Monday 14 September 2015
‘[I’m] interested in the business of energy and getting the feeling of ZIZZ.’
— Len Lye
The successful coalescence of artistic vision, civic initiative, political support, multi-decade determination and architectural clarity is a rare occurrence. On 25 July 2015 we saw just this when the spirited regional city of New Plymouth on the feisty west coast of New Zealand finally welcomed into its fold, in full force, the breath-taking Len Lye Centre. This astonishing building, designed by Patterson Associates, is an expansion of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. It is an even more astonishing achievement given the toughness of the journey. Its sheer existence is testimony to the near 40-year dream initiated by pioneering filmmaker and kinetic artist Len Lye (1901–1980) and sustained by others to create a home for the artist’s work and ideas. In 1964 Len Lye said, ‘Great architecture goes fifty-fifty with great art.’ This project is a remarkable achievement for art and architecture in this country.
After seven years working on this ambitious project in Taranaki in my role as director of the Govett-Brewster (2006–2013), it was thrilling to finally experience the Len Lye Centre. Its physicality delivered exactly the experience that lead architect Andrew Patterson described it would nearly five years ago. The polished stainless steel exterior is dazzling, of course, and mighty Instagram/selfie friendly. Every view is seductive and every photo a knockout. Yet the building is much more than its reflective exterior; it is inversely kinetic in its establishment of interplay between exterior and interior through the 14-metre high glass apertures embedded in the folds. These lens-like windows reflect and refract light against the mirrored stainless steel, forming a reading of the outside world inside, and the inside world outside which (to quote Tim Gruchy) ‘bends reality’. Patterson’s idea is that by moving around and through the spaces, people activate the kineticism of the building itself.
The exterior is also remarkably subtle, sensuous and responsive to the surrounding environment whether it be the infamous colonial White Hart Hotel from 1886 on Queen Street, or the gridded Atkinson House from 1950 on Devon Street. Both are embraced and become part of the visual play – a contrapuntal array that bounces renovated colonial delicacy, civic mid-century modernism and the poetics of 21st-century architecture’s digitally inflected practice. Patterson explained his choice of stainless steel and concrete as local materials – applying the high-calibre engineering and industrial manufacturing in New Plymouth and ensuring that over 70 per cent of the contractors were from Taranaki.
The building struck me on first viewing as deliriously elegant. Rem Koolhaas crafted his persuasive book Delirious New York in 1978. I remember poring over Luit Bieringa’s copy during the early days of the commissioning process and thinking about the notion of audaciousness in relation to a city’s dreaming about itself. Koolhaas talks about ‘theories, tactics and dissimulations to establish the desires’ and the symbiotic relationships amongst architecture, new technologies and lifestyle. New Plymouth/New York . . . I often thought about making an exhibition that played on the tenuous connection formed between these places by the shared ‘new’ of their names, but the connection has perhaps now been writ large in the singularity of the building; its valiant existence and its particular relationship to the city’s psyche.
Gilles Deleuze has written about thought itself as a kind of fold – the folding inside of what he calls the ‘forces of the outside’.1 The idea also acts a critique of subjectivity when notions of exteriority and interiority (appearance and essence, or surface and depth) are blurred as outside and inside merge. This connects to ideas about our bodies and being if one considers human skin and its functioning importance as our largest organ and, of course, the folding together of time and of memory. Deleuze talks about ‘possible worlds’ that simultaneously exist. For him, the universe, like origami, is a process of folding and unfolding the outside. The Len Lye Centre project folds in a specific history that interleaves various times and places: an artist, a public museum, a foundation, a body of work that is concerned with the dynamism/rhythm of bodily experience, a city (and other cities), and a group of supportive individuals. The building succeeds in folding the exterior into the interior in a process of simultaneously looking outwards into the world and focusing inwards on gestures of art-making; a process of making not unfamiliar to Len Lye’s own methodology of experimentation.
To experience the internal spaces for the first time was fascinating – the modest entrance through Govett-Brewster to the dual-purposed building, turning left into the cathedral-like rising concrete colonnade of the foyer, and the precise attention given to the detailed handling of the ‘soft’ grey concrete. Patterson Associates’ Project Director Andrew Mitchell was particularly attentive to these details. The watery concrete edges where the stainless steel meets the city’s pavement outside and the touch-points where the climbing concrete floor and curved walls meet inside in the foyer are particularly refined, bringing a minimal and sensitive use of materials that can be seen elsewhere in the work of Patterson Associates.
