Peter Greenaway and architecture

Englishman Peter Greenaway is currently working for the Via>Dorkwerd festival: for the Groninger Museum he is designing the exhibition Hell and Heaven: the Middle Ages in the North, he has designed an exhibition pavilion, a number of so-called proscenium arches, and he is responsible for the pavilion’s interior layout. ArchiNed spoke to Greenaway about his relationship with architecture.

Peter Greenaway (1942) is best known for such films as The Belly of an Architect, Drowning by Numbers, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and Pillow Book. In addition, he has worked on operas, he wrote the libretto for Writing to Vermeer, and he regularly acts as guest curator. In Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam he compiled the exhibition The Physical Self, which included a nude by Rubens next to live nude models and a Benetton advertising photograph featuring a new-born baby.

Greenaway, born in Wales, grew up in the east of England. He often accompanied his father, an ornithologist, on his walks. These walks kindled his love of landscape, his fascination for the legibility of landscape and genius loci, the spirit of place. At age twelve Greenaway decided he wanted to be a painter. To him, the art of painting is the source of all major art movements. Painters are the ones who experiment, their new forms of expression then being adopted by other fields of art. To him, the Postmodernist movement, considered by many to be originally a movement in architecture, started with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. During his studies at Walthamstow College of Art, Greenaway became fascinated by landscape art. But in 1965 he opted to concentrate on film.

Greenaway sees a number of parallels between the work of a director and that of an architect. Both deal with large sums of money, both have to work with people from various disciplines and must therefore have a good grasp of management, the work of both is judged by a wide-ranging group, and director and architect must be both aesthetic and practical. Should he have a second life, God forbid he adds, then he would wish to be an architect like Daniel Libeskind or Frank Gehry. A few real buildings by him have been built however. Replicas of beach houses designed by Greenaway for the film Drowning by Numbers have been built on the American westcoast and in Japan.

Particularly in his early films, architecture and landscape feature prominently in the sets. The Belly of an Architect is the film that most explicitly deals with architecture. It is about an American architect in Rome to design an exhibition about his great inspiration, Étienne-Louis Boullée. The film ruminates about the question whether the construction of a building (or work of art) is the only way to prevent its vanishing into oblivion, thereby preserving the immortality of the maker.

The Belly of an Architect was made in the 1980s in a period when Prince Charles was campaigning against modern architecture. Architecture was a subject discussed throughout England at the time, something Greenaway says hadn’t been the case since the days of Christopher Wren. With The Belly of an Architect, he wanted to make a film that addressed issues concerning the responsibility of architects: the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, the relationship between egotism and public responsibility. After the film’s release he was invited to lecture on architecture in Chicago and to sit in juries for design competitions. But he was to decline such offers, since he saw himself as a lay person in the field of architecture. He did, however, accept the invitation to design a temporary pavilion for the cultural festival Via>Dorkwerd.

Via>Dorkwerd is about the past, present and future of Reitdiepdal, an area to the north-west of the town of Groningen. It is one of the oldest cultural landscapes of Europe. The landscape of Reitdiepdal is similar in many ways to the coastal landscape of East England where Greenaway grew up and where Drowning by Numbers was filmed. His fascination for landscape is clearly apparent in the designs. He proposes, for example, to place arches in the landscape from Dorkwerd unto the sea, a little like Christo he says. These portals act like huge frames for paintings: they force the viewer to look more consciously at the landscape. One striking feature of Reitdiep is missing from the landscape of East England: the wierden or artificial mounds. These manmade mounds in the landscape served to protect hearth and home from floods: man as master over the landscape. The pavilion designed by Greenaway consists of a 12-metre-high mound topped with an arche. The lowest level is formed by a maze. Inside, a series of installations, texts and maps illustrate the relationship between the cultural-historical development and the future plans drawn up for the area. Located in the upper part of the mound is a circular space where images can be projected. Greenaway made eight documentaries about travelling through the landscape, each with a different form of transport. Spyholes in the cupola offer views across the Reitdiepdal and the city Groningen.

The design by Greenaway, which is being drawn up by Karelse Van der Meer Architecten, displays a similarity to the designs of Boullée: the pavilion will be taken down after the festival, leaving nothing but a drawing on paper.