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When art galleries go beyond art

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Corinna Dean

To what extent are cultural buildings public spaces? Arca's Corinna Dean takes her seat at the Frieze Art & Architecture Conference

Credit: Hufton + Crow

The sociologist Richard Sennett examined the imbalance between public and private experience in The Fall of Public Man (1977) and provided a damning perspective on the relationship between public life and the cult of the individual. With the rise of the passive spectator came the paucity of the public realm as a form of sociality.

Last month's Frieze Art &Architecture Conference at The Royal Institution, London, posed the question, to what extent are cultural buildings public spaces? In search of an answer, it considered recent projects from architects around the world and how the form and function of cultural institutions are evolving.

The question, though, begets another: what do they mean by public? Of course the inference is that spaces should be shared and demographically diverse and if the art plays a part in that, then even better. But what role can cultural buildings play in shaping public space?

Richard Rogers kicked off the conference with the Pompidou Centre (1977) in Paris, reminding us of the climate in which it was constructed. It remains a remarkable piece of social theatre, all the more so for the context into which it was placed.

The most significant exploration of the issue came from Ellen van Loon of OMA who discussed the practice's recent cultural projects, starting with the Lafayette Gallery (2017) in Paris, in which she reminded us that architecture was not fixed. The insertion of a lift into the courtyard provided an ever-changing programme for each floor. Here the addition of a piece of infrastructure - the exhibition tower - facilitates flexibility, a tenet in most of OMA’s work.

OMA's Fondazione Prada (2015) in Milan was described by van Loon as providing a brief ‘where performance and art meet’. It is both challenging and exciting. The former industrial site meant maintaining some of the early 20th-century architecture. 'We go for the hard clash not the soft clash. We are not about sensitive heritage architecture,' says van Loon. 'The public have unexpectedly become part of the art as the former factory tower, which was treated with a layer of gold leaf, has become an unexpected "selfie wall".'

  • Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Credit: Hufton + Crow

How the various publics can co-exist in a space can provide some technical challenges. The Factory, commissioned by the Manchester International Festival 2019, was recently awarded planning permission and is intended to be both traditional warehouse and theatre. It is big (an image of the space with a Boeing passenger plane inside spelt out its enormous scale) with the world's deepest stage at 50 metres on which there will be no need to mimic perspective. Three audiences - separated by enormous sliding screens of 32 x 20 metres - will need to be within the shed while different performances are played out. This is proving an engineering challenge for the practice.

In the afternoon Jamie Fobert took to the stage interviewed by Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, who recently appointed the practice to transform and increase the gallery and public spaces. The focus was less on how the public would engage with the building and more on how its classical heritage would be revealed and celebrated. Cullinan, an aficionado of Carlo Scarpa, appeared fixated on Fobert's ability to recontextualise and draw out the building’s character and detail, celebrating the classical pilasters and the Diespeker Roman Cube mosaic floors.

So where is the public in this? Imagine a splintered, fractured public, one of selfies in front of OMA's gilded towers, gazing at the sea from above Fobert's Tate St Ives (a much needed site for the elderly, apparently) or occupying the newly visible education room at Fobert's Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, a request of the former director in an attempt to reverse the tide of invisibility of Cambridge's education.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban had a different conception of the public as one in need of urgent disaster relief that requires buildings to be delivered rapidly, as he described in a rousing speech rounding off the day. Setting these against the obsessively mannered and laboured architecture of his Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010) or the recently opened Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre, these looked far more successful.

It was a fine end to the day, but left the central question of the extent to which cultural buildings are public spaces quite open.