Art and architecture (the mother of all arts?) have, from time immemorial, co-existed in a relationship charged with tension, forever alternating between the two extremes of mutual acceptance and mutual rejection. Their currently strained relations are, however, essentially based on misunderstandings of an ideological kind. Indeed, it is not so much art and architecture that are at loggerheads but, rather, ideological standpoints on design. Oliver Kruse’s nursery school building in the grounds of the Museum Island of Hombroich does not seem, at least for the present, to be taking sides in this discourse, although it does in fact adopt a clear position. A building distinguished by its extreme naturalness, its reduction of form and its functionality, Kruse’s nursery school could readily serve as a successful example of what Vittorio Lampugnani terms the »new simplicity« of architecture. However, if we consider the fact that it has been designed by a sculptor, any attempt at analysing this building must necessarily raise interesting questions about the relationship between the disciplines of art and architecture. Such questions will be broached in the following paragraphs. Speaking for many artists, the artist-cum-architect Max Bill once said: »Architecture is not art«. Speaking for many architects-cum-artists, Jacques Herzog said: »Good architecture is always art, too«. Donald Judd, for his part, maintained: If I plan a building, I am an architect, if I design furniture, I am a designer, if I make sculptures, I am either a sculptor or an artist. For all its apodicticity, this latter statement seems to be a questionable one, especially if we consider precisely Judd’s own work and the way it unites different disciplines and utilizes design principles which are either common or applicable to different media. The question resolves itself, on the other hand, wherever Judd defines function — or, to be more exact, a comprehensive understanding of functionality — as the only, and the essential, distinguishing feature between art and architecture, calling at the same time for a nonhierarchical relationship between individual disciplines and adding:
»Observing function is fun, and it does not restrict creativity; it is something special, and it is not a nuisance, but the origin of good architecture.« What is particularly interesting — or amusing, depending on how you look at it — is the emotionality with which art is either embraced or spurned. The best example of this is furnished by art museum architecture which inevitably causes a head-on collision of diametrically opposed interests and differences of opinion. Whilst the architects themselves see it as an opportunity to give free rein to their »artistic« vein or even to approach architecture as an artistic discipline, the artists themselves, as the users, demand functionality above all else, and quite understandably, too. Whilst hardly anyone still believes in the absoluteness of the tenet that »form follows function«, one cannot, justifiably, expect the complete opposite to be case, namely a complete disregard, not to say violation, of function by form. The way many architects see and understand themselves is just as alarming as the way they see and understand art. Indeed, the present situation is altogether paradoxical inasmuch as it is not only certain sculptural approaches in architecture which come under fire from the artists‘ camp but also, and precisely, its formalistic manifestations.
During the past several decades, numerous functional buildings have been designed by artists, primarily for the exhibition of artworks. Most of these buildings may be understood as collective criticism, albeit unspoken, of present-day architecture. They must be viewed against the background of those currently successful trends in architecture which are distinguished, on the one hand, by a fashionably individualistic vocabulary of form and, on the other, by empty, meaningless gesture as a presumptuous expression of genius. The buildings designed by artists — mostly artists of the older generation, like Judd, Heerich, Walther etc. — generally exemplify architecture as a unity of material, structure, proportion and function. What characterizes both their artistic and their architectural work is an approach which is not only based on sheer rationality, formal logic and purist/minimalist principles but also coupled with high moral, socio-political objectives. Interestingly enough, the same applies to many Concept and Context artists, mainly of the younger generation, who, whilst hardly having any buildings to their credit, rarely miss the opportunity to put their architectural and/or interior design ideas into practice when exhibiting their artwork, such interventions being their only effective means of criticizing the status quo, offering alternatives and exploring both the limits and the interdisciplinary potentials of art and architecture. Indeed, it is quite astonishing to observe how these young artists — from Acconci to Zobernig — arrive at very similar results, i.e. purist and functional, in spite of the fact that they subscribe to an altogether different approach which does not have its origins in any systematic grounding in the formal principles of sculpture or architecture. Viewed within this spectrum, the architecture of Oliver Kruse is, on the one hand, in the tradition of classical sculpture and, on the other, more hybrid and pragmatic, doubtless because he belongs to a younger generation. Fully trained in the sculptor’s craft, Kruse designs exhibitions, furniture and buildings, always basing his work on his own strong sense of architectural form. Whether what he designs is art or not is determined both by the function and the context. Whilst the art question has by no means lost its meaning, art has, for the sculptors and architects of Kruse’s generation, whose work is characterized by an interdisciplinary cross-over, forfeited its hierarchical status and hence also its emotional component.
