Berlin’s Museum for Architectural Drawing celebrates 50-year career of James Wines

Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews a retrospective of the work of James Wines of SITE, whose unique drawings not merely depict architecture but critique and attack it.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jul 17, 2021

In my 2015 interview with American artist and architect, James Wines, he told me, “All of my work has something to do with a critique of architecture, its context, and its means of construction. A great deal of SITE’s work is about inversion, fusion, intervention, exaggeration—often just taking something apart and examining the elements of construction from a different point of view. This element of ‘in process’ has always been more interesting to me than a finished building. The point is to attack!” When I asked Wines, “Attack what?” He responded with a laugh, “Architecture, of course!” The current show James Wines and SITE: Retrospective 1970–2020 at the Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg celebrates 50-year career of the influential American artist and architect by looking closely at 60 of his original drawings. These watercolours and pen and ink drawings came not only from Wines' own archive but also from several private collections in America. The show concludes its seven-month run on July 25, 2021.

Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, View East, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1983. Pen and ink wash on paper, 20 x 26 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, View East, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1983. Pen and ink wash on paper, 20 x 26 cm Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

The drawings on view include a series of BEST Products showrooms (1972-84); a theoretical project Highrise of Homes, a multi-story superstructure of hanging lots for individually-designed houses with gardens (1981); drawings proposing a new vision for the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art (1982-83); a witty sketch titled Architect Designed Teacup (1985); renderings of Vertiscape-Residence Antilia, an unrealised extended family high-rise compound in Mumbai, India (2003-04), and a series of drawings for several projects in South Korea - Public Administration Town (2006), Gwa Cheon Club (2007), Ho Jeong Park and Cemetery (2009), and Geoje Hotel and Conference Center (2009). The show is accompanied by a beautifully designed compact catalogue published by the Tchoban Foundation that runs this small but reputable Museum, which since its opening in 2013 has been dedicated exclusively to exhibiting and collecting exemplary architectural graphics. 

  • Vertiscape-Residence Antilia, Mumbai, India, 2004. Pen and ink wash on paper, 22.5 x 31 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
    Vertiscape-Residence Antilia, Mumbai, India, 2004. Pen and ink wash on paper, 22.5 x 31 cm Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE
  • Courtesy of Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
    Vertiscape-Residence Antilia, Mumbai, India, 2004. Watercolor, pen and ink on paper, 42 x 27 cm Image: Courtesy of Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing

The show takes over the museum's two intermediate adjacent gallery floors. The museum also houses a bookstore, a valuable archive with drawings ranging from Renaissance masters and Russian Constructivists to leading contemporary architects, and the Director’s glass penthouse, which serves as a meeting place for special events. The fifth-floor glass volume sits over the four-storey part of the building – all its floors are slightly different, misaligned, and for the most part windowless. Designed by Moscow-based SPEECH, headed by Russian-German architect and collector Sergei Tchoban, the museum's facades are distinguished by coloured concrete surfaces that depict enlarged fragments of the collection’s drawings. It is important to note that the museum’s narrow focus and relatively low attendance enables both amateurs and connoisseurs to encounter world-class architectural drawings in the most intimate settings. Previous exhibitions, staged here several times a year, featured drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi from Sir John Soane’s Museum, masterworks from Vienna's Albertina, architecture from German films, as well as solo shows on works by such masters as Thom Mayne, Alvaro Siza, Peter Cook, and Lebbeus Woods. 

Drawings by James Wines, who celebrated his 89th birthday last month, are significant for at least three reasons – they are purely delightful for their graphic artistry; they demonstrate the ongoing questioning of the established artistic and architectural conventions; and finally, they give voice to the architect’s pioneering ideas for seamless integration of architecture with landscape, to the point that it is hard to see where one begins and the other ends. As immediately evident in these drawings, Wines is more interested in the in-progress process of either construction or deconstruction than the final product, whether a work of art or a building.

