Review: Frieze Art and Architecture Conference

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For the first time since its founding in 1991, Frieze, the magazine and art fair, brought together renowned architects in conversation with their clients – including museums, collectors and artists – to discuss their sometimes fickle relationship. Within the auditorium of the Royal College of Physicians, one of London’s most treasured brutalist buildings, the discussion tackled issues faced by architects designing galleries (and gardens) for contemporary art, drawing upon recent (and in some cases live) examples such as the new SFMOMA building designed by Snøhetta, Annabella Selldorf’s LUMA Arles, the collaboration between artist Gabriel Orozco and 6A architects and perhaps most mystifying presentation by Peter Zumthor on his design’s for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

The conference was positioned as “a must attend event for any museum director or art collector looking to commission architecture, or anyone curious about how artists and curators envision architecture for art”. At first, one might question just how many museum director’s or collectors are in a position to commission architecture as one might a work of contemporary art? Judging from the numbers and interest generated about the conference (see FT review), the question is no longer even relevant. The very gesture by Frieze to incorporate architecture within its remit suggests demand for a kind of platform, dare I say marketplace, where architects, artists, collectors and institutional representatives can discuss an architecture that is “for art”.

The day commenced with Peter St John, cofounder of Caruso St John, explaining gallery commissions such as the Tate Britain’s front of house area, the subtle differences between Gagosian galleries (they have designed every one of them), their RIBA Stirling Prize 2016 winning design for Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery and finally, their collaboration with artist Thomas Demand on exhibitions and restoring heritage property.

Artist Gabriel Orozco and Stephanie MacDonald from 6A Architects then discussed their collaboration on South London Gallery’s garden, made up of concentric brick patterns interwoven with native and foreign seedlings. The design spirals across the site and continues down a kind of corridor that leads to Sceaux Gardens housing estate, creating an entrance specifically for residents with whom the South London Gallery runs art programmes such as the current, appropriately named “school for tourists” for public visitors to the garden.

After a quick morning tea break the delegates settled back into the auditorium for a conversation between Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover and architect Annabelle Selldorf on recent projects including the contemporary art centre ‘LUMA Arles’ in the south of France, the art museum ‘The Clarke’ in Williamstown and David Zwirner Gallery in New York. Within minutes the discussion turned to notions of taste, specificity and the architect’s responsibility to know dimensions and how one moves in space. Neatly surmised, Selldorf believes architecture to be “the mother of all arts, it’s everywhere, it’s already present…”.

Alternating between the conventional and the not so conventional the audience were introduced to artist Francis Upritchard and designer Martino Gamper on their relationship to craftsmanship and how this manifests at home and in their studios, then back again to the more ‘industry standard’ presentation by Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta, on their building for SFMOMA which opened to the public in May 2016.

Finally, it was time for architect Peter Zumthor, LACMA CEO Michael Govan and Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, former co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, to discuss forthcoming plans for the new LACMA building. It was Zumthor who began by describing any attempt to design an encyclopaedic museum as “a beautiful failure” due to the nature of collections and how they come together in unusual ways. As Zumthor’s presentation unfolds we hear justifications from Govan and questions from Peyton-Jones. She homes in on the disjunction between the intensely private experience designed by Zumthor and the popularity of museums today to which the architect confidently replies: “it will be a private palace for everybody.”