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The architectural intrusions of Susanna Fritscher
Hugues Fontenas


A collection of small trolleys is carefully lined up at the back of Susanna Fritscher’s studio, each one supporting a stack of twenty to thirty sheets of glass of the same size. These stacks differ from one another in the subtle variations in colour between each sheet of glass, forming collections of colour graded in such a way that gives the direct impression of great control. Two of the glass stacks play on variations of black; in another we see glass sheets superimposed in degrees of translucent white; other stacks combine pale coloured glass through which notes of pink or blue are visible. This collection of around one hundred and fifty sheets of glass is a fragment of a work carried out for Vienna airport. Aside from this sample of glass sheets, there are other objects from the same work present in the studio: long models in various scales are placed on the floor, representing either the combined elements that constitute the different levels of the ‘luminous courtyards’ designed by Susanna Fritscher for the airport, or sec­tions of the artwork layout. The basic models are made of white cardboard; those illustrating the work in detail utilise sheets of Plexiglas: the impressions created by colour and material are trialled on these – moving from the transparent to the translucent.

Elsewhere in the studio, a model made from cardboard, Plexiglas and sheets of aluminium is positioned upon on trestle-table legs; this features the reception areas and foyer of the new French national archive building at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, another of Susanna Fritscher’s projects. Aluminium sheet prototypes are printed with red and lined up against a wall of the studio; these also belong to the project.

On another table in a corner of the studio is a white cardboard model that is part of an ongoing project for the renovation of Nantes museum of fine art: there are three rooms, one above the other and a glass-sided lift moving up from floor to floor, providing variations in light and colour. Everywhere in the studio – on boards on the floor or on tables – grey and white cardboard models are testimonies to Susanna Fritscher’s other interventions in existing or planned architectural projects. These models, samples and prototypes stand alongside works that could be described as more ‘autonomous’, but which strongly echo the architecture of the studio. The studio testifies to an intense way of working that especially focuses on fine-tuning, a process that presupposes patience and determination. Everything in the intention and in the result seems simple, apparently resting upon a kind of forceful discretion. Indeed, the testimonies and tools accumulated in the studio record an artistic career which, in its interaction with architecture, places the duration of the process and the fine-tuning of the work at the centre of the art practice.

Aside from the cardboard or Plexiglas models produced by the artist herself, most of the objects here have their provenance in specialist companies: from glass manufacturers and processors or from suppliers of polished or printed sheet metal. These objects thus bear witness to a col-laborative way of working, of movement between the artist and the companies, all carried out within the rigorous constraints that define architectural projects. The concept of all the elements of artistic intervention is such that they draw their force from their inscription, from their complete immer­sion in the architecture – quite the opposite of more common strategies of adding and of creating distinction. Each of the artist’s works within architecture strives to become one with the latter, to become a wall or ceiling whose fine-tuning takes place, of necessity, within the technical, regulatory and economic practices of the construction site.

When we regard the studio, it is evident that the artist has not sought to escape from the realities of architectural projects, which often seem onerous and – for outside observers – quite the opposite of any ‘artistic’ vision. The power of the result lies precisely in the assumption of interaction, in the succession of trials, samples, and models for the same project, in the determined fine-tuning of walls or three-dimensional spaces within an architectural space.

This studio is essentially, and much more than it is a space for producing architectural works, a laboratory for fine-tuning and experimentation. Most of the pieces will be manufactured elsewhere by specialist companies and then integrated into the construction plan of the building.

