Rural Somersetʼs bucolic idyll is the unexpected setting for a new gallery of contemporary art that perceptively unites buildings, works and landscape
Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset, was conceived as a romanticised vision of a rural way of life. The cluster of stables, piggeries, granaries and threshing barns sits artfully amid woodland and fields. The odd telltale flourishes − neo-Gothic windows; stone coats of arms − give the game away. This is not your typical working farm, but a model farm, built by the Berkeley family in 1768 as a Picturesque view from their family home.
A quarter of a century later Iwan and Manuela Wirth, founders of international art gallery Hauser & Wirth, were seduced first by the Somerset countryside and then by Durslade’s exaggerated pastoral charms. So much so, that they moved to Somerset, and later bought the farm.
The Wirths commissioned the architect Luis Laplace to transform the cluster of derelict buildings into Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the latest outpost of an empire that includes galleries in Zurich, London and New York. Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles is due to open in 2016. Bruton, a tiny town nestled in Somerset’s bucolic Brue Valley, seems an incongruous choice. But for Laplace, who was born in Argentina, made his name in New York, and is currently based in France, the choice of location makes absolute sense. ‘For me, France is all about Paris; England, it’s about the countryside. To me every English person is a gardener. The English have such a passion for the land.’
The brief for the project was admirably succinct: ‘absolute freedom with no compromise’. Laplace’s response was deft but low-key. Existing buildings have been patched up; two new galleries have been designed to complement the sense and scale of a traditional working farm. His big move was to cluster the collection of buildings around an intimate cloistered courtyard inspired by the walled forecourt of the 18th-century Spread Eagle Inn on the neighbouring Stourhead Estate and the medieval cloisters at Wells Cathedral some 13 miles away.
‘I wanted to do something very connected with the place, with Somerset,’ says Laplace. ‘I was inspired by the extraordinary light and the very intense, dramatic skies. I didn’t want to go from one gallery straight to another. Every time we move from one space to the next there is what I call a hinge space that connects you to the outdoors; that reminds us we are in Somerset.’
Outsized glazed doors − built to the scale of the original barn doors − offer views inwards to the sculpture courtyard and outwards to working farmland and rolling hills. To the north the galleries overlook a perennial meadow; a threshold space between the galleries and the agricultural landscape, designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. Cut through with pathways, the meadow gives a nod to classical garden design, but is tempered, subverted and softened by the crazy collage of colour and the easy exuberance of the plants.
Two somewhat surreal guardians keep watch over this kaleidoscope dreamscape: a pair of black granite benches shaped like giant eyes by the French-American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and an enormous, slightly tipsy-looking distorted clock face perched atop a steel pillar by Albanian artist Anri Sala. The sculptures look slightly surprised − as though they themselves can’t quite work out how they came to land in this sleepy corner of Somerset. The overall effect is that the landscape feels alive; like the animated pleasure grounds of early children’s television. As though Zebedee will bounce into view and announce it’s ‘Time for Bed’.
The gallery spaces themselves are neutral, a deliberate foil both for the richness of the landscape and for the ever-changing exhibitions that are their raison d’être. Laplace set out ‘to be honest, to be truthful to form. To think “What would the farmer have done?”’ Existing buildings were patched up; the new galleries are crafted from a no-nonsense palette of precast concrete lintels and jambs, brick walls and profiled aluminium roofs.
‘Some architects want to put their own stamp on the space,’ says Laplace. ‘In my head it is very clear. I want to allow the artists space to respond.’ And so they have. He is thrilled, if a little taken aback, by the way the inaugural exhibition − a series of anarchic, exuberant site-specific installations by British artist Phyllida Barlow − invades, colonises and overwhelms the space. ‘My little brain thought “Ah yes, little drawings will be nice in here”. But this artist, she challenges all that. I like the way she challenges architecture. She works against architecture.’
There are moments where the boundaries between art and architecture are less distinct. Artists Björn and Oddur Roth, the son and grandson of the late Swiss artist Dieter Roth, have transformed the former milking shed into a radical exercise in salvage-yard chic. Pickings from local reclamation yards have been crammed into a super-dense three-dimensional collage that is simultaneously a 30-metre long abstract sculpture and a working bar. It raises issues about the relationship between high and low architecture, order and chaos, functionality and art, consumption and waste. But most of all it makes you smile.
Across the farmyard, the 18th-century farmhouse, which still bears the Berkeley family coat of arms, has been restored by Laplace and conservation architects benjamin + beauchamp. Above the door, the words EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT are written in white neon lights, an art work by British artist and musician Martin Creed and a taste of the sense of heady optimism and joie de vivre that permeates the space inside.
The interior, which was masterminded by Laplace, is an unlikely amalgamation of original fittings, vintage furniture from local shops, site-specific art works and out-and-out kitsch. The Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca has painted an angular and intense mural on all four walls of the dining room. A video installation by Swiss conceptual artist Pipilotti Rist projects the Somerset landscape onto the sitting room walls through the prism of a chandelier made from found objects and glass. Antique furniture jockeys for position with formica and reclaimed tat from the 1950s.
Laplace says he was absolutely bowled over by the strength of local support for the project: ‘People would come up to me saying “I have this toilet. Do you want it?” In France, if somebody offered you a toilet, you would feel a bit scared.’ His particular brand of alchemy has transformed this eclectic collection of ingredients into something startling, playful, fabulous − and intensely provocative. It challenges preconceptions about waste and taste; about what we choose to value and what we throw away. At its opening, when the Farmhouse welcomed Bruton’s somewhat bemused Great and Good, one of the local Ladies Who Lunch exclaimed: ‘We had that bathroom suite in the Manor. We pulled it out last year.’ She looked genuinely dismayed.
Durslade is not so much about putting art on a pedestal, but rather about relationships and connections: between art and everyday life; an international art gallery and a tight-knit rural community; historic and contemporary architecture; productive and ornamental landscape; the 18th-century view of pastoral perfection and modern-day perceptions and tastes.
As an artistic endeavour, as an intellectual exercise, and as a cultural and commercial leap of faith, Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset venture is bold in the extreme. But as an architectural statement, it is surprisingly modest. Iwan Wirth refers to Laplace as the ‘silent architect’, the antithesis of the signature architect. This is an anti-Bilbao, if you will. The aim is not to give the town a new identity; a new icon, but to celebrate the beauty it already has to hand.