James Wines was born and lived in Oak Park, a small suburban town about one hour drive west of Chicago and home to the world's largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As a child, Wines was drawn to visual art, mainly to painting and sculpture. His love for Louis Sullivan’s floral architectural details can still be felt strongly in his wonderfully sumptuous drawings. After graduating from Syracuse University in Upstate New York in 1956, he worked for 15 years as a sculptor, following a neo-Constructivist tradition by making architectonic assemblages of concrete and steel parts. But after a while, he began questioning many of the assumptions of abstractionism and expected aesthetic objectives. He didn’t think that simply placing an abstract or figurative piece of art in an urban plaza, as exemplified by works of such celebrated sculptors as Henry Moore or Joan Miró, was enough any longer, especially in the wake of scarcity of resources and their extraction’s impact on climate. He called such artistic tradition the “plop art” to underline its superficiality and lack of engagement with the specific surrounding. That’s when he started exploring such effects as peeling, dematerializing, fragmenting, fusing, diffusing, melting, floating, morphing, reflecting, ghosting, and inverting. He fused these forces with architecture, the subject he was fascinated by since his teenage years, when his father, an engineer, engaged him and his two brothers in working on construction of summer houses in northern Michigan. That early experience sparked his passion for exploring materials and construction details.

Izusu Space Station Plaza, ’89 Expo, Yokohama, Japan, 1989. Pen, ink and sepia wash on paper, 26.5 x 42 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
Izusu Space Station Plaza, ’89 Expo, Yokohama, Japan, 1989. Pen, ink and sepia wash on paper, 26.5 x 42 cm Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

Around 1967, Wines began focusing on site-specific art, which led to founding his sculpture studio, SITE (Sculpture in The Environment) in New York City in 1970. He set out to design buildings, public artworks, parks, gardens, plazas, interiors, products, and exhibitions, focusing on fusing art, architecture, and context as key elements in a unified vision. These truly radical realisations were meant to provoke people’s spontaneous involvement, triggered by fascination, surprise, and questioning things that have become familiar. Each building was about creating an environment by applying one of the artist’s key principles – placing art where people would least expect to find it. SITE’s hybrid works that tend to construct bridges between art and architecture often led to controversies that contributed to their misunderstanding and categorisation as radical architecture, marginal architecture, alternative architecture, or outsider architecture. But in recent years, as the profession has moved dramatically from its focus on form-making of freestanding objects towards creating architectural environments, and adapting a missionary strive to reconcile architecture with nature, what was once radical and marginal, has become the attitude of the mainstream. The tendency materialised in the renewed interest in SITE’s work, particularly in how the architect merges his buildings with the surrounding landscape.

BEST Forest Building, Richmond, Virginia, USA, 1978. Pen and ink on paper, 26 x 35 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
BEST Forest Building, Richmond, Virginia, USA, 1978. Pen and ink on paper, 26 x 35 cm Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

The exhibition's highlight is a series of drawings for the BEST Products Company’s stores commissioned by Sydney and Frances Lewis. Nine of them were completed between 1972 and 1984. Collectively, it was the BEST stores that first made Wines famous. Each of these projects critiques the very idea of a "big box store" architype. They explore such themes as peeling, crumbling, and tilting facades. While, another one, Forest Building, in Richmond, Virginia (1979), offered an ideal opportunity for the fusion of architecture and nature. It started with an honorable premise that a commercial project could not be built on the site area’s existing forest. So, the architect proposed to keep most of the major oak trees and to construct the new building around them. The result was a series of “inside/outside” spaces, enveloping the existing forest. The store became so popular that many customers started bringing picnic meals to hang out in the garden spaces. Often, after enjoying their snack, people would go back to the store for additional purchases, reportedly making the Forest Building the most profitable among all BEST stores. More importantly, the project inspired many younger architects to work with existing trees rather than remove them. The same attitude is now encouraged by engaging existing buildings rather than demolishing them and starting from scratch. Wines developed this strategy in his project for the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art (1982-83) where he proposed to adapt several buildings, partially destroyed during World War Two in such a way that the traces of the destruction would be left exposed.

