Architecture has always been considered fine art. Whether it’s the Acropolis, Chartres Cathedral or a Frank Lloyd Wright design, if it’s aesthetically pleasing and form follows function, it’s art.
But this assumption, in turn, begs the question: could a construction site be considered as an artist’s studio? Could the construction process be considered art making? And does a construction site have a place within an art gallery?
Leah Garnett, a fine arts professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, says the answer is a definite yes. As proof she offers up When One Space Meets Another, an art installation which draws on her experience of growing up in rural Maine around construction sites and in her 20s working with her father, who builds custom homes.
The exhibition, curated by Pan Wendt, was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, the New Brunswick Department of Tourism, Heritage & Culture and Mount Allison University and in 2017 exhibited at two prestigious galleries: first at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, part of the Confederation Centre for the Arts complex in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and then at Owens Art Gallery on the Mount Allison University Campus. And in case you’re wondering just how prestigious those galleries really are, let us introduce them to you…
Confederation Centre for the Arts
In 1960, seven years prior to Canada’s centennial, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker looked to architects for professional assistance:
“In a few short years this nation will be celebrating its Centennial… I ask that you, the members of this profession, should play a most important part, and… present to the Centennial Committee… your views and suggestions for this celebration; something to touch the hearts of Canadians, something to represent the unity of our country…” (www.canadianarchitect.com/features/confederation-centre-for-the-arts/ March 1, 2015)
A national competition for the design of a significant cultural facility to cover one city block in downtown Charlottetown, PEI, on a site adjacent to Province House, resulted in 47 submissions, with the winning scheme submitted by Dimitri Dimakopoulos of Afflect, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise. The result was the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI, which opened in 1964. The complex includes a library, theatre, and art gallery, comprising three massive volumes rising from a podium above street level and surrounding on three sides the void of Memorial Hall, located on the lower concourse.
In 2003 the Centre was designated as a National Historic Site, with the accompanying text noting it was “a superior example of Brutalist architecture in Canada.” Unlike the unfinished concrete exterior associated with Brutalist architecture, the exterior cladding of the Centre is Wallace sandstone, from the same Nova Scotia quarry that supplied stone for the adjacent Province House (1847) the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to Confederation. However, Marco Polo and Colin Ripley, professors in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science, explain in Canadian Architect (March 1, 2015), that “while the material treatment and height of the new complex defer to the historic building and intimate scale of Charlottetown, the complex as a whole suggests a more aloof relationship to its setting.
“Brutalism,” the article continues to note, “was subsequently embraced by many of the architects designing Canada’s 1967 Centennial Projects. It’s anti-historical, anti-hierarchical informality came to be understood as an appropriate expression for a Canada that was shedding its colonial past to forge a new identity as a culturally progressive, democratically transparent and independent modern nation.”
Owens Art Gallery
Owens Art Gallery opened on the Mount Allison University campus in Sackville, New Brunswick in 1895, making it the oldest university art gallery in the country. According to John Leroux, author of A Vision in Wood & Stone: The Architecture of Mount Allison University (photography by Thaddeus Holownia, published by Gaspereau Press, 2016), it was designed by Edmund Burke of the Toronto firm Burke & Horwood and constructed by master builder John Teed of Dorchester, New Brunswick for the purpose of housing a collection of over 400 paintings and 100 plaster casts from the financially troubled Owens Art Institution in Saint John, New Brunswick and for providing art instruction to Mount Allison’s ladies’ college students.
Burke, who’d introduced the first curtain wall construction system in Canada in downtown Toronto, won the month-long competition over six other entries “with a rather Hellenistic submission that was an eclectic and robust interpretation of the symmetry and classical detailing of the Beaux-Arts style. Beaux-Arts was the predominant architectural style of most civic and government buildings in North America and Europe between 1890 and 1920,” writes Leroux.
