Frottage and Zen – a conversation with Aude Hérail Jäger

Back in 2011, I was part of the curatorial team for an exhibition put on at the Yardley offices on Stratford High Street opposite the developing Olympic site. It was a site I had recorded archaeologically in 2004 (Carpenters Road Studios standing building report Dixon J 2004), my first job in London and the first official piece of mitigation fieldwork in advance of the London 2012 Olympic development. Unearthed created a counterpoint to the ‘poisoned wasteland’ narrative of the Olympic development by bringing together works by 70 of the 500 or so artists who had been resident at the ACME studios in the old Yardley factory on Carpenters Road. All of the works had been made on the site and in response to it, the time, or the landscape location of the studios, the largest in Europe at the time. There’s a film about it here.

I wrote a piece on the exhibition some years ago, but withdrew it from publication as it just wasn’t good enough. I’ve been revisiting the work recently and started by interviewing one of the artists included in the exhibition, Aude Hérail Jäger.

Although much of the exhibition was archaeological in a variety of ways, Aude’s work struck me as being particularly interesting for its approach to bodily exploration of space and understanding contemporary architectural spaces.

The two works we discussed were connected to Aude’s first encounters with her new studio at Carpenters Road and consisted of a series of paint and other fragments, removed from the floor and displayed as an archive, and a rubbing/frottage of the whole studio floor, something that Aude has continued to work with and explore.

We met in Aude’s studio on Orsman Road and this edited extract from our conversation focuses on the ‘archaeology-ness’ of Aude’s work.

James Dixon: I’m interested in to what extent some of the work we showed could be seen as archaeological in its own right and to what extent it can be a cross over between art and archaeology. Your work is obviously archaeological in a number of ways, partly in that you are intentionally recording, with the paint you were taking things from the space, from the site, and archiving them in a particular way. What were your intentions in doing that as an act in the first place? Was it something that you intended at the time to turn into a piece of work? Or was it through the act of clearing that space that it started to feel like something different that might feed into an artwork for you?

Aude Hérail Jäger: I entered that studio space and I was so delighted, except it been a painter’s space, probably several painters before me. And it was filthy because paint splashes all over, and it stays on the walls and the floor. I’m very attached to the ground for my work, it’s very important, so that was immediately something I had to make decisions about. Of course, it can also give freedom, when the floor is covered with stuff, just to splash myself in my own way. Probably it was mix of needing to claim it for myself and also very practically, if I wanted to sand it, which later I did, I had to first extract whatever objects were implanted there, otherwise you would split the sandpaper. I think that’s how it started: both wanting the other people before me ‘out’, wanting to make a clear floor for myself, and as I was doing it, I think I started to… I suppose I was curious, for example, about how there were bits of metal embedded. It started to be really interesting because there were also holes; and I wondered what activity, at that corner of the floor, could have created holes. It just didn’t make sense and I got really excited. There were also gestures of anger like staples; I’ve collected staples, where someone went ‘firing’ with a stapler across the floor. I could recognise this difficult feeling, when you’re working in your studio totally alone, and you can get elation and joy and despair and anger and frustration; and all these little bits, then, started to talk to me and become quite precious as witnesses of what had happened before me. I quite quickly bought those little plastic bags, but it wasn’t a simple process. Should it be material with material, colour with colour, time with time? Some stuff was much older obviously than some others.

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Archive of paint fragments, nails etc, Unearthed, 2011

JD: When there is that sort of installation of the archive, as we did for the Carpenters Road exhibition, how much do you feel you’re exhibiting your own act of your discovery of your studio? How much do you think you’re displaying something more archaeological that’s consciously about the previous occupants of the studio? Do you feel you’re displaying them or do you feel you’re displaying your own discovery of the space, or both?

