In February 2014 a group of four architects and a Devon based artist began a collaboration that would result in an interesting and unique residency space for artists: The Observatory.
Responding to an architectural competition launched by SPUD the brief was to create a sculptural installation that could be relocated to a number of sites. A comprehensive education and engagement programme would run alongside and include school and community workshops, talks and outreach work with universities.
The Observatory design competition attracted entries from across the UK. Architects Charlotte Knight, Mina Gospavic, Lauren Shevills and Ross Galtress alongside artist Edward Crumpton were the winning team. They took the environment and sustainable materials for inspiration, and the exterior surface is made of charred wood cladding, complex woven tarred marlin rope screens and subtle yet beautiful interior detailing.
The inspiration behind this? Well the team admit they were heavily influenced by the artist Sol LeWitt – 1928-2007. LeWitt was prominent in the late 1950’s for his wall drawings and "structures" (a self-authored title he used instead of "sculptures"). He was prolific in a wide range of media and regarded as a founder of both Minimal and Conceptual art. He explored both two and three-dimensional work, from wall drawings and hundreds of works on paper to varying sizes of public space structures in the form of towers and pyramids. There are some wonderful synergies between The Observatory and LeWitt’s work and it is indicative of the collaborative process of architecture with an artist. When exploring the brief the architects readily admit that having an artist on the team often shifted perceptions of a problem or raised options not usual to an architectural process. This opened up areas of enjoyable exploration and they felt it was integral to their success of their winning design.
Edward himself is an artist who engages with the landscape through his own practice. His current work involves travelling to twelve islands off the British Isles and exploring their deep rooted connections, from their physical make up to their cultural heritage. This collaborative project therefore had a natural alliance to his own practice.
This was the first time he had worked collaboratively on any project. He felt they brought individual strengths to the process and by working this way their own practices benefited. There are not many historical examples of art meeting architecture in this collaborative way, Edward highlighted Rachel Whiteread’s House that of course has elements of architecture within it and Richard Wilson’s Slipstream, the longest piece of permanent art integrated into the architecture of Heathrow 2. Another contemporary example is the spectacular House for Essex by Grayson Perry in collaboration with FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste). And of course we can’t ignore Assemble, the recent Turner prize winners. Edward has a definite view on this collision of architecture on the art world:
“The Turner Prize reflects the evolution of art, just as we are seeing artists exploring science, the mix of art and architecture is now being recognised. I can only see a positive outcome from art and architecture enhancing one another. People are always pushing our ideas of art and blurring the lines within set categories and the Turner Prize is no exception. I understand why there may be a kick back against this, as traditional artists see the collaboration between art and architecture as a diluted and compromised art movement, whilst also detracting from the pure idea of fine art. However I believe the Assemble is an invigorative way of how art can regenerate a place; much like The Observatory is generating huge notoriety in Lymington Salt Marsh, Hampshire.”
The Observatory consists of two pre-fabricated hubs, this lightness and method of simple installation ensures minimum disruption and disturbance to the surrounding areas during installation and removal. They are moveable, flexible and reconfigurable. By being split into two spaces the resident artists can orientate The Observatory to take maximum advantage of daylight and vistas. The first, The Study, is a quiet and reflective space where the artist works and the second, The Workshop, allows the public to interact with the space as well as the artist. Indeed people are actively encouraged to approach The Observatory and engage with the artist. This enables a dialogue between art and the landscape and embraces all within the local area.
The Observatory’s first location was the Winchester Science Centre in January 2015 before moving onto Lymington in June 2015. To date it has won many awards including the coveted RIBA South Regional Award, a Civic Trust Award, an AJ Small Projects Readers’ Choice Award and the Wood Award 2015 (Small Project Winner). After a very successful first year, The Observatory is currently being rented to artists in order to cover its insurance whilst waiting for further funding to come in. As Charlotte states, as long as it is in use it has purpose.
So what do the artists themselves think about their time in The Observatory? It is interestingly seen as a research studio rather than a traditional artist’s studio with collected objects and interaction with the public being prominent in all of the artist’s work. This enhances The Observatory’s place within the community and was integral to how the team responded to the brief. As expected the artist takes ownership of The Study and the public of The Workshop. A side effect though being that the artists sometimes struggle to get work done, in fact if they need privacy they need to turn The Observatory away from The Workshop. Interestingly this was an unusual aspect of The Observatory that the team had not anticipated.
The artists who have resided at The Observatory to date shared their thoughts on the experience and what it meant to their own development and practice.
Paradoxically, my time in The Observatory allowed me to look far beyond where it was placed, up into the heavens (inspired by the Planetarium at the Winchester Science Centre) and down into the Earth (into the chalk beneath the surface). This, I am sure, had a lot to do with how The Observatory ‘floats' a foot above the ground, on its rotating base, giving it a freedom from where it is actually located. The work I started there has now developed into a major project about culture and climate change, called Deep Time Chalk Futures.
My time at The Observatory was one which still continues to surprise and inspire me. I worked in many new ways and materials, especially enjoying interacting with the public as a means to develop new pieces. This residency was a really positive experience both personally and in terms of the developments it gave to my ideas.
The Observatory was a unique experience, the beauty and nature had a huge effect on my work; not only did I thoroughly enjoy the public interaction (giving a gift of salt in exchange for a fingerprint from passers by), but it emphasised the interesting symbiotic relationship of artist and public. It has made me want to explore further public engagement opportunities. The landscape and The Observatory building itself encouraged me to think of totally new avenues of mediums and also re-establish the importance of material and place for my creative practice. I loved it!
Whilst in residence at The Observatory I sought to experience the South Downs through the perspectives of passers-by. I spent time sharing my surroundings with people through walking, talking and looking together, exchanging ways of seeing and trying to articulate where we were and how it felt. While in residence the studios offered a weightlessness in the landscape, the feeling of being aboard a ship, of being deeply immersed while somehow detached. This sensation was reinforced by the turning mechanism, this sense of moving with the view outside as it changed throughout the day. It was a delight to have the ability to change perspective, and the playfulness and sense of being continually transported somewhere informed the work and how it developed.
Whilst in residence I talked to visitors, worked with groups of people, watched, drew and listened to the reserve, researched folklore and facts about the creatures that inhabit or migrate through the marshes. The resultant drawings will form an Alternative Field Guide. I also created fabric with the LIDAR (laser scanning) and bathymetric surveys (seabed scanning using sonar) of the marshes and the sea. The fabric shows the marshes and seabed in a very different light. When looked at like this the contours, inlets and bays of the marshes look like lungs, like the living system that they are.
For more information and follow The Observatory's journey