Kennedy Nolan Exhibition
kennedy nolan: the art of a wall
In 1934, German architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich collaborated in the design of a mining exhibit as part of the Deutsches Volk, deutsche Arbeit (German people, German work) exhibition in Berlin. As a way of undermining the none-too-subtle mood of nationalism, Elaine Hochman called it a “rebuke”, Mies and Reich used mural-sized black and white photographs and three freestanding walls of different height and thickness, one of salt and two of coal (one anthracite coal, the other bituminous coal). The design is not well known. But it should be. The intentions are revelatory. Materiality, tactility, porosity, luminosity and visuality were the profound messages of this subtle ode to art in the earthly stuff of industry.
In 2011, the architecture of the Melbourne-based practice of Kennedy Nolan is the subject of an exhibition in the Wunderlich Gallery in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. Patrick Kennedy (BPD B.Arch Hons 1997 University of Melbourne) and Rachel Nolan (BPD B.Arch Hons 1993 University of Melbourne) have used a huge wall-sized mural of black and white photographs of their built projects, a free-standing wall that is ‘thick’ - an aluminium frame covered in fabric - and a lower wall, almost a plinth, whose top is travertine marble. The intentions are similar. Materiality, tactility, porosity, luminosity and visuality: these are the interests of Kennedy Nolan in the making of architecture.
What sets Kennedy Nolan apart from other practices in Melbourne is their investigation into the art of the wall. While the work of Mies is a referent, it is only a ghost of one. What appears to interest Kennedy Nolan more are the textural walls of the 1960s, when modernism was undergoing critique from within. One can’t see into the exhibition from outside the glazed entry door. You have to go in. Presented with a blank wall, the concerns are not about transparency but about the enclosure of space, the maze and the route. Walls allow the architect/artist to control space.
Similar concerns were explored in Melbourne in the 1960s where specifically local responses to the search for the human in the modern were realized in the limestone blocks and return walls and minimal colour palette of McGlashan & Everist’s Heide II, in the stretched modular silica lime bricks and contemporary gentility of Neil Clerehan’s houses, in the travertine floors and metaphysical stillness of Guilford Bell’s salons, in the grey concrete block that updated the grim sternness of Victorian bluestone, and in the architectural signature of black, used only by those confident that their work was still modern. Kennedy Nolan explores this history of local materiality, unafraid to return to us the rustic and the abstract of white painted bagged brick walls and the rough-sawn. And also hopeful that everyday life might contain the same serendipity promised by the crazy paving of 1950s outdoor living. But at the same time, what is different is that Kennedy Nolan decides that the wall might not only enclose space. It might be art too.
On the travertine plinth are scale models of architectural walls. They are maquettes for larger works of art – they are sculptures. This is what Mies would never do with his walls nor would those Melbourne architects of the 1960s. Instead Kennedy Nolan fold Aldo van Eyck’s famous experiential ground planes, his circles on the ground - his essentialist thresholds – upwards and around corners. At a school, they become windows for children to look through, even crawl through, or in a house, they become holes in a roof to ponder not the ground but the sky. And a whole wall might be a painting, a number, a mural, or a perforated screen. And a roof might be held up by either a wall or a giant cruciform prop or perhaps a work of art – or are all three the same thing?
At the very entrance to the exhibition is what appears to be a table. It’s made of steel. Or is it the ghost of a piano? Or is it another maquette, a scaling down of a much larger architectural framing of a view? This exhibition reveals an important young Melbourne architectural firm testing ideas, using design as an experimental art form. At the same time, this is an art practice underpinned by deep lessons: in an understanding of the modern, in the reclaiming of homo ludens, and in an essential faith in illumination through human occupation, whether by the body, the hand or the eye.