The Vision, the Brief
The building is conceived of as an anthropomorphic temple but in the Polynesian tradition of a wharenui (meeting house) with an identity in itself. This perception enables the art placed in it to manifest in the same way.
... The resulting combined structure [with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery] can be seen as an antipodean or New World Temple: rather than being designed using traditional aesthetic approaches such as ‘neo classic’ or proportioning, its design has been generated by using a Systems or Pattern Methodology. This means that its design process worked in a holistic way using patterns in the ecology of the project’s environment. This environment included locational, cultural and heritage attributes, as well as the physical.
For example, the building’s most obvious ‘feature’, its reflective stainless steel colonnade, as well as reminding the viewer of light, showcases the area’s industrial innovation, developed as a result of its oil and gas industries. Stainless steel was Len Lye’s preferred sculptural material, so the colonnades concept unites all these things to communicate the reason for the original collection being bequeathed to New Plymouth ...
Once inside, the design uses the colonnade to create a sort of theatre curtain but in this contemporary temple the curtain uses three asymmetric ramped sides to form a type of pronaos (which the Centre’s Large Works Gallery unveils). The procession of the colonnade morphs into a sort of linear or asymmetric portico to announce the Main Gallery as a type of primitive hall or megaron. Common to nearly all cultures, this space is where the divinity now houses the art. Below this is a womb-like education space set into the pit of the resulting form.
Each of the 14-metre high monolithic repeating columns surrounding it are constructed of a single precast piece of concrete. It might be an iconicoctastyle but with nine columns or a giant crinkle cut chip pattern. The columns reject formal language elements to distort the space, all that remains is the reflection of light.
An adyton (the most hidden sacred and private part of a temple, usually found furthest from the entrance) houses the Len Lye Archive while a type of opisthodomos looks back democratically to the people entering below as the building’s treasury.
And all this is in dialogue with the old Govett-Brewster building in the converted cinema, whose existing tiered galleries now form the Grand Stair, here, as a kind of cinematographic exit.
— Andrew Patterson
Central to the brief we wrote when I was Govett-Brewster director was that the building would be the ideal place in the world to experience Len Lye’s work – both his direct films and kinetic sculptural work, as well as photograms, drawings, textiles, rare books, poems, paintings and the Archive. Throughout the process Patterson would travel from Auckland for exhibition openings and watch carefully as we worked with artists and entirely reconfigured the Govett-Brewster spaces for exhibitions such as Stealing the Senses (2011) and Sub-Tropical Heat: New Art from South Asia (2012). What Patterson and I also discussed at length from the outset was the fundamental and necessary relationship between the Govett-Brewster and the Len Lye Centre. There was an urgency to create in New Zealand a robust, adaptable space for contemporary art. Govett-Brewster is the reason that Len Lye’s collection is in New Zealand, and since it burst forth onto the world in 1970 with the young Leon Narbey’s immersive installation, Real Time, Govett-Brewster has always been dedicated to the ‘now’ and to an uncompromising provocation. This is an important project for New Zealand art that builds on the strength and determination of one of the country’s most influential art organisations and the country’s only dedicated contemporary art museum. Importantly, this project also included a complete refurbishment of the Govett-Brewster to earthquake strengthen and to update HVAC and H&S (this involved a process of working with Billy Apple to increase the height of the balustrades in his architectural intervention, Altered Staircase: The Given as an Art-Political Statement, 1980, the only work acquired by an institution from Apple’s Alteration series).
Immediately after his firm’s appointment, Andrew Patterson began an extensive process of interviewing individuals involved in the project. He developed three markers of quality assurance: that the building was the best place in the world to experience Len Lye’s art and ideas; that the building would be a cultural attractor for New Plymouth, and that the building reflected the close symbiotic relationship with the Govett-Brewster. On delivery, Patterson also outlined his instruction manual: the building must be washed annually as one would a glass building; the spaces remain interchangeable between Len Lye associated programming and contemporary art; and the director has the capacity for vision and leadership.
Over the opening weekend there were 8500 visitors – that’s over 10 per cent of the population of New Plymouth – alongside a large swathe New Zealand’s art community, four government ministers, the mayor, a host of local councillors and, importantly, a strong Māori presence.
