Monday, 18 July 2011

Penelope Curtis - Keynote Speech Weds 13th July 2011 10.30-11.30

Interior of Roger Stevens lecture theatre building
(constructed 1968-70), at University of Leeds.
From the Leeds University Archive
Penelope Curtis, the first female director of Tate Britain is no stranger to Leeds, having worked at the Henry Moore Institute for 16 years. Given her vast experience and her local links, Curtis was the ideal choice to deliver the ARLIS UK/Ireland Conference 2011 keynote speech. Curtis used this forum to cleverly weave links between architecture, art, memory and the way in which libraries can inform and develop artists’ work. She began with examples of black and white photographs of buildings around Leeds University, stressing how difficult it is to date un-peopled photographs, which creates a timeless quality, to both the pictures and the way in which we read a building. Curtis focused on the Roger Stevens Building, a modernist structure designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, which carries echoes of their earlier building; the Barbican. Curtis asserted that these buildings have a futuristic and utopian quality, suggesting ‘a future that never happened’.

Two artists, Gerard Byrne and Dorit Margreiter created artworks to display in the Henry Moore institute in 2009 relating not only to the architecture of these stunning and sculptural post-war buildings, but to the voices these buildings have and the memories they impress upon us. Both produced films, with Byrne’s being a black and white film using actors playing students in the 1960s using verbatim dialogue sifted and lifted from various archival material, such as the union magazine, while Margreiter’s video was a more abstract and contemporary affair, using real students. Both videos ran on a loop when displayed, so the excerpts of dialogue were without chronology and instead the viewer captured snap-shots of the voice of the university and had to make meaning and cohesiveness themselves. Both Byrne and Margreiter, with the help of Penelope Curtis, made extensive use of the rich collections available in the Leeds University Archive and the Brotherton Library Special Collections in order to inform their artworks, favouring the raw student voices rather than architectural plans, in essence, their art was a response not only to the shell of the buildings, but to the relationship between a social organisation and the vessel that houses it. They were conscious that a building is not just a building, but a product with an outcome and a means for a way of living and working, and that the soul of a building is the way in which we communicate with it.

The campus has now been listed, which will halt any future evolutions of the building, instead a building projecting an imagined future from the 1960s and 1970s has been preserved, and only its voice will now continue to adapt and grow, in the modular fashion that Chamberlin, Powell and Bon intended it to.

Sean Curran
(Publications Committee member)

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