AHJ: That’s a nice question; it’s quite subtle because I don’t think it’s separate. I don’t think it’s easily two different issues. I’ve always been collecting, until I moved from Carpenters Road. Collecting was something I was familiar with, I used to go to skips and collect from them. Surely, there was something about the space that was specific, and there was no way I could have thrown it away; but why exactly? I don’t know if it was about embodying the fact they were now gone and it was me, so whatever had happened was now logged, separately from my creativity, my creation; or there was a little bit of honouring the effort of people before me. Yes, there was some of that, and also of witnessing them, because who knows what happened to these people? A lot of artists give up because they can’t survive, or they’re not fashionable and so there’s no market for them, and so on. So, somewhere I probably wanted to mark their effort, all the ‘stuff’ they had put into that space. For all I know, their work was destroyed. Whatever I had traces of could have been put in skips, or not. How much is that my own work is also an interesting question. I was a bit disappointed in the way it was received before showing them for this exhibition. I was invited in France for an exhibition in a little village in Brittany (Elles sont passées par ici…’ Loguivy de la Mer, 2005, cur. Karine Pradier). The shops were opening themselves and we could choose where to show our work. I asked if I could go to the Épicerie (Grocers), which had big transparent glass windows and you could see all the shelving behind, with separate items with labels. I put my collection on the front window, and with the marker I wrote something like, ‘glue’, ‘paint’, and the place and the date. I didn’t have much feedback from it at all. People didn’t see why I would put this as a layer between them and the shelves with other itemised things, which look the same, but were different, but were also vital in some other way.

JD: When we spoke to the artists who gave us work for the exhibition, a lot of them were giving work from the 80s and 90s, or from very clearly earlier parts of their careers. There was definitely a feeling that people were revisiting their own younger selves, their first studios as artists. How much you feel you were doing that in showing the inventory as part of the exhibition. Were you consciously trying to show a particular aspect of yourself and your career through giving that particular piece and how it related to that very specific moment of moving into the studio?

AHJ: I think, following that first exposure of the work (in Brittany), I think I had faith in this piece. I had such faith in what it means that I really wanted it to be seen again. That was the absolutely perfect opportunity; so yes, it was representing a piece of work I still think is very important for all sorts of reasons, including this connection to your work… You’re not talking about the piece that came right afterwards, which was taking the rubbing of the cleaned floor; they’re related, or is it less important?

JD: I have some questions about that later but it’s fine of you want to talk about them together. Do you see them as the same piece? It’s obviously part of the same overall action.

AHJ: Yes. Part of the same action. I think it’s something to do with understanding the space I’m working in. I did the same for my studio here, except I didn’t collect anything… so either there was nothing to collect… I don’t remember. Whatever it was is to do with making the space my own. I had left college recently before moving in Carpenters Road, so it was particularly important to own that space, to repaint it, to clean it, to fill all the little holes, to make it mine. But not in the sense of control. More in a sense of knowing, accepting the walls and their imperfections, and working with them.

JD: It’s obviously a very similar process to what we do to spaces in archaeology. We are sent to them and we systematically strip everything out and turn it from wherever it was when we got there into a piece of archaeology, which is a scientific thing because it’s being excavated in a particular way. We create certain archaeological or scientific objects ourselves like drawings, and bits of survey. In fact, that’s very similar, how we strip it and turn it into drawings, black and white usually, that are very similar to your tracings. But it’s also very much about creating our own archaeological work spaces by taking all of this past stuff out. Usually, drawing in archaeology is about measuring and putting your own scales and controls over the way you’re depicting, whereas when you’re tracing there’s much more of a connection between the person doing the tracing and the thing being traced because they’re both acting directly on the tracing paper. How do you feel about how the tracing work was displayed in the Carpenters Road exhibition? I know that the reason it wasn’t displayed at full scale is because we didn’t have the space for it and it’s rather fragile, but how did you feel about how it was shown compared with how you’ve shown it elsewhere where it has been at full scale.

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Studio floor frottage displayed in a vitrine, Unearthed, 2011