Kruse’s »Children’s Island« is part of the »Museum Island of Hombroich«, which means that the context was an altogether demanding one from the start, especially as the building project, whilst being difficult in the sense that it necessitated a responsible approach, was neither particularly spectacular nor particularly prestigious. Though Kruse, a student of Erwin Heerich’s and involved from the very outset in the Hombroich project and now a member of the executive committee of the »Insel Hombroich Foundation«, was the obvious choice of architect for this nursery school, he was in fact faced with a particularly difficult challenge. The problem lay not only in the requirement to integrate the nursery school building into a complex of buildings which already bore Heerich’s »trade mark« but also in the need to do justice, in terms of both form and content, to the Hombroich notion of a new kind of relationship between art and nature, between art and life. The integration of a nursery school into a cultural complex is entirely in keeping with the ideals and educational theory behind the Museum Island of Hombroich, according to which even the very youngest should be familiarized with the parallel worlds of nature and art, for at that age they are still at their most impressionable or, to be more precise, they are still of an age at which they are at once entirely unspoiled and highly receptive. In much the same way as the buildings and artworks at Hombroich do not force themselves upon visiting members of the public but, rather, merely afford them opportunities for contemplation and, through the inspiring powers of art and the purifying powers of nature, give them the chance to make discoveries and realize truths, so, too, are children taken seriously rather than taught. In other words, an educational approach of this kind puts its trust above all in children’s ability to educate themselves rather than in any preconceived method or system of (mis)education. If we attempt to draw conclusions from such an educational approach as the one pursued in Hombroich — in other words, to define the architecture which best suits it — we will inevitably hit upon the same criteria as those on which Kruse bases his purely autonomous art: unity of material, structure and proportion, as well as a formal logic which enables us to comprehend the creative process — in short, a language of architecture which is totally communicative and hence socially oriented, whereby everything is geared to minimizing individual decisions or at least subordinating them to rational structures. Of course, good architecture does not have its origin in a system, whether simple or complex, but, rather, in a vision of its destination, of the building and its rooms, of the climate and the weather, of the people who live and work, learn and teach there; in a vision of the communicative processes that take place there, of time and its passing etc. The realization of this vision is contingent both upon the cultural context and upon value-related attitudes. Structural art and structural architecture are expressions of a certain valuerelated attitude. Proceeding from a human standpoint, they endeavour to objectify creative processes in such a way that they are more transparent, communicable and comprehensible. Overriding principles of order take the place of subjective composition.
One of the significant aspects of the century we have just left behind us is the extremely high degree to which self-reflection has taken place in all the various disciplines in consequence both of diversification and specialization in all walks of life and of the loss of a universally valid conception of the world. It is understandable that sculptors and architects, whose themes are corporeality and spatiality respectively, arrived at similar, related results once they subordinated, respectively, the mimetic and the functional principle to the autonomous formation of space and began to concern themselves with the inherent laws of their respective media. In this sense, Oliver Kruse’s Children’s Island is highly self-reflective. The methodical way he develops spaces from predetermined surfaces makes direct reference to his teacher Erwin Heerich. But whilst his starting point is the same, Kruse adopts an altogether independent approach which is governed not just by material or function. His architecture is lighter, more complex, more open, more dynamic and distinguished by a more pronounced interaction of inner and outer spaces. Moreover, Kruse sets himself the task of continuing, through the structural elements of the building, the same relationships of dimension, proportion and materiality which found expression in the explicit space/surface configuration of Heerich’s Museum Pavilion, whereby proportional relationships are here more sharply defined and far more legible. The clearly visible gaps between the skeleton structure of the glue-laminated beams and uprights and the standard-size, three-ply panels of Douglas fir permit the observant visitor to recognize the basic dimensions of the wall- and room-forming elements, namely 6×9, 3×6, 3×3 metres and their logical subdivisions. It is interesting to note that the panels are fitted flush with the skeleton structure and that all the connections of the latter are concealed and even the screw-holes in the panels are plugged. Here it is the sculptor Kruse at work, for in this regard it is the integrity and tranquillity of surface and volume, in other words, sculpturality, which are more important than a so-called »honest« exposure of the details. Once he has become aware of this systematic structure, which is recognizable no matter where he is standing, whether inside or outside, and from any viewing angle, the now curious visitor will invariably query the structural principle of the building as a whole. The answer, whilst being a very simple one, is not all that obvious at first glance and the visitor has to walk through and around the building several times before he realizes it. Two cuboid modules, each measuring 9x6x6 m, standing parallel with each other, but spaced apart and slightly staggered, are connected by means of a glazed central section of the same height. This central section is an extension of one of the modules, namely the open, two-storey-high module which accommodates the communal room and the kitchenette, whilst the other module accommodates all the other function rooms of the nursery school (cloakroom, washrooms, office, rest-room) on two floors. Covering this simple configuration is a roof structure consisting of two monopitch roof elements sloping slightly in opposite directions and projecting well beyond the walls of the building. They intermesh in a way which emphasises the glazed, central element of the building and also cover the free spaces resulting from the staggered arrangement of the two modules, making them seem like spaces cut out of an imagined cube. Indeed, the combination of these simply arranged modules and the simple roof structure creates an ingenious complexity of spatial relationships. Not only the basic grid structure of the outer shell of the building but also its internal divisions and sub-divisions are consistently proportional in the ratio of 3 : 6: 9. Whilst this sculptor-designed building is, in its entirety, a fascinating demonstration of rational design and formal discipline, it does not in any way awaken the impression of striving for autonomy, neither on a sculptural nor on an architectural level. With what seems (but only seems) to have been the utmost ease, Oliver Kruse has created a complex, and hence exciting, structure of interacting spaces and light effects which meets the most demanding of aesthetic and functional requirements. The »Children’s Island« is a project which in no way raises a monitory finger, a project which offers an open yet ordered structure for the complete freedom of thoughts and actions, for the mental and emotional development of our children; it is a place of sheltered retreat, of farsighted outlook and timely awakening. It is an architecture which has no truck with architectonic sophistication or even with archetypal forms of architecture, for the functions for which Kruse develops the spaces are far too complex. As Donald Judd said, »observing function is fun«. And it was obviously fun for Oliver Kruse, too.