“His scheme for Owens Art Gallery,” Leroux continues, “had three main gallery spaces behind an essentially windowless main façade of light olive, locally quarried sandstone, on rusticated stone foundations. The smooth façades are decorated at the front with ‘blind’ colonnades holding up lavishly patterned terracotta friezes,” celebrating the names of classical artists — Rembrandt and Turner, Michelangelo and Raphael.
When One Space Meets Another
Garnett’s installation is a thought-provoking and complex exploration of space, which at the same time is delightfully ingenious and playful. In fact, at the opening at Owens I saw a few children actually playing in it, because it’s an installation whose space is meant to be experienced and constructed soundly enough to encourage a game of chase.
Garnett, who teaches drawing and sculpture, says her foundational experiences in rural Maine working alongside her father’s home construction business “shaped how I think about space, how we construct, mold and contain it. It also influenced how I make things. My 3D vocabulary stems from an early immersion in construction that, while far from masterful, is the language I brought to making art.
“When I went to art school (Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University, Halifax, NS) at age 28, I had a lot of the skills that people were learning there, but it was coming from construction and not from fine arts. I had spatial orientation [skills] and I was always intrigued, not only by how we construct space, but how we shape it, occupy it and how we perceive it.”
In the summer of 2012 Garnett, missing her roots, went home to Maine and worked in her father’s wood shop. “I don’t remember where the idea came from,” she says, “but I wanted to transpose the dimensions of an actual gallery space out in the woods.”
She had the dimensions of the upstairs gallery at Owens (36 feet X 64 feet) in her mind since she’d just coordinated the graduate art show in that space. “So, I found trees that were close to the corners of the gallery space and I started to string up pink flagging tape, which is used in construction to mark out spaces, and I set up a plank walkway through the woods and I marked the location of other trees on a grid. While I was doing that, I was also doing material investigations, playing with cedar shingle scraps that were tapered and making arches, which are an architectural form, and creating little sculptures from cutoffs and styrofoam insulation and just sort of playing with scrap materials.”
In the years that followed, Garnett continued her explorations at Mount Allison, in art residencies in Ireland in Dublin and Cobh, near Cork City, and back in Maine, all the while wondering what would be the result if she were to transpose those studio spaces into her outdoor construction site in Maine? And what if she transposed all of that back inside into Owens? What would that be like?
The result is a multi-layered site, in which the gallery walls are taped off with the original pink flagging, the plank walk is mapped out on the floor and trees in their original positions are re-created. Lumber tarps, used to cover skids, hang from ceiling to floor; ‘tree’ columns grow from circles cut and glued from scrap lumber, interspersed with painted dowels, and “large columns are created from bits of hemlock my father had milled. They’re hollow and constructed the way barrels are with coopering techniques,” she says.
And then there was the reconstruction of her studios with cedar decks, platforms, drawings, modular cabinets and partially completed walls, “because I’ve always loved the early stages of construction when it’s possible to move through the stud walls, when the architectural space is still forest or part of the outside.”
Aligned with that concept are soundscapes from the original spaces. There’s birdsong and cricket-chirping from the Maine woods, hammering from the studio next to hers in Dublin which was under construction, boat horns in the harbour at Cobh and sounds from the installation process at the Confederation Centre for the Arts where it was first exhibited.
“Ultimately, I love construction sites,” Garnett says. “I love their materiality, their activity, the infrastructure and the nomadic nature. I conceive of them as a hybrid of landscape and architecture, because they literally exist as transitional zones,” she shares.
“I feel quite lucky to have grown up in that environment and to have learned as much as I did from my father. I really enjoyed working in construction and there’s a part of me that regrets not taking up my father’s encouragement to convince me to take over his business,” she continues.
“But as much as I miss construction, I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s a difficult way to make a living and like any industry it has its problems. I’m concerned with the environmental impacts as it’s an industry that’s alarmingly wasteful and I’m also concerned that environmentally well-designed houses tend to be expensive and beyond the means of the average wage earner. The more I look at climate change models, the more I’m struck by how much we really need to build affordable, well-designed, energy-efficient homes for a lot of people and not just for the people who can afford them.”