It is undoubtedly the architectural organisation that strikes the visitor most when entering Susanna Fritscher’s studio for the first time; given that it is arranged around the transformation of materials and the investigation of the manufacturing process, this could be the studio of an architect. There is one important difference however: the production of models or the materials in most architects’ studios evoke the temporality of urgency and accumulation (the temporality of competitions and construction sites), whereas Susanna Fritscher’s studio presents a more regular method, the temporality of plunging oneself, of immersing oneself into a material universe, the detailed and continuous mastery of which – from project to project – delineates a unique aesthetic experience.
The organisation of the Susanna Fritscher’s studio is perfectly illustrated by the architectural dimension or quality that exists in her work. The studio is a testimony to the prerequisites of an inexorable fine-tuning of the production process, while equally revealing the importance accorded to the quality of light, to the conditions of visibility. With regard to the architectural dimension of her work, it is not surprising that Susanna Fritscher has become more involved in architectural projects under devel­opment in recent years, producing work that is no longer a detached ‘designed space’ but instead is a true intrusion into the body of the building itself: the application of colour to facades and interior spaces through the fine-tuning of a glass product for the Cayla middle school building in the canton of Geneva (LRS architects, 2006-2008); the design of glass partitions and ‘luminous courtyards’ in the departure’s building at Vienna airport (Baumschlager & Eberle Architects, 2006-2012); the ceiling com­missioned for the hall and foyer areas of the French national archive building at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (Fuksas Architects’ Studio, 2008-2011); the creation of a lift in the Nantes museum of fine art (Stanton Williams Architects, 2010-2013); a building project designed by the firm of Lipsky-Rollet; and a collaboration with the architect Dietmar Feichtinger.

Inscribing art into architecture

In order to appreciate the architectural dimension of the work of Susanna Fritscher, it must be understood both from the perspective of the old modernist narrative that questioned the inscribing of art into architecture, and in light of the contemporary situation of ever more recycling of artistic references and images in architectural projects.

In the wake of the Second World War, the inscription of artists’ work into architectural projects was a significant aspect of the modernist ideas of the architecture of the international style. These ideas came – at least partially – from the theoretical background of the fusion or synthesis of the arts that arose out of the avant-garde movements at the start of the 20th century, yet it was the widespread dissemination of the international style of modern architecture in the 1950s that brought about a marked shift in how this issue was approached. The aesthetic dimension, belonging to a creative way of thinking that aimed to locate architecture at the centre of a system of control of the environment, was a key factor that had to be managed in a pragmatic and concrete way, thus enabling innovative forms of collaboration between architects and artists.

It was without doubt in the United States that the quest for aesthetic integration was the most advanced in terms of practice and theory during this time, since this formed part of the unified theory of a society – modern par excellence – that was confidently facing the future and the development of the free-market economy. The architect Victor Gruen was one of the most original, pragmatic thinkers on the subject of incorporating artistic work into architectural planning and is usually credited with ‘inventing’ the architectural model for the suburban shopping centre or ‘mall’ around 1950. Gruen comments on the Northland Center in Detroit that he designed in 1954: ‘A relaxed leisurely atmosphere in courts, malls and lanes allows the shopper to observe and contemplate. The opportunity, tragic­ally absent in our traffic-filled streets of bringing works of art into direct contact with the people, as an integral part of architecture and landscape, is thus created. The developer is given the function of a supporter and encourager of the arts. […] He can do so with the conviction that this further enrichment of the environment will contribute to the attracting power of the center and, because of it, to the business volume.’ (1)

In an article published in 1955 in the magazine Arts and Architecture, Victor Gruen analysed the success of the integration of art in the Northland Center, stressing two points in particular: to achieve this result, the artists had to collaborate closely with companies; thus the resulting art had – in a positive way according to Victor Gruen – ‘no pretention towards depth’. (2) This latter statement, which might appear paradoxical, nonetheless it accurately and convincingly pinpoints one of the challenges of modernist attempts to integrate art into architecture and of all the collaborations between artists and architects that proliferated in the 1950s, both in the United States and Europe. Victor Gruen had clearly understood that this issue of an essential superficiality, which was positively expected from a work of art, made complete sense within the architectural transposition of a particularly American ideal of the consumer society. This observation was made with a certain sense of disillusionment: in the 1950s, Gruen had already noted that the architecture employed in the unified mechanism of the shopping centre had to be seamlessly deployed, almost to the extent of effacing itself; he commented later that the demands of advertising, now the driving force behind this type of aesthetic endeavour, would inev­itably mean that any attempt at ‘depth’ would be discarded, also within an architectural project with integrative ambitions.