A highlight during the opening was being present in the beautifully appointed 62-seat cinema for the inaugural screenings with others who had contributed to the lively passage of events: John Matthews (long-time Chair of the Len Lye Foundation), Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks (Len Lye Foundation Trustees), filmmaker Shirley Horrocks, Tim Gruchy who advised on the cinema, Paul Brobbel (current Len Lye curator), Simon Rees (current director) and artist and educator Ray Thorburn, who played a key role in the early 1970s introductions between Len Lye and the Govett-Brewster. The programme was compelling: Lye’s first film, Tusalava(1929) followed by the remastered film work from Govett-Brewster’s first exhibition, Leon Narbey’s A Film of Real Time (1970) introduced by artist Paul Hartigan. The nine-minute Tusalava involved more than 9500 individual drawings in stop-frame animation on 16 mm. The film, begun in Sydney, was influenced by modernism and genetic science, and by Māori, Aboriginal and Sāmoan art. Its original Jack Ellitt soundtrack has been lost for decades, but the film was accompanied by Eugene Goossens’ (1893–1962) Rhythmic Dance for Two Pianos op. 30 from 1920 played live by the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. Again, it was remarkable to experience the cinema as Patterson Associates had envisaged it and as had been discussed at length. (See my earlier blog about Tusalava as part of the Len Lye:Agiagiā exhibition at Mangere Art Centre in 2014).
Looking Back Further
The passage of events that led to the Centre spans four decades and is reasonably well known but it’s worth drawing a summary. After living briefly in Sāmoa and Sydney, the Christchurch-born, Wellington-design-trained Len Lye worked his passage to London in 1926 as a coal trimmer on a steamship. There he completed Tusalava. Lye soon joined the modernist Seven and Five Society, exhibited with the Surrealists in 1939, became friends with Dylan Thomas, Robert Greaves and Laura Riding, and started making experimental short films for the General Post Office where he manipulated and painted directly onto celluloid and produced his influential film, A Colour Box in 1935. He moved to New York in 1944 to work for the future-focused newsreel magazine, The March of Time. In 1958 he began scratching directly onto black emulsion to make his landmark film Free Radicals, which he completed in 1979. Lye’s veracious curiosity meant his interests swooped from astronomy and poetry to cultural anthropology and new jazz. In New York his passion for the possibilities of rhythm, energy and bodily movement expanded to experimentations with kinetic sculpture.
During the 1970s Lye was eager to see a major exhibition of his work in New Zealand and it was John Maynard, the dynamic new director of Govett-Brewster, who recognised the opportunity and embraced the idea. John Matthews, a young engineer living in New Plymouth, was already involved with Govett-Brewster’s formation and connected with Lye in New York. He soon began the process of realising Lye’s electrically powered kinetic projects, working to the large scale the artist had always imagined. Works such as Trilogy and Large Fountain, both 1977, were developed and made in New Plymouth, harnessing the engineering skills of a town dedicated since the 1950s to ‘White Gold’ and ‘Black Gold’. Finally, in 1977, the solo exhibition opened at Govett-Brewster, curated by Maynard. Len passed away in New York in 1980, soon after establishing the Len Lye Foundation. The Foundation began the process of relocating his Collection and Archive to the Govett-Brewster, gifted by Len Lye to the people of New Zealand in 1980. The non-film works are housed at Govett-Brewster and the films at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision – New Zealand Archive of Film, TV and Sound. Matthews, artist Max Gimblett, Roger Horrocks and Lye’s widow Anne were all involved. Lye had imagined what he called a ‘temple’ to his work and the idea lingered with the Foundation.
Greg Burke, during his tenure as director, kicked things along with the establishment of a Len Lye Curator position and dedicated resource to the Collection and Archive. His appointment of Tyler Cann, a young art history post-graduate from the States proved pitch perfect to the research and curatorial needs. A Len Lye exhibition had already been presented every summer since 1977; however, it wasn’t until Cann’s appointment that the ambitions and possibilities started to be unearthed and grow.
I arrived in 2006 to a dual brief: leading the Govett-Brewster and realising the Len Lye Centre project. Barbara McKerrow drove the project within New Plymouth District Council, later joined by Cathy Thurston with Jim Wilson and Gaye Batty on the project management side. Councillors came and went and certain politicians, such as the impressive Lance Girling-Butcher, Lyn Bublitz and Maree Pearce embraced and fought hard to see the positive aspects of this project flourish in their city.
