Architecture Theory and History in Contemporary Art

In postwar and contemporary art, artists’ engagements with architecture are often interpreted in terms of institutional critique or societal commitment. Artists comment on architecture’s imposition of power or on its biopolitics, or they gauge the capacity of architectural design to bring together people and shape new publics. Yet the involvement of contemporary art with architectural theory and history reaches well beyond these themes. From Asger Jörn’s and the Situationists’ quarrels with Le Corbusier’s design principles to Claes Oldenburg’s and Dan Graham’s dialogue with Robert Venturi, to references to modern and postmodern, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, in art since the 1980s (e.g., Monica Bonvicini, Luciano Fabro, Peter Friedl, Jill Magid, Giulio Paolini, Thomas Schütte), artists have entertained a sustained critical engagement with works and ideas of architects, architecture critics, and architecture historians.

This session calls for contributions that historicize the assorted roles played by architecture theory and history in contemporary art. We welcome case studies and more general papers. Contributions can mine the nexus of art and architecture theory/history in a synchronic and diachronic manner. We wish to address the following questions: how do artists’ engagements with architectural theory and history open up reflections on socio-historical themes and developments in art? How, and why, are architects, buildings and theories referenced? If art allows working with architecture beyond disciplinary expectations and established protocols, what ’type’ of theory and history emerges? How, if at all, does contemporary art allow thinking differently about the categories of theory and history in architecture?

Session Convenors:

Stefaan Vervoort, Ghent University
Maarten Delbeke, ETH Zurich


Paul Sisterson, Newcastle University

Exploring Situationist Space[s] through the Anti-City: Newcastle upon Tyne, 1968

In the autumn of 1968 Newcastle upon Tyne was being described as Britain’s ‘anti-art city’. In this paper I explore the provincial matrix of the English Situationists. More specifically what they called ‘Game-cities.’ With the style and even outlook of Newcastle rapidly changing, the English Situationists saw only an expression of the prevailing organisation of everyday life rendered in concrete and projecting ‘a nightmare [in which] space and time are engineered to isolate, exhaust and abstract’ people (1967). Yet, if certain situations happen, the English Situationists claim, these will become environments (Game-Cities) with a capability to transform individual and group experiences; cities which by their very structure ‘afford the means of access to every possible experience.’ (1967). This paper begins in 1963 when Richard Hamilton, Pop art exponent and lecturer in the Fine Art Department at Kings College (now Newcastle University) appointed Ronald Hunt as the new Departmental Librarian. Hamilton, a hitherto overlooked recipient of back issues of the journal L’Internationale Situationniste encouraged Hunt to begin identifying themes and topics that would interest staff and students alike. Among the ideas Hunt circulated was that of ‘Unitary Urbanism’ (1962) which in calling for a critique of cities rather a doctrine saw a group of Studio Demonstrators and their students form the ‘Black Hand Gang.’ Casting fresh light on the Gang, labelled by one metropolitan journalist as a ‘vociferous band of anti-artists,’ the paper investigates the ways in which the group took up and ran with an English Situationist challenge to construct situations ‘in real time and space within which to realise all desires alongside the reality desired (1967).

Camilla Salvaneschi and Luca Zilio, Università Iuav di Venezia

César Manrique: The Symbiogenesis Between Art, Architecture and Nature

Since the mid-20th century we have witnessed a proliferation of artworks combining art, architecture and nature. Examples like Alberto Burri’s Cretto (1985) or James Turrell’s Roden Crater (2000-2010) show the growing importance of specific interventions on materiality. While touching upon the above artworks and others, the paper aims to investigate the artistic practice of Lanzarote artist César Manrique (1919-1992). In his fifty-year career Manrique engaged with a ‘vernacular’ concept of architecture – examined at the VI Triennale di Milano (1936) – and based on inscribing man’s relation with the totality of the universe, on materialising the liaison between the intelligible and the sensible, and on fusing subject and object. Combining art, architecture and nature, Manrique’s works (Jardin de Guatiza, Jameos de Agua, …) take a step forward, enhancing the experience of place, without modifying it or depriving it of its specific connotations. 

Grounding the analysis on theories by Michel Foucault and Lynn Margulis, respectively on ‘heterotopia’ and ‘symbiogenesis’, as well as on the concept of ‘mesocosm’, the paper aims to analyse Manrique’s work in light of the socio-economic implications of a booming tourist sector. Indeed, focusing attention on construction sites and collective works that on the one hand influence the growth of local communities and on the other guide strategies to accommodate increasingly high tourist numbers, it will demonstrate how contemporary art has motivated not only architectural theory and history, but their very practice, and has done so not just in the major art centres but on their peripheries as well.

Filippo Cattapan, Bergische Universität Wuppertal & École Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne

Christian Kieckens-Peter Downsbrough: A Transdisciplinary Exchange in Post-War Belgium

Christian Kieckens and Peter Downsbrough first met in Brussels in the second half of the 1980s and immediately engaged in a meaningful dialogue at the border between art and architecture. Kieckens was an architect but had a strong interest in contemporary art, Downsbrough an artist strongly influenced by his previous architectural studies at the University of Cincinnati and thus by the design and realisation of his own atelier house in New Hampshire. When they met, they were both reflecting and working on the city by employing related means and modealities, in particular photography, exhibitions, publications. They soon began collaborating (see for instance the project Densities in 1996, later exhibited at the S65 gallery in Aalst), forged a lasting friendship and substantially influenced each other for the next four decades. For Kieckens, such a dialogue was first and foremost a catalyst to disrupt the static and substantially negative vision of the city that was prevalent in Belgium at the time, for Downsbrough an occasion to identify new operative ways to engage with urban landscape. For both it produced a tacit exchange also at a formal and aesthetic level, clearly emerging in their publications, installations and realisations. The manifold themes and ideas that emerged in the dialogue between Kieckens and Downsbrough resonate deeply with the coeval disciplinary trajectories of art and architecture in the broader European and American context. It seems significant to read and retrace these trajectories through the perspective of two different figures and fields confronting each other.

Cathelijne Nuijsink, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Any Conferences: Artists’ Engagement with Architectural Theory Discourse, 1991–2000

While architecture has long referred to the fine arts, philosophy, theology, and sociology for its own discourse, The Any Conferences (1991–2000) made an attempt to reverse this parasitic characteristic. The Any Conferences were ten cross-cultural and multidisciplinary conferences organised by the theorist–architects Peter Eisenman, Arata Isozaki, and Ignasi de Solà-Morales, and the editor Cynthia Davidson. Using an ambiguous “any” noun as each conference’s guiding principle, the organisers hoped that the conference series would place architecture at the heart of a range of cultural conversations in which philosophers, artists, critics, and lawyers would engage with architectural discourse and introduce non-architectural questions into architecture.

This study examines the involvement of artists and art critics in the ten Any Conferences from a diachronic perspective. Using archival materials from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and oral interviews with conference protagonists, the paper explores what motivated artists like Maria Nordman (German–American sculptor and conceptual artist), Dara Birnbaum (American video and installation artist), Kenjiro Okazaki (Japanese visual artist and robotics designer), Daniel Buren (French conceptual artist), and Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Cooper (art critics) to participate in architectural discourse, how their contributions promoted the rethinking of architectural theory and history, and how this novel engagement brought new perspectives to their own practice. Simultaneously, this paper poses questions such as what, if any, larger impact the Any Conferences had on American theoretical discussions, and to what extent the non-architects participating in the Any Conferences grew tired of architectural theory, either losing interest or being turned off by the architects themselves.

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