surface. Only by isolating the effects could I write about them.

When you stand and look towards the entrance, the panels reflect the gallery’s white walls. From some angles, say crouching down, the black turns soft white. The white is interrupted by coloured strips – these strips being the panel sides. From this view, all the columns classical bases are mirrored. Their shafts rise interrupted through the suspended plane to the soffit. At the same time, they descend towards that soffit’s reflection.

The planes are so perfect, so still, they read like pools of oil. Placing an artwork on the floor already sets up a degree of danger. You can get so close to the work, you fear for them as objects. Would the slightest knock break their surface tension? Would the work have to then be barriered off?

You see people inch their foot right up to a panel and lean over, staring into depths. Has anyone ever fallen in? Perhaps these are reasons enough to be ‘afraid of red, yellow and blue’.

Yet the work is playful too. You can track people’s reflections around the gallery. They do not see you furtively studying them, or at least you hope they don’t, but you assume they must occasionally peek too. The whole room is set up for checking out. You can even see in the lower reflected reflection people walking down the street that runs alongside the brick wall, only right way up, which is truly strange. Staring at the windows proper, these same people do not exist, for they are hidden by the wall below the windows.

With much minimalist art, people get in the way of the experience. You just want to be alone with the work. Anybody or anything else is a distraction. Irwin’s work is incredibly inclusive for it drags everything around it into play. It could equally be called enveloping, for nothing escapes becoming part of the work.

After many viewings, I began to tire of this search to pin down mirror effects. Only when I stopped interrogating it did I discover what for me is its enduring wonder. And it surprised me that it took so long to see this because it is so obvious. The work is a multiplier of beautiful colours. Gaze into the blue panel and you see that the image of the red panel above turns mauve, the yellow becomes orange, and the black purple. These colours are everywhere and everywhere irradiating.

Now you can see the care with which Irwin has installed the gallery lighting, and why. The lighting is positioned just beyond the end of the panels, brightening the floor by the entrance. Look down into the blue and the reflection of the yellow panel appears almost orange, but its very end stays yellow because reflecting the floor’s brighter light.
Minimalist art so encourages one to focus on construction and finish, that finding some technical flaw in the work becomes its own reward. But to obsess about alignment, or flatness or whether one can see faint signs of dust laid upon the surface even after the ritualistic pre-opening clean by gallery staff is here to reduce the work to its dumbest facts.

Irwin’s work dismisses such attempts. For one it is just so damn perfectly executed. But the greater truth is that making a fetish of the fabrication is to avoid the work’s challenge. Simply put, there is no reason to be afraid of ‘red, yellow and blue.’ Just let go and dive on in.