AHJ: Frustrated of course! I trusted the curators completely and it’s their job, their decision, so I didn’t even argue. I was, maybe frustrated is too much, but disappointed, a bit sad because it became something else that I hadn’t meant. I understood why it was done like that, and that’s ok. But, of course, for me, the real piece is when it’s all up on the wall, and we can experience the scale and the material and the light and the discoveries I made. The best was up on the wall for the O Pas Là’ exhibition in France (Lieu d’Art Contemporain, Sigean, 1999, cur. Aude Hérail Jäger). It was really wonderful because the frottage’s overall dimensions are 9 m by 5 m; I displayed it on the wall and so I was playing with the enormous room it was in. There was a window there and the gallery asked if I wanted to block it and I said ‘no, no, don’t block it!’. It was great because, in the day, there was this light coming from that window through the tracing.That was fabulous, to play with the planes of the room, of the studio and the gallery. And the other surprising and exciting thing that happened, the tissue paper I did it on started to distort just a little bit. It ever so slightly, after 5 weeks, sagged, like a belly. That first frightened me because I wasn’t having control of the piece, but then I saw it was wonderful; the piece was breathing and doing what it wanted, out of my control. So, I let the paper decide what it wanted to do.

JD: Archaeology could really experiment with that – not really a loss of control – a ‘non-claiming’ of control, choosing to let stuff be. I can see that it would be a lot of fun to do more 1:1 work with archaeology because of course what we always do is make everything smaller. We take huge sections of trench and make them small so they fit in books. I was in Japan last year looking partly at how archaeology is shown in museums there and one thing that was very striking about almost every museum was that when they had important archaeological sites, they had sections of the archaeology and features often displayed at 1:1 scale, which is interesting in itself just as a scale thing because even though I think I ought to be able to look at small drawings and imagine what they look like at full size, just being confronted with 1:1 huge ditches in a museum makes you completely, in that moment at least, understand the scale of the features they’re talking about completely differently. It’s also interesting that these aren’t 1:1 drawings they’re putting up. They’re actually, in a lot of cases, using plaster or resin and actually taking very thin slice of archaeology and showing that in the museum. So it isn’t strictly speaking a 1:1 scale representation, it’s actually just the thing taken straight out of the ground and shown. It seems such a great thing to do that I wonder why we don’t do it much over here. Certainly seeing the photographs of when your tracing work had been shown in full, you can see how different that is to how it was shown in Unearthed where it was reduced to being part of the archive of the range of work that had taken place at Carpenters Road, probably more than it was being shown as a piece in its own right.

AHJ: Yes, I agree. It was over, finished with. That floor had gone. I’ve noticed while you were speaking about looking in Japan at the drawings in scale, I noticed I had a big emotional lump in my throat. I’m not sure why that is. I think somehow the word ‘generosity’ flashed in my mind at the same time, about taking the time to experience the piece physically, not just as an intellectual concept, and that is a big big thing in my work, in my life I suppose as well, about how we can learn so much, communicate so much from receiving sensations from our bodies; like looking at large scale things at real scale impacts us and maybe makes us feel smaller. It’s so important. There’s often no time, no physical space to set up this work. We had about 243 sheets to place on the wall; it took an assistant and I two to three days… so that’s funding again. Maybe that’s why I had this lump, hearing how you appreciated, in Japan, to experience 1:1 scale. I so wish my work could be up again, so it could be fully appreciated. The other thing that clicked in while you were talking, the previous point about how as an archaeologist, in archaeology, you discover something, peel it away from where it’s embedded and bring it inside, and at the same time, I think what I did when I excavated my things, was to extract them out of my creation, out of my activity. Safely, respectfully, but maybe that is a distinction to make.

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Archaeological drawings by James Dixon and Stuart Watson (c 2004), Unearthed, 2011

JD: I guess a last point to make is the relationship between photographs and drawing. I drew that space at Carpenters Road, I assume I drew your studio although I don’t know which one it was.

AHJ: You did?

JD: I drew all of the studios on the first floor.

AHJ: I was on the first floor. Did you do the entire first floor?

JD: Yes.

AHJ: Then you will have done mine. I would love to see that.

