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Palaces of Nothing

‘Sheds’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset reveled in the materiality and immediacy of architectural drawings

As myths are made, the myth of the week-long exhibition Sheds: Palaces of Nothing at The Maltings, Hauser & Wirth, Somerset begins in the storytelling; as much with the pairing of two curators – Russian artist Alexander Brodsky and former director of The Cass Robert Mull – as in the pairing of works and Drawing Matter’s continued collaboration with Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, a relationship that began in 2015 with their newly founded architecture season. The exhibition is a jewel of a show and rethinks all the parameters of architecture exhibitions that have been overly discussed (and exhausted) during the past 15 to 20 years by drawing on one of its most basic mediums – drawings – and a broad interpretation of the word as such to ‘include anything at all – a model or the odd manuscript and printed text, and even (if not too fancifully) a building – that evidences an effort by a designer to express ideas’, as Niall Hobhouse says. In a milieu in which architecture exhibitions vary from the installation-based and experiential, to the hybrid of art-architecture, to trade-show and activist paradigms, it is ironically a return to the drawing and the original object-itself, which as it is performed, assembles audience as much as discourse, and remains the most effective and beautifully poetic way to exhibit architecture.

You might ask why Hauser & Wirth, one of the most successful international, for-profit art galleries would take on a series of not-for-profit architecture shows. Yet according to the gallery’s senior director Alice Workman and its head of education Debbie Hillyerd when asked about the ‘how and why’, Hauser & Wirth was ‘happy to do an alternative activity that doesn’t challenge the existing programme, but rather provides an intellectual challenge’ in ‘a commercial enterprise that is not restricted by outside agencies’. In fact, the collaborations with Drawing Matter respond to the gallery’s expanded educational programme that questions ‘what is learning’ and their overall mission that ‘represents community, architecture, and landscape’. Its success lies in that, in Somerset, it draws as much the art connoisseur from London as it does the local public from Bruton. Children are a welcome (and constant) presence. In fact, Sheds joins up the community, young architects, artists and the gallery’s new residency programme.

‘Here amid this shed as artist’s studio, architecture as drawing, as built, were exhibited in reciprocal relation’

All of this is very good news for architecture, because true to architecture exhibitions housed within art galleries – which are, as research has shown, much more successful than those housed within an architecture institution itself – such a venue expands its audience and its understanding. So the show provides a desperately needed, and more apt, hybrid model of the cultural institution.

The exhibition – and therefore, the drawings – it must be said were performed. That is, both were part of a day-long orchestration of activities, beginning with an early train ride down to Somerset from London, a first stop at Shatwell Farm, where Drawing Matter’s collection is housed, a lunch at the Roth Bar and Grill amid colleagues and invitees, and a walk through the countryside from Hauser & Wirth to the Maltings. All of which led to intimate encounters: a small unassuming shed, attached to which was another – the winning entry from last year’s competition – and within which, far from a palace of nothing, were a hundred selected gems. Here amid this shed as artist’s studio, architecture as drawing, as built, were exhibited in reciprocal relation.

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Sol Lewitt, Untitled, 1974, left: Ludocid Dumontier, Study of Pompey’s Column, Cleopatra’s Obelisk and the Great Pyramid, 1732

On entering and directly to the left, hung at eye level, was an early 1974 ‘Untitled’ Sol LeWitt, a delicate hand drawing measuring a mere 19 x 31.3cm that made you rethink his iconographic, and too well-known, wall drawings. This was juxtaposed with Ludovic Dumontier’s 1732 study of Pompey’s column, a drawing which, according to Brodsky, made him reflect on the very parameters and definition of a shed. Above, and attached to a rusted beam by magnets, hung a 1968 computer-generated New York City skyline printed on an early programming card. Further to the left and beyond, in the second room, was a photograph of Mies van der Rohe’s 1931 German Building exhibition, a photograph that speaks as much to the idea of the shed as it does to the history of architecture exhibitions themselves; and still further on, visible from the entry, was Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stunning 1806 portico of the Tilebein House, Sulechow, Poland. To the right, and juxtaposed in scale, sitting diminutively on a table, was a tiny 2007 model from ARU/Florian Beigel and Philip Christou for Hadspen House, which sat next to a highly decorated pavilion. And behind, you could find two Cedric Price sketches, hidden within in his own market stall.

