17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 48


Beyond Minimalism (Royal Academy, till 1 November) Tony Fretton (Architectural Association, till 31 October)

Communing with nature

Alan Powers

Asoon as a style label is found in architecture, there is a rush for the exit. Minimalism was a term borrowed from painting and sculpture and applied to architecture, in the same way that post- modernism was a term borrowed from lit- erary theory. Nobody now wants to be called a post-modernist, and although mini- malism has had a good run for its money in the past five years, this too is beginning to look rather commonplace, associated with Sunday newspaper property features on loft conversions. Hence, no doubt, the choice of the title Beyond Minimalism for the exhibition of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando at the Royal Academy.

The group of works categorised as mini- malist nonetheless represents an important reorientation within modern architecture, which can be traced back through_ the whole history of the century. From the dec- laration by Adolf Loos in 1910 that, in the sphere of architecture, only the tomb and the monument can be counted as art, there has been a transcendental stream within modernism that has denied speed, technol- ogy and social purpose in favour of con- templating eternity. In place of the evolutionary concept of progress in art and society, there is an inward search for essen- tials. Inspired in part by the writings of the phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, modern architects who have followed this path, which often leads, figuratively, to an idealised Japan, a place of timeless communion with nature.

The results stand on a narrow line between beauty and pretentiousness, and the sense of which side they fall depends largely on the context in which the work is placed. Ando has designed a number of churches which, from photographs and drawings, seem to be genuinely moving. He has written a defiantly anti-progressive statement for the exhibition catalogue about his anxiety over the globalisation of culture and its materialist values. 'This tends to make buildings around the globe essentially the same and, like a dull and repetitious lifestyle, mundane and boring.' Ando's buildings often take on the charac- ter of monumental ruins, where the outside space carries some apparent memory of for- mer civilisations. They are soberingly solid, a ballast against the millennium jitters.

A year ago I wrote about minimalism in the penultimate issue of Perspectives maga- zine, suggesting that if it acquired a social purpose, it would redeem its apparent nar- cissism and integrate many of the impor- tant threads of the century's architecture. A demonstration of this can be seen in the work of Tony Fretton, on show at the Architectural Association, 35 Bedford Square, WC1. He established his reputa- tion with the Lisson Gallery in the 1980s and has not built very much until recently, his other chief work being an arts complex on the water at Newport, Isle of Wight. Fretton is convinced that the quality of spaces influences people's social interac- tion and that the beneficial management of this is part of the architect's task.

The other work on show, which includes two London houses and a number of other arts buildings, including the Laban Dance Centre in Deptford, is refreshingly clear and unpretentious, almost Dutch in its quality of transparency and integrity. The exhibition with simple models, drawings and photographs is also a refreshing change from the presentation style, often seen at the AA, which seeks to mystify and confuse the impression of the building.

Fretton's projects nearly all involve an addition to or partial conversion of existing buildings. These conditions cause many contemporary architects either to try mak- ing a dramatic contrast, if the planners will allow them to get away with it, or to imitate what is already there, which works only in a few special cases. The possibility of a con- vergence between conservation and mod- ern architecture, which I proposed here recently as one of the tasks for a govern- ment 'champion for architecture', is still seen by many, on both sides, as an impossi- ble meeting of opposites. With his reticent integrity, Fretton shows how this need not be so, and even how a phenomenalist pro- cess of listening to the site and interpreting it can purify the architectural intervention. He manages to make an association with an existing building which goes deeper than the design of the elevations. When the internal space becomes the chief determi- nant of the design, the rest can flow with the kind of easy inevitability that might ful- fil Loos's request for an architecture with- out the complicated associations of art.

Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum and Annexe on an island in the inland Sea of Japan. The building is sunk into the site in order to minimise its impact on the surrounding National Park. Tadao Ando designed the museum in 1992 and the annexe in 1995.