Aside from the misunderstanding that constituted Gruen’s ‘discovery’ of the happily superficial nature of art integrated into architecture, today, such a pronouncement is explicit enough for its aesthetic merits to be measured. In the great architectural movement in the 1950s in the United States to control the environment, this major role accorded to artistic integration favoured the emergence of a generation of artists who wereextremely active in this field, one example being the sculptor Harry Bertoia, who workedwith Victor Gruen on the atrium of the Southdale Center. (3) In a 1970 book devoted to Bertoia’s sculptures, June Kompass Nelson highlights certain characteristics of his artistic approach: ‘Although his work is unequivocally based on aesthetic principles, his approach is highly prac­tical. Architects and businessmen alike are full of praise for his willingness and capacity to estimate costs and to deliver the finished works on time.’ (4)

Bertoia, a regular partner of the architect Eero Saarinen, collaborated with the latter on the design of a wall panel installed in 1962-1963 at Dulles airport. June Kompass Nelson recounts a particularly perplexing anec­dote relating to this work: ‘Bertoia, who had the occasion to see the panels again in 1966, three years after their installation, said that he had the unusual feeling of seeing them for the first time, almost as if they had been done by someone else.’ (5) No doubt, the successful inscription of a work of art was thought to lie in this retreat, in this true dispossession. While such successful experiences of the integration of art into archi­tectural projects testify to a pragmatic approach, to the artists’ commitment to the system within which the built environment is produced – an eco­nomic world more familiar to architects – the diverse testimonies also allow us to measure the limitations of progressive modernist thinking of the time. In these relationships, which sought intimacy between art and archi­tecture, the mode of economic organisation was the true connection, the belief in a system of positive control for producing an environment. In today’s context, a method of artistic inscription within the formal processes of architectural projects has become common, which seems, a priori, to differ greatly from the optimistic collaborations of the modernist period of the international style but which, nonetheless, cover the same advertising channels. Today it is in the area of images, or of brand images, that at least some of relationships of inscription of art into the development of architectural projects are played out on the grand scale. The general aestheticisation of the visual environment over the past fifteen years – the development of universal transferability of contemporary aesthetic norms being the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon – has relied on the progressive displacement of numerous artistic and architec­tural practices towards the common ground of product design. One particular feature of these artistic and urban products is the presentation of the deliberately specific while, simultaneously, as if occurring in the background, contributing to the manufacture of a seamless universe and the most unobtrusive affirmation possible of the codes of transversal, aesthetic appropriation. (6)

Within the general context of present-day design of the environment, there are artists who, for all intents and purposes, have established project design and management ‘agencies’ in the style of architects; in the work of architect firms, the transfer of results taken directly from artistic produc­tion has become increasingly commonplace. This phenomenon of appropriating and recycling a common aesthetic background goes well beyond the traditional practices of citation, referencing or derivation. Over the course of the past ten years, this act of artistic importing has manifested itself in three ways: by the multiplication of results created by textures and materials on internal walls; the use of artificial lighting and the play with colour and, particularly, the deployment of saturated ‘monochrome’ as a way of signalling architectural identity. This new aspect of artistic inscription in architecture is a sure testimony that the frontiers between art and architecture are being blurred, yet the integration of identity or advertising codes remains in the minimal mode.

A suspension of boundaries

One of the particular features of the inscription of Susanna Fritscher’s work into architecture is the way it genuinely questions the boundaries between the two fields. Yet it does so in a way that suggests a critical reading of both the current situation of increasing appropriation of spectacular artistic symbols by architects and of the modernist background of the dilution of the work into the results of collaboration.

Susanna Fritscher’s critical perspective holds to an extremely concrete endeavour, one that bases the work upon the material, upon the conditions of its manufacture and its perception as being central to the process. In her works that could be viewed as ‘autonomous’ (even if this is a very relative distinction here) the work of eliminating distinction or suspending boundaries is clearly present: in the movements from transparent to translucent, from white to coloured, from matt to gloss, from clear to blurred. Once it has insinuated itself into the architecture, this artistic endeavour in fact acquires new power through the effect of expansion. Despite being limited to a few planes, to the qualities of the material, of light and of colour, the characteristic of this work is that it actually stretches beyond objective limits and provokes a visual disturbance that obliges the viewer to rethink every single boundary between the constitu­ent elements of the building.

This effect of expansion is largely dependent on the way in which Susanna Fritscher uses the fundamental characteristics of the architectural projects as the basis for her interventions. Thus in the hall for the French national archives, the work on the horizontal plane of the ceiling responds to the general layout of the building, which is made up of horizontal spaces floating above a reflecting expanse of water opposite the main body of the building.