Various approaches to government took place but we soon realised that no traction would occur until an architectural vision articulated the ambition. An extraordinarily rigorous process ensured and after more than a dozen interviews undertaken in architectural studios around the country, four architects were shortlisted. The questions we asked were not about initial designs, but rather about the firms’ approaches to the process and their capacity for quality assurance. Architect Sir Miles Warren was a key player in this interviewing process, alongside Matthews, and I remember Sir Miles’ razor-sharp declaration that Patterson Associates were the only choice.
The Len Lye Centre – with a core budget of a mere $11.5 million – was entirely funded externally to New Plymouth rates. The financial support came first from the TSB Community Trust, then after Patterson Associates’ design, $4 million from Todd Energy, $4 million from the Regional Museums Policy for Capital Construction Projects from central government, $500,000 from Lotteries for the roof, a second commitment from TSB Trust, and the rest from private philanthropy including ‘selling’ the stainless steel panels at $10,000 each. Let’s just say, the political climate was not easy and the project involved relentless determination at so many moments by so many people, working on so many levels.
Each year we had to defend the project’s continuation and each year we secured the numbers – just! Each year I fought for free entry to the Govett-Brewster and each year we had the numbers – barely! I was determined not to leave the project before its certainty was secure; that meant ensuring infrastructural, architectural, financial and political support. When the mauri stone was laid with Govett-Brewster kaumatua Whareoka Wano and the Governor-General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, the project became unstoppable.
During this six-year period an enjoyable aspect was developing museological partnerships on the international stage. We worked with the Len Lye Foundation, the then named New Zealand Film Archive and the Museum of Modern Art, New York on the restoration of films. We worked with the Whitney Museum of American Art on the restoration of their kinetic sculpture Fountain, 1959; and we also reconnected with Len’s family. We developed two key exhibitions, Len Lye at ACMI (Australian Centre of Moving Image) in Melbourne in 2009 working with Alessio Cavallaro, which was accompanied by a significant book that we co-produced, and a zingy exhibition at IKON Gallery in Birmingham in 2010 working with Jonathan Watkins in what the Guardian rated as one of the 10 best shows of the season. Scholars came from over the world to research the Archives and we employed Paul Brobbel as an archivist. We worked with the New Zealand Film Archive and Park Road Post to restore Len’s films to build on a multi-year research project funded by the Stout Trust led by Evan Webb, director of the Len Lye Foundation and film researcher Sarah Davy to view all the films of Len Lye in collections and archives internationally, establish the best prints and unearth undiscovered film works. Forgotten footage was found after time spent in MOMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a bunker in Pennsylvania. We facilitated the commissioning, with the Len Lye Foundation, of the reconstruction of works such as Firebush for Five Fountains and a Firebush at Govett-Brewster in 2007, Convolution for Revolutions – Forms that Turn, the Biennale of Sydney 2008 curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Zebra for the AMCI exhibition in 2009. Evan Webb, Stuart Robb and John Matthews were highly instrumental in this work based on thorough research drawn from the Archives. Many of these kinetic works had only ever existed as concepts and experimental prototypes. What we did through this process was acknowledge Lye’s singular contribution on the international stage to experimental filmmaking and kinetic sculpture and ensure the legacy of his practice building on the strong connections he had made during his lifetime with museums and art centres across the globe.
A project of this stature is much more than architecture; it builds on decades of engagement, initiative and strategy. Different phases have seen specific contributions from Govett-Brewster directors – namely Maynard with his initial embrace of Len Lye; Burke with his laying the ground for the necessary curatorial work, formulating a Deed of Relationship and organisationally scoping the project. My contribution was finalising the brief, ensuring the architectural commissioning and appointment, securing the funding and the political support, and consolidating Lye’s international presence. Rees has completed and successfully delivered the project through a tough period of closure and re-opening and an ever-challenging local government environment. The future is immensely fertile for future directors. As curator Barbara Rose once said, ‘Len Lye is a unique creative force in 20-century art [and] the artist for the 21st century.’
Len Lye was a modernist and a radical experimenter, he grew up with a century as it shifted and mutated, and in 1980, at the point of post-modernity, he passed away and the journey of this project truly began. Yet, rather than being contained by last-century thinking, the Len Lye Centre project challenges modernism’s hold on architecture and art and is potent in its timeliness and its capacity for the possibilities of tomorrow.
1 Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi (trans), Athlone Press, London, 1988; Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Tom Conley (trans), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993.
2 All quotes from Andrew Patterson, 30 June 2015.
View more photos and videos of the project on the Patterson Associates website.