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Wednesday23 August 2017

building study

Say what you see at Tony Fretton’s Fuglsang Art Museum

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Tony Fretton Architects’ latest project, a public art building in Denmark, develops the language of the firm’s 1991 Lisson Gallery

It has now been 16 years since the completion of Tony Fretton’s Lisson Gallery in west London opened up a new chapter in the history of British architecture. At a time when the best that our national scene seemed to offer was a choice between the structural showboating of hi-tech and the mirthless pantomime of post-modern classicism, the Lisson proved to be a revelation.

This was a building that had more in common with the sculpture of Donald Judd and Dan Graham than with any known architectural tendency. Like that work, it is presented less as an object demanding scrutiny in its own right and rather as an instrument that directs the viewer’s attention to their relationship with the wider world.

Its spare and enigmatic street facade cultivates a series of startlingly direct connections with the surrounding urban panorama. The reference points range between the Georgian house that stands alongside, the seventies tower at the end of the street and the market stalls that are erected weekly along its length: high and low architecture, and things that aren’t architecture at all. The Lisson asks us to look at them all with a cool, democratic eye, and to embrace the typically heterogeneous London scene in all its unplanned complexity.

Looking glass

The interiors engender a different but related kind of looking. The two north-facing galleries frame the scene outside through vast expanses of glazing. Standing in these spaces is to experience the world as a picture — a scenario in which the art on show acquires the potential to play the role of an interpretative tool.

The creative capital that Fretton unearthed in the uniquely fragmentary nature of British urbanism has proved an inspiration for numerous architects who are now in their 30s and 40s. Only last month, I heard Hans van der Heijden of Biq cite the Lisson as an influence on his practice’s design for Liverpool’s Bluecoat arts centre. The building’s phenomenal impact was undoubtedly related to the fact that Fretton’s preoccupations gelled so neatly with the nature of the brief. What, after all, is a gallery if not an instrument for looking?

The architect’s subsequent built work has been never less than fascinating. Indeed, in the case of the Chelsea townhouse he completed in 2001, I would argue that it has been truly great. However, the commission one has wanted to see him undertake for many years, and to which the success of the Lisson surely entitled him, was for a public gallery on a grand scale. In 2005, he finally secured that opportunity when his practice won the competition for the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum on Lolland, the fourth largest of Denmark’s islands.

Focused around an 1850 manor house, Fuglsang is a working country estate

Focused around an 1850 manor house, Fuglsang is a working country estate which has also served as a centre for classical music for many years. A regular programme of public concerts is staged at the house both by a small orchestra based there and by visiting performers.

When the local regional art collection was looking to relocate from its long outgrown 1890 home, the family that owns Fuglsang saw an opportunity to augment the artistic community it had established there by donating a site for the new gallery on the edge of the wide farmyard that sits adjacent to the house. This space is book-ended by the house itself and by the land steward’s accommodation which lies 150m to the north. Stretching between them, a vast barn closes the yard’s western edge, but the opposing side remained undefined. The competition brief anticipated that entrants would close it off, a strategy that five of the six competitors duly adopted, but Fretton won by following another approach.

The site’s great resource, he argued, was the view that it offered of the landscape to the east, a strikingly flat and empty terrain that extends for 2km to the sea. When visitors entered the courtyard from the west — at the north end of the long barn — it was this view he wanted them to see first. Accordingly, he turned his building through 90 degrees to the proposed orientation and sited it in line with the land steward’s house. So placed, it reads rather like a vast gate that has been swung open to the view. It is only a month since the gallery was opened and the grass in the courtyard has yet to establish itself. When it does, the space will read as a continuation of the meadow, with the only barrier an electric fence to keep the sheep out.

Sporting sparely fenestrated walls of white-painted brick, the building evokes something of that sober, Mies-inspired modernist tradition that the work of Jacobsen and Utzon first popularised in Denmark. The plan is configured as a series of parallel bands which are articulated through variations in height and length. However, all this is revealed only in a very measured fashion.

Arriving at the courtyard’s north-east corner, we find the expansive view framed between the gable of the barn that stands to our immediate right and the 20m frontage of the land steward’s house that projects forward on our left hand side. The volume of this building largely obscures that of the gallery but Fretton has teased forward a single-storey band of accommodation which ultimately blocks our way. A trio of boxy skylights extends down the length of this strip, the nearest of which provides a suitably gestural terminus to our approach. Like its two siblings, it is distinguished from the surrounding fabric by its material treatment — brick, but unpainted — and by being turned through 45 degrees in relation to the dominant geometry.

Walking towards it, we pass a wall of floor-to-ceiling glazing which reveals views of the foyer and café. The front door is set part-way along its length, signalled by a large, table-like canopy in grey-painted steel. The canopy and the skylight are the sole elements in the scene of any figurative presence, and they read very much as yin and yang: they share a colour, scale and a broadly cubic proportion but are dramatically opposed in terms of their respective openness and closure.

Turning under the canopy, we are presented with a view across the foyer, through the glazed walls enclosing the education space that sits beyond, and out to the orchard at the rear of the building. The architectural expression of these introductory interiors is purposefully reserved, allowing the views out and the varied activities on show to predominate. Here, daylight comes from the side — the gallery’s offices are stacked above — but passing through the bookshop to our right, we enter the exhibition area, which is almost exclusively top-lit.