Susanna Fritscher’s approach to architectural inscription is deployed to the full in her work for Vienna airport. The glass partitions, conceived by Susanna Fritscher in response to the flow of passengers in transit, con­stitute a kind of system for reading the compelling elements of the Baumschlager & Eberle architecture: 400 metres that make up the length of the departure building (known as the pier) and the black material of the glazed facades. As travellers make their way through different levels of the pier, they experience several variations of the nuances of material, light and colour. The walkways running between the aeroplanes and the pier are accompanied by a glass partition of translucent white that becomes progressively more transparent and black, producing the combined effects of a direct or reflected view of the black facade of the main building. Travellers walk through several ‘luminous courtyards’ in the pier; these traverse different floors: on the upper level, nine ‘boxes’ are lined with white glass partitions providing a passageway from translucent to transparent; on the middle level, the glass partitions of the three large ‘courtyards’ lead from white to black, with transitional stages in shades of yellow, pink and blue; lastly, on the lowest level, all of these luminous ‘interlocking sections’ can be observed from below as they command the flow of people.To obtain the desired effect of suspension in this conducting of the trav­ellers, Susanna Fritscher strives for complete accord with the architecture, which presumes that all the details that influence the quality and visibility of complex construction today are fully taken into consideration, from electric appliances to security equipment. It is not by chance that the artist, when speaking of her work, strongly emphasises her close and com­plex relationship with the other parties involved in the projects. The deep understanding she shares with the architect responsible for the project at Baumschlager & Eberle or with Ruedi Baur, who was in charge of signage, was a determining factor for the Vienna airport cooperation. This deep understanding was necessary for working and fine-tuning work with the other people – from designers to contractors – who are involved in making the journey through the airport a unique and disorientating experience.

This is how Susanna Fritscher insinuates herself into the work of architec­ture and even into that of architects and others normally involved in building projects. From the architectural point of view, the artist’s distinct­ive contribution here does not consist of appending a deliberately ancillary element – quite the contrary – the contribution is a genuine insinuation; it is scrupulously indistinct even. This approach reflects the architecture back upon itself, not just as a simple image, but as a project woven into the building’s manufacture at every level.

From this perspective, Susanna Fritscher’s work of architectural inscription is almost essentialist, not unlike Lilly Reich’s collaborations with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe during the 1920s; here, the extremely material work of reducing detail of the former encouraged the latter to radicalise his signature to attain the level of the metropolis. (7)

If the architectural inscription/insinuation of Susanna Fritscher is to be measured in terms of the relationships between art and architecture that have been guided for half a century via a way of thinking that often re­flects that of product design, this is because this work, in its own way, re­introduces the issue of the depth of appearances. It is this depth that demonstrates the density of the process, of the project, in the final result, that is, of the very nature of architectural work. The perplexity that passers-by experience when confronted with Susanna Fritscher’s interventions is directly linked to this design quality which, via the precision of the content exhibited, reflects, without monumentality or authority but indeed with exactitude, the manner in which the content was assembled, its implicit manufacture. By reintroducing the issue of the depth of appearances, the work of Susanna Fritscher reproduces, like a critical decoding, the material conditions of architecture in an era defined by the proliferation of spectacular symbols. By making tangible the itinerary of the transformation of its materials, the work ascribes an intriguing radiance to the architectural elements that goes beyond the usual distinctions between a work of art and an architectural object.

1 Victor Gruen, Larry Smith, Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers, New York: Reinhold, 1960, p. 153.
2 Victor Gruen, ‘Architecture + Sculpture’, Arts and Architecture, May 1955.
3 Artists such as Lippold or Noguchi must also be mentioned in this context.
4 June Kompass Nelson, Harry Bertoia Sculptor, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970, p. 24.
5 June Kompass Nelson, Harry Bertoia Sculptor, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970, p. 34.
6 The work created by artists will never be exactly the same as that of architects and will be different again from that of graphic artists, stylists, etc.
7 See Christiane Lange on this point, ‘The collaboration between Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’, in Helmut Reuter, Birgit Schulte, Mies and Modern Living, Interiors, Furniture, Photography, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2008, pp.195-207.