Adam Curuso, Peter St.John – The Presence of Construction

Lecture date: 1998-01-14

After working for Florian Beigel and Arup Associates, Adam Caruso and Peter St John established their own practice in 1990. The practice combines building projects, competitions and teaching. One of their great achievements has been to create a rational modern architecture which is also warm and welcoming. In 1995 they won a two-stage competition to design the new Walsall Art Gallery, a major new site for temporary exhibitions in the West Midlands. In this lecture, accompanying the AA exhibition The Presence of Construction – a record of the construction of the Walsall Art Gallery as its structure approaches completion – Caruso and St John locate the focus of their work within the expanding territory of contemporary architectural practice.

MOHSEN MOSTAFAVI: I was just talking about the lecture last night given by Anthony Vidler, i think towards the end of the lecture the emphasis was for Frank Gehry’s project for Bilbao, and somehow an aspect of this project has to do with the notion of the architectural project as a totality, but a kind of totality that is also self-referential, in terms of the many things that he tries to do, sometimes independent of certain site or urban conditions. One of the things that is interesting about the exhibition is that is happening next door, the Walsall gallery project by Caruso St John, in a critical fashion, once again becomes engaged with certain aspects of the project of urbanism, with the city, but also this project as a kind of collaborative project, which is not only the work of a single architect. Through an understanding of materials, through an understanding of construction, they are really trying to create a kind of lyricism through a methodical reworking of those issues. Will you please join me in welcoming Peter St John and Adam Caruso.

ADAM CARUSO: Thank you for inviting us, when we don’t have to travel too far from the office, we both give the lectures, which is less exhausting. It’s increasingly rare, though to do it together. We’re not going to talk specifically about Walsall, although it is one of the projects that we are going to show—it would have been perverse not to show it, which is the reason I like the idea of not showing it.

But, this is a lecture and an opportunity to articulate where we see our practice now. That’s not a static thing, it changes every six months; it changes every two months, really the thing that keeps Peter and I going, and I think is an advantage of working with someone else, that’s collaboration, it’s the two of us, we never kind of quiver over about whose ideas, that seems irrelevant and uninteresting, and there is a collaboration with our office. But the good think of working with someone else is that the other person says: no, that’s boring, you’ve already done that before, what are we going to do next?

I think that is the thing that connects Peter and I together the most. But you will see from the lecture: we are not interested in novelty either, this is about using architecture and using our practice, in a way, of learning things. So, we’re both going to speak, I’m going to do the first, more general part, and maybe in a more explicit way that I’ve done before. This was written specially for this place, because our kind of practice, is different from others here…

Sergison Bates teaches here, and other kinds of people exist here as well. I’m going to start describing another kind of practice which is also very prevalent today, and which, even to us, is a theoretical compelling position. [Slide] This is a photograph of Atlanta, from the airport—Peter and I finally escaped after a week teaching there—this is my best view of Atlanta. Before we went there, our only kind of architectural intellectual guide to the city was Rem Koolhaas’s musings on Atlanta, before he revised his opinion and admitted it might not be such a great place. We were shocked when we got there and found out what it was actually like.

I think Peter was even more shocked, because he’d been to less kind of normal American cities than I had. Being Canadian, i visited almost every state when I was growing up. One form of architectural practice, which has been increasing currency as a conceptual position, could be called neo-functionalist or opportunistic. This position assumes that our period represents a fundamental shift away from 400 years of intellectual development.

Architecture, as a liberal art has an outmoded definition of the discipline, and practice must take closer knowledge of the workings of the global market economy, if it is to continue to be relevant. The processes that enable the expansion of economic, infrastructure and communication networks must be paralleled by contemporary architectural practice. In becoming descriptive of this dynamic, la


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