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Archaeological drawings of the studios by James Dixon c 2004, left 1:200, right not to scale, Unearthed, 2011

JD: It’s a very small drawing which will maybe surprise you if you compare it to your 1:1. It contains virtually no detail at all, because of the specific type of drawing it’s trying to be and the kind of job it’s trying to do. I’ve been trying to do a bit more experimentation with my archaeology recently, I did a project up at the Olympic Park a few weeks ago where I tried to take a few of the stages of what we would do in a normal archaeological investigation of this space – it was one of the underpasses of one of the motorways – and tried to do them very differently so, thinking about the site boundary, where we would normally have a red line on a map, I instead wrote a long written description of the site boundary. For me this created a very different relationship with the site because not only do you end up having to look at things in a lot more detail to accurately describe them instead of just drawing the line on a piece of paper, it also becomes very unclear quite exactly where those boundaries are and where they meet. It also makes you as a person spend a long time doing something and it makes your arm hurt, writing for an hour, it’s just a very different kind of relationship. But also thinking about how we might record and draw that space, normally I would make a line drawing and take some photographs, but I decided instead in this one to have a go at recording textures from the space on my body, so pressing myself against things.

AHJ: But how did you record that?

JD: We did take some photos of it. The photos don’t really show it well, so it’s essentially what it was intended to be, which was to take the idea of a permanent, scientific archive and to replace it with something that’s ephemeral and temporary. The idea of an archaeology that results in a temporary, ephemeral archive is the opposite of what we usually try to do.

AHJ: It’s about the experience in situ at that moment. It’s very Zen in a way.

JD: Is Zen something you think about a lot?

AHJ: Yes, yes, yes. Zen. It’s a huge concept… I think that I couldn’t reconcile myself with my religious upbringing – because Catholicism is so misogynist – I couldn’t find my place in there. For many years I’ve tried to find another principle that would suit me. I am a Yoga teacher and meditation is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. I also spent four or five years studying Japanese Zen calligraphy. After all of that, ten to fifteen years later, I spent one month at the British School at Rome. It was my first time in Rome. I was walking and drawing, and there was a church and it was open; I opened the door and suddenly I was at home, I recognised everything, the words, the rites – while in Japan for example, when I was in temples, I was always slightly uneasy: is it ok to clap my hands too, or is it going to be considered disrespectful? Suddenly, here, I was in a place I knew exactly how to operate, and that was quite peaceful, so in a long way, I kind of came home, but without discarding all these other things. What you just said was totally down my street, about the experience in the moment, and also the registration of where one is through the body. I’ve read somewhere that we communicate with others more than 80% non-verbally, there are so many other things we are able to take in, readings from everywhere and everybody and every event that we don’t even consciously recognise. But they’re there, and this is a bit what you were… well that’s what I picked up when you were saying how you decided to record that space under the motorway; and I don’t know how one can, then, convey this work as part of one’s work, but to me this is an aspect of creativity that we need to think about. Especially these days when everyone seems ‘lost’, eyes on the screen and fingers tapping; investing more and more is so crucial to remember this other capacity we have and join the whole lot.

JD: Speaking about Japan has been really interesting. It struck me reading a book about wabi-sabi that your tracing work is a great example. I think it has a very wabi-sabi visual aesthetic, but also the way that its creation is about a certain relationship between you and the space. If I could just ask one last thing about Unearthed, I’m interested in how much and how you think that one act of cleaning and recording, recreating your studio at the point when you moved into it, has stayed with you and influenced any later work.

AHJ: I wonder if that was my very first tracing work. I think it may have been. Certainly it was my very first large scale piece, the tracing of the studio floor. What has happened since, again with the floor, gravity and ascent, those kind of vectors of forces, I have translated it in, or tried to understand that by taking the frottage of stairs and steps and staircases. I think I must have two or three different sets of steps and staircases that actually nobody has ever seen because I’ve never had the exhibition space for it. Also I just work. I don’t set up to say ‘I’m going to do steps’, it comes if I meet a stairs or steps that fit with the rest of the work, and then I say that I must take that frottage and then I will set out to do it. I have some next steps in sight in Ireland, and that was probably a direct follow-up. I did another couple of floors after that, table tops and three-dimensional objects through frottage. So, yes, from there, from that need to claim my new studio space and discard, log or scoop out the walls and floor; it led to this other frottage of steps and stairs, which are quite different because they are about up and down, down and up, but still quite based on this horizontal and vertical, domestic or working space. And that reminds of the Zen story of a university professor who visits a Japanese master to learn about Zen. The master serves tea, pouring until his visitor’s cup is full and then keeps on pouring. The professor watches the overflow and says: ‘it is overfull, no more will go in’. ‘Like this cup’, the master says, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’. It’s something to do with that, that action that happened in my studio or this studio when I came in. So still quite a wide bandwidth, but several recurrent themes seem to be passing through both your work and mine.