BEST Terrarium Showroom, San Francisco, California, USA, 1979. Pen and ink on paper, 50 x 49 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
BEST Terrarium Showroom, San Francisco, California, USA, 1979. Pen and ink on paper, 50 x 49 cm Image: Courtesy of Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing

Critiquing conventional commercial architecture and searching for ways to motivate people to react to their everyday surroundings grew into SITE's key direction. In the case of another project for BEST, Ghost Parking in Hamden, Connecticut (1977), the intention was to create a fusion of architecture and public art that could not be removed from its surroundings without a total loss of meaning. The structure could not be picked up and plopped down in another location. The asphalt paving, the staple of a typical American suburban shopping mall became the building and the building became the parking lot. As Wines explained in our aforementioned interview, "We all know what is conventionally expected of architecture in terms of shelter, function, and design. So, I have spent a lot of my life asking, what else could a building mean?” He began to undermine building archetypes as a kind of “subject matter” for art, instead of the usual design problem. He questioned the ubiquity of suburban colonial houses, classical bank facades, fast food restaurant signage, big box store physicality, and so on – as “trigger zones” for ideas and raw material for the fragmentation, dematerialisation, and general inversion of architecture.  

BEST Greenhouse Square Building, San Leandro, California, USA, 1984. Pen, ink and sepia wash on paper, 27 x 34 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
BEST Greenhouse Square Building, San Leandro, California, USA, 1984. Pen, ink and sepia wash on paper, 27 x 34 cm Image: Courtesy of Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing

Going over Wines’s drawings it may appear that SITE’s projects aim to celebrate the very process of destruction and archeological excavation, and to glorify the nostalgic look of ruins, but that is only one narrow appearance-based judgement. His work is a sort of an “urban collage.” He is critiquing many architects’ reliance on Modernist or Constructivist orthodoxy and a merestylistic repetition without relating their projects to specific context, which goes beyond mere visual aspects. And the fact that the profession has now progressed substantially towards focusing on addressing issues rather than inserting buildings as standalone objects is, in part, the result of the influence of Wines’s pioneering thinking. Where our profession still could learn from him is his talent of bringing art, humor, and emotions into architecture. In his book Green Architecture: The Art of Architecture in the Age of Ecology (Taschen, 2000) the architect writes, “Without art, the whole idea of sustainability fails. Apart from the technological advancement green buildings need to strive for creating emotional experience.” The key message of SITE’s work is that if architecture is practiced without bringing ideas from other sources and disciplines, by merely focusing on crafting good-looking buildings, after a while, it becomes boring. In contrast to that, the architect told me passionately, “You need to explore territories where you force yourself (and the participating public) to think differently. A continuously questioning discourse is the life’s blood of art and culture.”

World Ecology Pavilion, Expo ’92, Seville, Spain, 1990. Watercolor on paper, 38.5 x 61 cm | James Wines | Berlin | STIRworld
World Ecology Pavilion, Expo ’92, Seville, Spain, 1990. Watercolor on paper, 38.5 x 61 cm Image: Courtesy of Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing

On July 8, at the invitation of the Tchoban Foundation, James Wines gave a half-hour online talk Mind to Hand: Drawing in the Digital Age on his life work, during which he explained, “Our work is always a commentary on the context, it is bleeding into the context, it is absorbing the context.” He observed that “A real tragedy of every city is in looking exactly alike.” And concluded by saying, “Architects have an obligation to engage the public in a dialogue.” The fast-paced presentation, accompanied by dozens of drawings and photos, was followed by a one-hour Q&A session. Here is the link to this event’s recording: https://youtu.be/s1q8YXwEi-8

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