Norman gave a talk, around the time that I was photographing the Renault building – and I photographed it being constructed, and that industrial estate, what is now an industrial estate, it was almost the first building up there – so I used to come off whatever the motorway is, turn the corner, I’d often set off at about five in the morning so I’d get a very early morning light, and I just saw these huge trees growing out of the mud. So I saw it before the cladding went on, and I really enjoyed the whole process of photographing it over several months. And one day… oh no, two stories are here. One day Norman phoned me up and said ‘I’ve just come back from the site, you’ve got to get there and photograph it right now’, because we were never sure about this yellow column, and ‘I went to look at it this morning and all the buttercups are out in the field around it’, and he said it’s unbelievable. So I get in the car and I go up there and it’s a lovely sunny day and I’m lying down to get a very low shot so the buttercups are in the foreground, and often when you’re waiting for clouds to go and one thing or another, you’re only concentrating on the viewfinder, you don’t hear anything else, you don’t see anything else, smell anything else… all of a sudden I realised that the ground was shaking a bit, and I thought that’s odd, but I was waiting for this cloud to go so I get a burst of sun, and just then a mower went in front of me and took all the buttercups down [laughs] And if I’d been just another six inches on, it would’ve gone over me, and I know the guy that was on one of these sit-on mowers was really shocked to see me lying down with my tripod amongst the buttercups. So I didn’t get the shot, I got the shot with the sun but all the buttercups had gone [laughs].
But Norman gave a talk, and he was giving a talk which involved discussion about a building he was doing in Mexico where there was a sacred rock and they had to respect this rock, and he actually said something which was very unusual, I think, for… nobody would have expected to hear Norman Foster, the high-tech god, say it, which is he believed in magic, and he believed in the power of certain primitive forces, which was an extraordinary thing, but also, in the same talk, he showed slides of Renault going up when it was just a set of masts on a hill, and he said ‘good buildings can often make very good ruins’.
Oh, well, that touches very clearly on what we were talking about before. You’ve probably heard of this idea of the theory of ruin value?
It was the idea that a building can be designed to be a good ruin, and that was very specifically what Speer and a lot of the Nazi architects designed their buildings to be. They were over-the-top, they were massively over-engineered but also they were specifically designed to look good as ruins. Hubert Robert, a French painter from the nineteenth century, did a lot of pictures of actual and imaginary ruins – bearing in mind this was at the time when Egypt was being explored and that sort of thing – and for the opening of the Grand Gallery in the Louvre, he did a very famous painting of what it would look like in a couple of hundred years’ time, ruined, just like the Baths of Caracalla, and to prove the intellectual superiority of the French at the time, scattered in the ruins are some of the art works that are in the gallery, so again you’ve got this issue of manipulation of time, actually, jumping forward to look at something as a ruin that’s actually brand new now.
Well, when you think of their process as an office, no detail goes without attention, and they are very rigorous buildings that.. they are designed from the bottom up, and they are constructed on a very strong foundation framework, and great buildings, for me, are the buildings with a pedigree, that have had love and care put into them, and I think part of the nature of most architects is this innate ability to work with space and materials and form and that’s what makes buildings so satisfying to go round. Alberti wrote… I’ve always been fascinated by plans and elevations, by the way that a plan and an elevation can be put together to create an extraordinary other experience, and Alberti talked about the way that he read drawings, and that he could look at a plan or an elevation and actually in his mind be travelling around that relationship. I’m wondering if that is a basic ability of many architects, because I can certainly… I certainly spend time with a lot of architects, and I watch them looking at a plan and I know something entirely different is going on in their mind than in mine.
Ah, that’s interesting, really, you think that’s a different process, because I would have said actually there’s a lot of similarity
No, I can only think two-dimensionally, I cannot think three-dimensionally. I can’t even conceive of a space and imagine myself in it, I can’t think in terms of dimensions.
And yet as you were saying earlier, whether consciously or not, you clearly have a feeling for three-dimensional space and what it means for you…
…and you clearly try and express that in your paintings, in terms of the perspective you’re adopting, the viewpoint, and so on.
Yes but I cannot think three-dimensionally. I can appreciate it but I can’t deal with it as an abstract, the experience. I have to go to a building and experience the building, or I have to take a flat image and work, and extend that flat image which is what I’m doing with the monastery; I’m reflecting on it on lots of levels, I’m creating reflections that don’t exist within the building as I almost meditate and reflect on what space has been created.
In doing that you are effectively of course creating your own space, in terms of the final work.
Yes, yes… and that’s an emotional space, that’s an emotional space which, perhaps because I spend so long polishing, and I don’t mean polishing in a superficial way, I mean massaging, the surface of a painting, […] develops a patina that might express my own respect for both the process and the subject.
Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you.
Posted 16 April 2012. With grateful thanks to Ben and Shelia
Ben Johnson and his cityscapes - working live at the National Gallery