LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Tony Fretton: Cultural Construction


Architect Tony Fretton and his award-winning, London-based practice bring a social spirit to art and architecture through impressive structures and spaces that promote culture and a sense of community.

Since founding his own practice in 1982, British architect Tony Fretton has garnered international acclaim for creating exemplary art spaces and social projects that focus on culture within the community. Early projects, such as The Lisson Gallery (1986), a leading London space dedicated to contemporary art, followed by the gallery’s second location that opened in 1992, set the firm on a cultural trajectory.

Over the years, Fretton and his team enjoyed success for their impressive portfolio of art-based architectural commissions. From Camden Arts Centre in North London and Quay Arts Centre on the Isle of Wight, to the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum in Denmark (2008) which recently took a host of awards including 2009 Stirling Prize Building of the Year Award and the 2009 RIBA European Award, these remain the studio’s most celebrated art spaces. Private residences for artists such as Anish Kapoor and Brad Lochore, not to mention exhibition design, also exemplify the high esteem that the art community holds for Tony Fretton Architects.

However, the practice is by no means confined to high profile art projects. In almost 30 years it has proposed and produced social housing, facilities for the physically disabled and administrative projects, such as the recently completed British Embassy in Warsaw, Poland and the competition-winning scheme for a new town hall and administrative center in Deinze, Belgium.

The studio’s current projects include the construction of a contemporary commercial and residential development within the historic Frederiksstaden district of Copenhagen. It was also recently shortlisted for the design of the town hall and public square in Lund, Sweden.

Tony Fretton’s definition of luxury:
Time and good fortune

If luxury were:

A place
Your own clear consciousness.

A person
Your closest friend or lover.

An object
A work of art or literature.

A moment
Every moment.

About the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum in Denmark
“The brief, which was very beautifully written, made the suggestion that the new museum should complete the farmyard that is the centerpiece of all of the buildings, replacing an agricultural building that had burned down. When my colleague, Danish landscape architect Torben Schonherr, and I visited the location it was absolutely clear to us that the view from the yard was too beautiful to enclose. The land leading from the yard out to the sea, that was absolutely level and had been cultivated for centuries, was a thing of beauty in itself. It seemed to us that it should be the first thing that visitors saw as they approached the museum. That decision was the key to the location and interior layout of the new museum.

As visitors approach the museum, there is a moment of concentration given by the front of the building stepping forward and taking the view of the land away. Here a generous canopy provides a place where visitors converge briefly into a community of strangers. Inside the café and bookshop there is an unexpected view of an apple orchard behind the building. Then you enter the central gallery space and rediscover the view of the land, framed at the end. Here there is a room for resting and simply looking at the landscape. Although Fuglsang is not a large gallery, its top-lit spaces create a certain visual depletion. The room looking at the landscape provides a moment with no art to reconnect with the outside world. The landscape orientates you, and then you go back into the galleries knowing where you are in the world. Each gallery has a different scale and configuration but is linked to the others and the building as a whole by simple continuities of style and detail. The clue to this solution came from the existing buildings around the farmyard. Each is of a different style but they form a coherent whole through their connecting similarities. Art exhibition spaces have to play a difficult game. On the one hand, they must have a visual adaptability that allows very different works to be successfully exhibited while, on the other, they need to be experienced as concrete places. In Fuglsang, the exhibition spaces are designed as backgrounds for art with the aim that viewers look at the art and not the room. They also provide stimuli at the periphery of the viewers vision that keep the viewers’ eye alive.” Tony Fretton


What made you decide to become an architect?
I was going to become a painter until the age of about 17, but then, absolutely by chance, I read a magazine article about architecture. What struck me was its capacity to be a social art – to deal with social and artistic issues at the same time. Since becoming an architect, I’ve discovered that this is a very difficult proposition – to make a relationship between an art statement, which aims to make a contribution to culture, and daily use, often by people that seem to be oblivious, yet still are at the effect of a high degree of emotional complexity.

How do you balance the tension between creating a stunning space without taking anything away from the art?
It’s interesting – quite often my concerns are weighted towards my clients or the people that will use the building, and it’s been weighted toward their expectations. What I’ve discovered, upon reflection, is that people want more artistic architecture, and there’s a whole issue of iconic architecture, which you could take a stance against, but it does contain something interesting. People who are commissioning architecture, it turns out, want style.

You have created homes for artists, such as Anish Kapoor. How do you find working with such creative, visual clients?
After a little negotiation things went well. Artists with a profile sometimes choose architects that will service their own ambitions and the result is architecture that is artistically uninteresting. There needs to be a combination of a strong architect, who knows their own position, and a strong client who knows theirs. There will always be a degree of tension in that situation, but from that you get the best work.

How does working with non-creative clients differ?
All clients are creative, and the best ones are often outside the world of art. What I like most are the benefits that art centers can bring to society at large, not just to the arts public.

Art has this reputation of exclusivity, yet there’s a very inclusive quality to your work.
Yes, but the exclusivity doesn’t necessarily come through the artist, often it comes from the mere fact that it is a minority interest. I think that this aspect often leads to an apprehension that art is somehow asocial, but most artists I know are deeply embedded in society and want to be part of it.

What has been your most personally fulfilling project?
The Lisson Gallery was very formative; it’s where a lot of ideas came together for me. The Red House was interesting in that I was able to make architecture that was grand and urban. Fuglsang Kunstmuseum was fantastically appealing because its clientele are just ordinary Danish people. Camden Arts Centre was a building that I loved working on because it was a building that existed, that people liked and said to me “don’t change it”; so, in the gallery spaces we made changes that were deep but invisible. On the ground floor, which hadn’t been open to the public before, we were able to do anything we wanted. Here the most interesting aspect was the garden at the back, an area of land that wasn’t really used. We enclosed it partly with glass and made a garden space that people take their children to and play, while they relax over coffee, and maybe do not even look at the exhibition. I find that aspect of a cultural building very interesting, it’s not just about showing art, it’s the creative atmosphere around the art… so each project holds a discovery in it and that’s what makes it interesting.

You are one of the country’s top architects. Describe your studio and what sets it apart from other leading architectural practices.
We are stylistically and culturally innovative… but in a silent way.

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