In this series, The Globe and Mail partners with award-winning platform Wondereur to explore the diversity of contemporary art from a completely new perspective. The Globe and Wondereur will approach radically different minds engaged in culture across the country and around the world. Each month, we will ask them to share with us the work of a contemporary Canadian artist who deeply touches them. This month, Globe architecture critic Alex Bozikovic sits down with Marianne McKenna, one of the founding partners of the architecture firm KPMB, to talk about the relationship between art and architecture, and the work of her chosen contemporary artist, An Te Liu.
You grew up in Montreal. Was there art in your home?
Yes, but it was Krieghoff – we were part of an English establishment in Quebec, and there were gilded paintings of pastures and sheep. There was nothing progressive. It was more about furniture and art and glass and ceramics. We had this Chinese dish; my mother grew cactuses in there, and it was like another world. So there were things you could contemplate; you investigated other worlds through what you saw in your house.
Still, we also lived through the period of the Automatistes – the Quebec artists, the Riopelles and Borduases. I remember my mother going to a vernissage for Jean-Paul Riopelle. And she looked at the work and said to him, “What does it mean?” He said to her, “Madame, it is the story of my life.” This was the generation of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec; things were changing pretty radically. Meanwhile, my mother was going into churches that were about to be demolished; she was buying crucifixes and giving them to the Montreal Museum of Art because she didn’t want that work to disappear.
You came of age at a moment of profound cultural change, and art was an integral part of that change.
It was 1967 when I launched out of high school. Not only were we on the cusp of the social revolution of the sixties, but Montreal was transforming. It was Expo! And the Metro, the new modernist bank towers, the CIBC Tower and I.M. Pei’s Place Ville-Marie … I think we lived in a very enthusiastic and fast-changing time. [Mayor] Jean Drapeau was crazily ambitious, but he had a vision.
After college, I worked in Montreal for a year for an innovative advertising agency called BCP. I learned with a brush to hand-paint Helvetica. I was very well-trained, and I thought, “I’m going to be here with a brush for the rest of my life. It’s time to find another route.”
Documenting the future of the art world, Wondereur is a ground-breaking cultural platform capturing the creative process of the most inspiring artists worldwide and providing exclusive access to their work. To learn more about Marianne McKenna's pick in contemporary art, continue to Wondereur’s photo documentary on An Te Liu.
You did, in architecture. What is the relationship between architecture and art?
Architecture is a unique marriage. It begins with ideas: There is that thing where, when you walk into a space, you know what to do. But it goes beyond that creative notion and layers a lot of social and technical aspects, and business aspects. Then you also have to imagine, and sell, big ideas. [Architecture] is a very complex profession, and it’s very hard to be great at what you do. I can see why they say it’s an old person’s profession. It takes a long time to get on top of the whole of it.
There are a lot of constraints shaping, and at times working against, a creative vision.
Yes. And at the same time, the work is highly collaborative. People want to see it as a work of singular genius, but it’s not; in the studio we’ve created here at KPMB, the genius is in the air all around us. A favourite phrase of the partners is “I thought you were saying …” You mishear, and you find a way to accelerate the idea and take it somewhere else. For that, study is very important. Trips to Rome and to the Vatican were really important to me. And living is critical to understanding how to design a space for someone else to live, or to work, or to play the piano.
Your office is very deeply rooted in Toronto. How much does this place shape your world view and your approach to work?
Very much so, but then when you go to work somewhere else, you need to put on a different cloak. I’m working on a new building for the Brearley School, a girls’ school in New York, and the issues and the fabric of the city are very different. Still, you are engaging with people who can imagine a different world for their particular interest or ambition or institution.
That sounds more like a creative process than it does the work of a professional services firm.
Yes. And the process is self-selecting; people will pick you because they’re open to where it might go.
It seems as though, to you, what’s most important is not resolving a problem in form; it’s the framing of the question, figuring out what the problem is and where it might go.
That’s step one. And that gives you time to think, sneakily, What’s the form? While you’re talking, you start working
with forms right away. With the Brearley School, it’s in a city, so you think from the inside out: How do you stack six or seven different complex components? How do children and teachers move through it? I think that form is really the next step. And there are things you know: Space, above all. Even if you have the most modest of materials, space is luxury. In that building, the idea is to get spaces where girls don’t feel claustrophobic; they feel a kind of release; they’re connected to the city.
Tell me about the work of An Te Liu, the artist you’ve selected for this series.
He’s an architect as well as an artist. His work seduces me with its beauty – then you read the meaning into it. With this new work, I see the accumulation of what he’s been doing in his practice, and I think he’s an artist who speaks to our time. He’s thinking about temporal and spiritual time; with these pieces he evokes the totemic representation of man, the order of the world, and yet it has a beautiful texture and materiality.
These cast works allude to modernist sculpture, and, as you say, seem to speak of profound things, and yet take their forms –
– from packing materials, used to ship technology. There is a remarkable tension. There’s a very learned, thoughtful approach. I think the history of art – plaster casts to bronze casting – is here. There’s a lot of the history of art-making in that; just the fact that he would use the negative form as his starting point is wonderful.
There have been artists – Donald Judd, Robert Irwin – who have challenged the boundary between art and architecture. What is the distinction between a work of sculpture or an installation work and a piece of architecture?
There is a relationship, and it varies. When you go to Marfa, that expands the way you see Judd’s work. The space between the pieces is transformative; it’s like the sound within the notes. That makes a full composition. I think sometimes we try to only hold on to the notes, and we are missing something.
When you are making a building, is it sculpture?
It’s sculptural. And there are moments where it becomes sculpture – especially, in our practice, stairs. A stair can be sculpture to move on; at the AGO in 1987, or at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The movement through a building is as important as the spaces within them. And to do that, I will say to a client, let’s think about what you really need. In the early days, I would say, Give me one more foot and I will make a place people can gather.
In that sense, just as An Te Liu is making something profound from something ephemeral, is there a parallel to what you do?
Yes. As an architect, you have a language of drawing that translates to an idea and to physical form. A drawing is an abstraction. The reality is something else… And you have to find ways, even if a room is small, to find elegance, to make it workable and livable and beautiful. I aspire to that in every space that we do.