Up a narrow yellow staircase the show continued. There was first, an almost silent-film which captured the process of selection and sometimes highly debated process of curation, shown in the kitchen. More drawings awaited outside: two 1970 works by Peter Wilson brought in the night before by the architect, and several of Peter Märkli’s Congiunta drawings that Hobhouse had just carried in from Basel. Märkli’s works, suggestive charcoals, child-like in manner, counterposed those by Wilson, postmodern depictions of a waterhouse designed after a programme of public convenience in which, as the architect himself described, functionalism was on its last legs.

‘Few drawings were framed. Most were covered in thin plastic sleeves, hanging on walls, on beams, propped up on sills, tacked to particle board and left-over metal fragments’

Despite the myth-making, there was no forced narrative in a hang though it eschewed a kind of randomness. The historical, modern and contemporary were juxtaposed, with an idiosyncratic yet intuitively necessary placement that responded as much to the architecture of the building, as to the drawings themselves. Few drawings were framed. Most were covered in thin plastic sleeves, hanging on walls, on beams, propped up on sills, tacked to particle board and left-over metal fragments, squeezed amid tools, perched at times above detritus within vitrines, attached with magnets, tacks, nails, hung with clips. While in some shows this could appear contrived, here it was genuine, a product of the quickness of method that called for a two-day selection from the archive, a one-day hang and which, in turn, reinforced the materiality and immediacy of drawing and drawings.

Such an idea of immediacy, almost looseness – through which myriad narratives could be constructed – was one of the curatorial mandates of the show as conceived by Hobhouse and Markus Lähteenmäki, a collaborator of Drawing Matter, and the exhibition’s narrator. The idea was fast, a two-day dérive or ‘swimming’ through the collection by Brodsky and Mull immersed in the Somerset archive of Drawing Matter in which both went through drawer after drawer of drawing. The starting point for looking and selection was perhaps just as direct, the letter of the alphabet itself, ‘M’ for example, was a particularly good drawer to start, then came ‘A’, followed by ‘W’, then ‘Anonymous’. The curators went between 2,000 and 20,000 drawings in a process that could only be intuitive and which was, in Mull’s words, one that required less talking than it did looking. There was relatively little talking over the two-day period. The hang was meant to be just as immediate – installed in less than a day, on the Saturday before the show opened. The seemingly hand-typed and, at times, handwritten wall labels, were done just as rapidly. There was no catalogue nor written text save a brief handout that addressed more the process than the content. Yet this format was not antithetical to any scholarly or more historical imperatives, insofar as the discourse came during and after, instigated by the exhibition and drawings and in which the shed became an excuse for something far more profound.

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Constant, New Babylon

The exhibition highlights Drawing Matter’s position, one in which the exhibition is to be continually rethought – to never take the same format – and one in which the collection can respond and do things that reside outside the institution. The show’s press release said the exhibition queried whether architecture could be found, considered somewhere between the poetic and the pragmatic, a provocation that not only the content but the very format of the show opened. The hang, the framing (or lack thereof), the duration, the scale and rawness of the venue imbued an intimacy in the experience of drawing. They engendered conversation, debate. They produced at once myriad narratives, yet no overarching story. In the opening discussion Mull said it was ‘odd to speak about [something] for which few words were exchanged’. That said, the curators agreed to a system for sheds, while acknowledging it nevertheless expanded the categories: they began with ‘sheddy sheds’, single structures, from Laugier’s primitive hut to Soviet cowsheds to James Gowan’s design for a toolshed. They moved to ‘sheds as states of mind’, transgressions of marginal structures and free escapes, from Constant’s ‘New Babylon’ to Michael Webb’s ‘Sin Centre’ to Superstudio’s imaginative ‘Oriente’ – what Brodsky considers ‘the most extraordinary shed’. Then came ‘elements of sheds’, which addressed ideas of repetition, ready-mades and detail; and ‘dark sheds’, those that are about power, military constructions around camps. The installation responded to the artist’s space, yet preserved its vitality. The curation had a familiar sense of being part autobiography which, for Brodsky, conveyed the mysterious quality of the shed, in which you never quite know the inside.

Shortly after 5pm the conversation died down, the exhibition closed, the trains were leaving for London and the drawings, no longer performed, seemingly went to sleep. Only up for the week the exhibition, as conceived, was no less meant to be seen than missed and talked about, to be passed down, circulated, as myth, as multiple stories meant to be told, and in which architecture, as drawing, as building, as exhibited, as sheds, and far from nothing, is presenced somewhere between the poetic and the pragmatic.