Pavilions: Art, Design, Architecture? Alex Coles Proposes a New Approach

By Coles, Alex | Art Monthly, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Pavilions: Art, Design, Architecture? Alex Coles Proposes a New Approach


Coles, Alex, Art Monthly


IN A RECENT INTERVIEW WITH LOUISE SCHOUWENBERG IN FRAME, OLAFUR ELIASSON MOUNTED A DIATRIBE ON DESIGN: 'Design is about form and form alone. It's self-contained, completed, superficial. In essence, design has nothing to do with content. Designers allow the least important side of the creative process to prevail. They immediately formalize a subject. As if form is all that's needed.'

Eliasson has a point. In a good portion of contemporary design the complexity of the research process is thwarted and a final form--be it curvy or geometric--is swiftly arrived at. The result is just styling. The recent work of both Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove is a case in point. With the current vogue for retro styling the consequences are even worse: the restyling of what was only styling to begin with. Eliasson's comment becomes more problematic, however, when considering how the same scenario is often true for art. In Understanding Design: 150 Reflections on Being a Designer the critic Kees Dorst implies that this should come as no surprise, considering that 'once an artist decides on a goal to pursue, his or her creative process looks very much like a design process. Artists ... effectively turn their self-made challenge into a partly determined design problem. And they temporarily turn themselves into designers.'

Eliasson's somewhat predictable observation implying that this set of circumstances is particular to design is indeed totally inaccurate. That Eliasson made such a barbed comment precisely at a time when he had been commissioned by Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton's creative director, to design a series of lamps to adorn the windows of the brand's stores worldwide--putting some sparkle into their autumn/winter 06-07 campaign--is unfortunate timing. Once again, it seems that where ideology holds them back, the two Fs--finance and flattery--help artists to overcome their fears about design.

In an earlier interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Eliasson sharply differentiates design from architecture, being much more positive about the latter. Unlike design, architecture offers the promise of opening up a dialogue rather than closing it down: 'This is why I like the most utopian architects and thinkers: they've got that ability to think about their own vision from the outside. I'm working more and more with people like that, getting more involved in works integrated into spatial projects, but involving them more in my own work as well ... Artistic practice has rediscovered its ability to constantly redefine its own programme, and architectural discourse has opened up to other fields in the same way. This is why the fact of integrating architects--and engineers and experts as well--is crucial for me in opening up to other ways of working.' But it is not always so easy to differentiate the practice of the designer from that of the architect. That Eliasson does so exposes his narrow view of the former and naive perception of the latter. By so doing he also follows a historic trend: for the received pecking order has it that art and architecture are the two disciplines that jostle for the highest accolades while design doesn't even come next--design comes last. The varied pace of development of the historical and critical languages deployed in the discussion of all three disciplines corroborates this inference. But from Walter Gropius to Zaha Hadid architects have also been involved with product design and practitioners who were recognised principally as designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eliot Noyes, also produced architecture. Such clear distinctions as Eliasson attempts are not always possible.

The referencing of architecture and design, and the collaboration with architects, is a key part of Eliasson's practice and has been for some time now. The role played by the pavilion is crucial here, starting with Ice Pavilion, 1997, through 5 Dimensional Pavilion, 1998, The Blind Pavilion, 2003, the collaboration with David Adjaye, Your black horizon at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and up to his forthcoming Serpentine Gallery Pavilion to be realised later this summer. …

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