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Re-imagining memorials

Last month, I accepted an invitation from Kate Tiernan to undertake a ‘residency’ at her studio at Platform in Southwark. Kate and I have worked together before, most recently on a walking project using art and contemporary archaeology to look at the built environment.

As destruction of Confederate memorials in the USA was a frequent topic in the news at the time, I decided to devote my time to looking at memorials in Southwark and to investigate a little how we might, as creative archaeologists, approach a contemporary landscape in which existing memorials may be considered relatively good or bad, things deemed worthy of memorialisation may be ignored, and where people can, perhaps, intervene to create their own memorial sites.

I wanted the four days of the residency to develop collaboratively, so we structured it to start with some walking and observation, then on successive days to discuss what we had seen and work out how to address it. On the last day we went out and had a go at making memorials. Time being short, we didn’t go so far as to actually create memorials to real things, but we did experiment with memorial acts, creating memorials out of things and in places that are already there and waiting to be used.

Kate recorded the two discussion sessions and I’ll post about them when the recordings are available. Until then, here are some pictures of memorial spaces we discussed and the ‘memorials’ we made in them.

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Here we are on our walk looking at this (broken?) light installation under the railway bridge on Southwark Street. We were mostly taken by the visual similarity of the installation to those cemetery cremation walls, although this, of course, lacks name plates and any other offerings.

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So we went back to make some. Tesco flowers and masking tape for a temporary memorial.

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People who weren’t us stopped to join in. I did the first one and the flower slipped as I was sticking it on. Everyone else copied the angle on theirs.

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We devised this one after Saini Manninen talked to us about craftivism. There are a number of key points to craftivism as a memorial act, including the highlighting of traditionally female labour and the importance of the time invested in creating what you do. Here we did some pre-fab craftivism, transforming a set of railings with some collars left over from re-use of shirts in pillow making.

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Lastly, stemming from some discussion we had about performance and labour, we tried doing some cleaning to turn a space conducive to a variety of uses (the raised platform, the seating, the god view along the street) into a memorial space. We didn’t do much, just cleaned a single row of ceramic bricks.

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The space as encountered on the Day 1 walk.

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Cleaning. I did help, honest.

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The end result.

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Done!

As I said above, I’ll post the recordings of the discussions when I can and probably a slightly longer , more analytical piece of writing at some point. Keep an eye out.

Coming soon – Reimagining Memorials – 13-16 September, London

There have been some really interesting conversations going on in and around archaeology in response to the removal of memorials related to the Confederacy in the USA. Most of the conversations I had ended with people really interested in the idea of reinterpretation of existing memorials, using the opportunity of an object’s physical presence in the landscape to say something different to what that thing might have been intended to represent.

I thought this would be an interesting thing to have a go at, so Kate Tiernan and I will be ‘reimagining memorials’ next week as part of a residency at Platform in Southwark. Join us! The residency is part of our collaboration Centre for Social Archaeology.

Rethinking Memorials

The week will start on Wednesday 13th when we will undertake a research walk around Southwark. Our aim is to start defining what contemporary Southwark means and what the things are that make up that identity. There is no set route for the walk so participants can take a turn at leading us somewhere interesting or important.

On Thursday 14th, we will start to turn this research into a plan of action, starting with a debate on what Southwark is. What is Southwark’s memorial landscape and what story does it tell? What do we think of individual memorials? What should be remembered but isn’t? Why does it matter?

Friday 15th will see us getting practical as we work out how to reimagine existing memorials and make new ones! Political archaeology, however small scale, is about doing. We will learn how to do. The session will end with a strategy and methods for intervention to create a new, ephemeral, temporary heritage in the landscape of Southwark.

Lastly, on Saturday 16th, we’re going to go and do it. We will put the last few days into action, reimagining memorials, proposing new ones, and generally turning the heritage of Southwark into a contemporary act.

These should work as stand-alone events, but please come to more than one!