The competition brief anticipated that entrants would close space off, but Fretton won by following another approach

The galleries are striking in their variety but navigating them couldn’t be simpler. A passage extends down the building’s full length. It is of a width that allows it to be used as an exhibition space as well as a means of circulation, lending it something of the character of a long gallery in an Elizabethan house. The galleries are banked to either side, but at the very end of the passage stands the one room without art.

Presenting large windows on three sides, this is a space for resting art-weary eyes and surveying the landscape. As a space designed to picture the world beyond, the room is a descendent of those north-facing galleries at the Lisson. The absence of art is a distinguishing factor but the ambition to make a connection between the depicted and the actual worlds is common. Significant in this regard is the fact that the core of the Fuglsang collection is work from the golden age of Danish landscape painting, showing scenes of a strikingly similar nature to the one the building frames.

Along the right of the central passage runs an enfilade of rooms, which are lit by the three boxy skylights we noted outside. It is here that the gallery’s historic collection is displayed. The deep reveals of the skylights ensure that daylight falls only in the centre of each room, providing the spaces with some welcome animation but leaving the task of illuminating the art to ceiling-mounted track lighting.

The visual distraction of this kit is mitigated by its incorporation into a decorative fretwork which has been applied to the ceiling. Its triangulated geometry reconciles the orientation of the skylights to that of the walls, while investing the space with a restrained grandeur. The panels between the net of lines have even been painted gold, matching the gilt frames of many of the paintings on display. Fretton cites the ceiling designs of the adjacent manor house as a model, but the work also evokes the boldly geometric compositions of Louis Kahn, if not the theatrical muscularity of his construction.

The rooms are threaded together by short passages of lower ceiling height. These are framed by pocket galleries — artificially lit rooms, scaled to allow a visitor a solitary encounter with a single work of art. At the end of the sequence stands a large gallery without daylight where drawings are displayed, and then the one gallery to be equipped with a window, the plaster cast room.

The other side of the corridor is given over to two very large rooms. One houses the gallery’s holdings of modern art, the other is a space for temporary shows. Again, light is from above, although a different strategy is adopted in each room. The modern room is equipped with a series of projecting skylights, similar to the ones used in the rooms for older art, but rectangular and set orthogonally to the walls.

By contrast, the skylights of the temporary space are flush with a roof that has been set 3m above a light-diffusing aluminium grille. The resultant void is packed with acoustic insulation which ensures this large volume doesn’t become unpleasantly noisy. The zone also allows projectors and even artwork to be suspended from the roof in as discreet a manner as possible. At present, the modern room is divided up by a series of full-height partitions, but like all the exhibition spaces, is readily reconfigurable. The structure even allows the rooms for older art to be knocked together if requirements change in future.

The deep reveals of the skylights ensure that daylight falls only in the centre of each room

The plan is for the courtyard to become an exhibition area for sculpture, a move that should ensure visitors are drawn out into the space. There, they will discover a long, oblique view of the gallery from the far end of the long barn. It is only from this vantage that it becomes possible to understand the extent to which the building has been conceived in response to the objects and spaces around it.

Some of the relationships it sets in play are of a very precise nature. The balcony above the entrance, for example, lines through with the eaves of the land steward’s house, while the south elevation corresponds with the width of the manor house and answers its three stepped gables with the three rotated skylights. Others are more schematic. Despite the building’s displacement from the courtyard proper, the swivelling of the skylights acknowledges its presence, like a line of soldiers offering “eyes right”, while as a long, white-painted and minimally fenestrated volume, the building forges a generalised but undeniable likeness to the barn.

Rural reprise

In these judgments, one again finds ideas that Fretton premiered at the Lisson Gallery played out at a grander scale. In one sense, Fuglsang’s rural setting could not be further removed from the urban hodgepodge in which the earlier building sits, but as a place shifting from being a site of agriculture to one of art culture, its condition is by no means simple.

Fretton’s perennial impulse to make work that draws buildings and spaces of varied character into “a difficult whole” finds no lack of purchase here. It is a magnificent building by an architect who remains, for all the influence that his work has exerted in recent years, a singular and provocative voice. One hopes dearly it won’t be long before he is given a similar opportunity in his own country.


Siteplan of Fretton's Fuglsang Museum
Siteplan of Fretton's Fuglsang Museum

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Readers' comments (2)

  • It looks great and Woodman is certainly wowed by it. I'm a fan of Fretton BUT, masterpiece? Obviously, we only have photos, but one thing that jumps out at me is a lack of formal resolution. It's a very bitty building, and all white exterir goes only some way to mitigating that. I think even Woodman's, commentary implies that the building perhaps lacks a presence of it's own. It's the great get out clause of much contemporary architecture, represent itself as simply 'responding' to extraneous stimluae. This means presence is never an issue. Perhaps in this setting though, the lack of resolution may be appropriate

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  • I feel this building looks Inspirational to some like me. i'm new too the world of architecture and want the to be on the right path. Fretton changes the veiws of white/magnolia boxs that spring up everywhere which i think ruins passion and masterpiece of a design. i know i haven't picked up with the terminology that assits great opinions. But this design and fought is openminded for others.

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