Supporter's Column: Clare Wright

A reflection on the collaboration between Wright & Wright and the artist Susanna Heron at the St John's College project in Oxford.

The Art of Collaboration: Working with Artists


Raymond Hood, architect of New Yorks Rockefeller Centre, perhaps best summed up the motive for introducing art into architecture when he spoke of the crisis of the vertical surface and the horror of emptinessthat is the modern blank wall. Yet like novelists confronting the blank page or artists the blank canvas, it is the first step in the process of creation.

As part of a wider, decade-long masterplan that completed late last year, Wright & Wright’s collaboration with artist Susanna Heron for St John’s College in Oxford was sparked by a similar challenge - how to animate a blank wall? Though it explores a contemporary architectural language, the new Study Centre at St John’s College in Oxford had to tread carefully on a confined, historic site. Likened to a hermetic casket of stone, it sits discreetly in the President’s Garden. To preserve the President’s privacy, the Study Centre’s main facade had to be blank - or at least, with no windows directly facing into the garden. Imagination took flight from an idea about animating solid matter through texture, water and light, and how this would elevate the experience of looking at and being in a building.

As a practice committed to broad stakeholder engagement and creative collaboration, we have worked with living artists as part of our design process for three decades. Our relationships with artists began with a series of site-specific commissions for the Womens Library in Londons East End. Since then, we have regularly engaged in creative consultations that have shaped the practices approach to the design of museums, galleries and other cultural projects, especially in relation to collection display and user experience.

Art may not be pragmatically functional, in terms of responding to social need or giving shelter, yet it stimulates self-reflection and critical thinking, reconnecting architecture with a sense of what it means to be human. We value and seek out artists ability to shed light on this, and our own work, at all stages. For example, following the completion of the Museum of the Home in Hackney, we commissioned leading architectural photographer Hélène Binet to record and interpret the project, eager to see how the Museums buildings, gardens and interiors were subtly reframed through her incisive eye.

For other partnerships, artists are directly involved in the creation process. We consult with artists at the bid, design proposal, construction, interpretation design and even post-occupancy phases of culture sector projects. We invite artists to partner with us on our communications about projects, and we integrate site-specific contemporary art commissions on many of our projects.

The collaboration with Susanna Heron at St Johns, for example, explored ideas of making, based on creating a bas relief on the blank wall facing the Presidents Garden. The concept of richly ornamented stone was partly inspired by the original Baroque carvings in the adjacent Canterbury Quadrangle, St Johns most historically significant architectural ensemble. More profoundly, it also alludes to the Jungian idea of archetypes, in that certain patterns and rhythms have deeply embedded primordial roots in human consciousness, concealing and revealing an abstract, dreamlike world.

As it was for the 17th century craftsmen who worked on the Canterbury Quad, the quality of the stone was a fundamental consideration. Clipsham limestone,historically associated with Oxford and its colleges, was carefully selected from Swaddywell Quarry in Cambridgeshire, a site of stone quarrying since the Roman era. From initial sketches and drawings, Susanna Heron prepared a colour coded template of the bas relief pattern, a piece of art in itself, which was then translated into a guide by the specialist contractor for the laser cutting and carving of the stone.

Skilled masons then assembled dry-laysof the stone panels, arranging them on the ground to check the pattern and fit. Each piece of stone was carefully labelled, packaged and transported to site, to be installed in aprecise location within the relief. Throughout, co-ordination was critical, as the carved stone blocks had to fit together with as little as 1mm tolerances.

Slotted together like a giant stone jigsaw puzzle, the sculpted pieces have a pleasing sense of solidity. Herons bas relief ripples across the building, synthesising exuberantly organic forms with the rectilinear geometry of the architecture. Within the garden setting, the stone walls are animated by the play of light from water, trees and foliage, so the building becomes almost alive. What could have been just another blank facade has been transformed into a memorable set piece that looks both forward and back, adding to the College’s historic continuum.


Clare Wright is the Founding Partner at Wright and Wright.