Tweet me for more information @James__Dixon

 

Coming Soon – Archaeology of Austerity walk for London Festival of Architecture

Next Sunday, 4 June, Kate Tiernan and I, in our first joint venture as the Centre for Social Archaeology, will be reprising our exploration of austerity and inequality in Tower Hamlets. We previously ran it as part of the Public Archaeology 2015 cross-London politics walk back in December 2015. The walk is taking place as part of the 2017 London Festival of Architecture.

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Originally developed as a reaction the 2013 report of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission, the walk uses contemporary archaeological field practice to see what evidence we can see in the landscape for inequality and the impacts of austerity, and how the different narratives we can build from that evidence sit within the past, present and future of the borough.

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Participants will walk with us from Canary Wharf to Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel. The central task of the walk is to collect evidence for a particular sub-theme, which will be given out to participants at the start, as in the image above from the previous walk. In collecting sounds, signs, flora, smells and more, we take this archaeological investigation beyond the perhaps more typical observation of architecture and other features and replace it with an investigation of the whole built environment; the life that happens in and around the buildings of Tower Hamlets as well as the buildings themselves.

We will also be adding a couple of stops along the way for walkers to hear more about the uses of site-responsive archaeology.

At the end of the walk, participants will put the evidence they have collected to use as we put together competing ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ narratives for Tower Hamlets and question the usefulness of particular kinds of evidence in developing an understanding of Tower Hamlets that can effect change in the present and future.

We hope walkers will take away a new, deeper understanding of this part of Tower Hamlets, but also a new way of looking at the contemporary built environment that can be applied elsewhere.

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Sunday 4 June, 10am – 1pm, meet at the west exit of Canary Wharf underground station, between the Santander bikes and Reuters Plaza.

Hope to see you there!

Coming soon: HOUSERULES, 6 May 2017

Please come to HOUSERULES on 6 May, 2-6pm. Details here: http://houserules.co.uk/ECROS/ss/

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I’m going to be seeing how far I can get with following archaeological processes in non-archaeological (but not too distant) ways. The stages will look something like this:

1. Bounding

Exploring the limits of the site by reproducing the site boundary as a textual narrative. An alternative to red lines and mapping.

2. Understanding

Tracing lines through the site, interactions between the site and non-site, things going on regardless of the site’s existence. An alternative to metric survey.

3. Representing

An experiment with temporary, ephemeral archiving.

Coming soon: House Rules, 6 May 2017

On Saturday 6 May I’m going to be taking my ‘experimental field practice’ research to House Rules, an occasional, nomadic experiment in working creatively within bounded spaces. We’ll be working under the Eastway where it crosses the Lee Navigation. Watch this space for more details.

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HOUSERULES embraces indeterminacy; bringing, but also questioning, freedom, action and play into the context of a given space. Each particular location will come with its own set of ‘house rules’ and will be the starting point for each artist’s response through his or her own artistic ‘lens’.

HOUSERULES invites artists from various disciplines to contribute. The individual works take on a variety of media, including dance/movement, film, installation, sculpture, written/spoken word and sound, all coming together to form a temporary situation of creative energy.

Coming soon – FAÇADISM: PRESERVE OR RENEW?, RIBA, 22 November 2016

On Tuesday 22 November I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on façadism at RIBA, part of the events programme for their current exhibition We Live In The Office by Giles Round. Other participants include Gillian Darley and Will Wiles.

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Mid-point of a facade retention project at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington D.C.

Façades are interesting things. I’ve written before that ‘façades are for art historians’ by which I mean (or, rather, meant) that in buildings archaeology and built heritage, we put too much weight on principal elevations, architectural styles and architects’ intentions, so much . Archaeology is the stuff that happens behind them.

But also, façadism is an archaeologically fascinating phenomenon and one that needs to be understood and critiqued both to understand the nature of contemporary change in the built environment and to try to check the adverse impact of certain kinds of development on peoples’ lives.

The phenomenon has archaeological signatures of its own of course, as Sarah May and I wrote about in reference to Sheffield back in the mists of 2005.

Please let me know if you have examples near you. Façadism done badly and done well!

The event itself is ticketed I’m afraid, but you can get one here: https://www.architecture.com/WhatsOn/November2016/GilesRoundKeynoteFacadismPreserveorRenew.aspx