Very excited this week about the opening of Hauser & Wirth Somerset in Bruton. Its not often a leading international art gallery decides to set up shop on my patch so I was keen to go along and have a look. My review will be in the August issue of the journal Architecture Today . Fundamentally it is a place to experience art, both in the gallery and throughout the other facilities on the site, but realising that serving up the more challenging extremes of contemporary art in the sticks might require some sort of digestif, there are other attractions. They occupy a range of converted farm buildings and two purpose built galleries, all loosely arranged around the original farmyard and a new inner courtyard. The atmosphere is welcoming and relaxed, more like a well manicured National Trust visitor centre than their black glass-fronted, slightly intimidating London gallery on Saville Row.
But why Bruton? According to co-owner Iwan Wirth, listed as the art world’s 3rd most influential person in ArtReview’s 2013 Power 100, it was just chance. He and his co-director wife Manuela moved to a nearby farm in Somerset in 2005 and were looking for more land when they came across the run-down 100 acre Durslade Farm. The owners of Durslade were struggling to keep it going and the listed core farm buildings, dating from around 1760 were on the Buildings at Risk Register.
The farm buildings have been immaculately renovated but they don’t feel sanitised. One of the most impressive is the threshing barn which is the first of the five gallery spaces you encounter moving from the entrance. The barn currently contains an exuberant installation by Phillida Barlow that completely fills the space such that you have to duck under or push past the hanging pompoms to move around. It is refreshing to be able to engage so directly with the artworks in this and the subsequent two galleries, a direct result of their intimate scale. Barlow has an even bigger installation in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain until October 19th which I’m definitely going to see. Hauser & Wirth have a penchant for messy artists like Barlow, Paul McCarthy or Jason Rhoades whose work spreads around spaces in a specific but slightly anarchic way which suits the farmyard roots of Durslade.
On leaving the initial sequence of three converted galleries the route takes you outside into a cloistered courtyard. “It reminds you of the geography, you feel the rain. I wanted it to feel like you are in Somerset”, says architect Luis Laplace. The new galleries are pretty conventional white box spaces expressed externally in simple brick forms with zinc roofs. A colonnade defines a long porch in front of each, with gaps where entrances occur that break up their rhythm and prevent them becoming overbearing. The surface of the cast stone is etched to give a matt finish and the Bath stone aggregate tones well with the local stone of the farm buildings.
Piet Oudolf has designed the landscaping for the whole site, including a large perennial meadow to the north of the new galleries. The perennial meadow was only planted a few months ago and is not established so we weren’t allowed to take photos. I had the chance to talk to Piet Oudolf and will do a post about the garden when it opens in September. There is an exhibition of his drawings at Durslade until October 5th.
So how does all this fit into the Somerset countryside? You might forgive a Swiss client, a Dutch landscape designer, an Argentinian architect based in France and a gang of international artists if what they created didn’t exactly harmonise with the rural English landscape, but they’ve done a remarkable job. Often the eye of an outsider sees something more clearly than those familiar with seeing it every day. The English landscape has always absorbed foreign influences as well-travelled landowners embellished their estates with fashionable additions based on ideas they had picked up in London or abroad. What integrates the potentially alien newcomer is the care taken by the owners, the designers and the artists to understand the place, to conserve its buildings, and to enhance its existing qualities through their specific responses to it. As city and country become ever closer culturally it is just such attention to local nuances and feelings that is required to allow the new in without destroying the old. Rather than arriving at a mediocre compromise of the two we can have expertly preserved old buildings and exciting new work.
The bookshop and bar were built by father and son Björn & Oddur Roth, who describe themselves as ‘art contractors’, during a 3 month residency. Made from materials scavenged from the farm and surrounding area, the aesthetic of the bar borders on favella-chic. Oddur talked me through some of the items – two ends of a butter churn, wooden ladders used as shelves and a footrail which is a piece of rail from Brunel’s broad gauge Great Western Railway that was found propping up a piece of machinery in the threshing barn.
The interior of the Farmhouse is pretty special. The walls are a patchwork of previous decoration schemes and original plaster, the artworks carefully placed so as not to dominate the architecture. It has a wonderful vibrancy from the prominence given to traces of previous lives lived there and to the work of very recent occupants. There is a video installation by Pipilotti Rist and a painted mural on the dining room walls by Guillermo Kuitca that were completed during the building work.
In recent years public funding for the arts has been slashed – Somerset County Council cut theirs altogether. There is an argument that it shouldn’t be left to private organisations with vested interests to set the cultural agenda but that is to assume they are purely motivated by money. According to art world insiders the Wirths extend huge freedom to their artists and support some awkward characters whose work must be very difficult to sell. That generosity of spirit and desire to nurture artists is abundant at Durslade, a free arts centre where the majority of visitors are never going to be able to afford to buy any of the work on show.
There is an air of experimentation about the place and you sense this is very much the start of something. It makes me think of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which began life 35 years ago with a minuscule proportion of Hauser & Wirth’s budget but now gets over 300,000 visitors a year and has just won the Museum of the Year award. ‘Everything is going to be alright’ declares Martin Creed’s neon sign across the front of the Farmhouse. I suspect it is.