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Chairs are not always for sitting on

Four years ago Langlands & Bell exhibited with Damien Hirst. Since then their work has challenged our assumptions about what architecture and design are for. Jonathan Glancey examines the blurred boundaries
Imagine if you could go around the world, slicing the tops off famous buildings, turning them on their sides and hanging them on art gallery walls. This is more or less what the artists Langlands & Bell have been doing for several years, and the results are available for inspection and contemplation at the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park. Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have a cool passion for architecture, one that has encouraged them to investigate the inner logic of famous buildings.

Without the facades to hide behind, what do the plans, or the physical organisation, of great Middle Eastern mosques or all but faceless modern office towers reveal of the connection between religion on the one hand and bureaucracy on the other, and built form? Is there some definite link between the ruling ideology of an age and the plans of contemporary buildings, or is architecture a more fluid affair altogether, with designers of individual buildings expressing their personal obsessions as much as cultural, religious, political or bureaucratic imperatives?

These are the sorts of questions Langlands & Bell persuade us to ask. The buildings they scalp around the globe are represented on clinical white card mounted on primary coloured boards and pinned like Cabbage Whites in glass-topped boxes. There is no colour or texture to distract the eye. Each building represented is a perfect abstract. Mounted together along a wall, as at the Serpentine, these white boxes have something of a hypnotic quality. They are lovely things to look at in the abstract and are very revealing of the buildings they depict.

Langlands & Bell's is not a didactic exercise in comparative architectural history, but a way of encouraging contemplation of great buildings, of revelling in the patterns made by their plans and seeing if the plans reveal a form of social control as much as an apparently logical way of organising space to best advantage.

Some of the pieces on show at the Serpentine were on view at the Saatchi Collection four years ago, in the show at which Damien Hirst showed his pickled shark. Both Hirst and Langlands & Bell chose to encase their subject matter and celebrate the cases as much as the shark or scalped buildings caught inside them.

Langlands & Bell have explored this theme further in a sequence of seven white and elemental chairs they call "Maisons de Force" (1991), on show at the Serpentine. Each seat has the model of a famous prison built into the seat under glass. They have developed this theme of architecture-into-furniture over a number of years. Aside from the fact that the chairs are very beautiful, they turn upside down the perfectly sensible commonplace notion that chairs sit inside buildings: in Langlands & Bell's world, buildings sit inside the chairs.

Can you sit on them? Art galleries will be keen to discourage the idea, but, yes, you can, although that is not the point of the pieces and anyway, since the time of the ancient Egyptians, chairs have not always been designed for sitting on.

That is certainly the case of many of the chairs architects have designed over the past 70 or 80 years. Two exhibitions running concurrently with the Langlands & Bell show - "100 Masterpieces" at the Design Museum, London and "Products of Desire" at the RIBA Architecture Centre, London - take up the theme of designing abstract furniture, or furniture designed as art or propaganda rather than for merely sitting on or eating at.

The Design Museum show begins practically enough, with garden chairs designed by the great Prussian classicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the early 1820s. Drawn from the incomparable collection of modern chairs assembled by Ralf Fehlbaum, chairman of the furniture manufacturer Vitra, the other 99 "Masterpieces" include designs that were as much commentaries on contemporary art and design theory as they were practical pieces to sit on. One thinks of Frank Gehry's Wiggle side chair (1972), a Pop sculpture conjured from corrugated cardboard. One thinks, too, Gerrit Rietveld's Zig-Zag chair (1932) or famous Roodblauwe stoel (1918), which is still sold today in flat-packs for easy assembly. Everyone who owns one tries hard to convince visitors that it is comfortable to sit on. It isn't, but it was never really anything more or less than a commentary in furniture of the investigations of the painter Piet Mondrian. In other words, it was a Langlands & Bell of its day.

Yet, the intolerance for this sort of design - design as a critical commentary or artistic statement - continues to be frowned upon. Why make a chair, I heard someone say at the Serpentine, if you can't sit on it? There are plenty of other chairs in this lively show that you cannot sit on (nearly all designed by avant-garde architects) - or, if you did, you might do yourself a mischief. There is nothing new in this. That caustic Victorian Goth, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, commented in the 1830s that is was difficult for the visitor to a Regency Gothick home not to be impaled by the fashionable and spikey furniture.

But furniture is propaganda and criticism as well as a functional and decorative tool. For many architects over the past century it has been a method of exploring new avenues in design long before it was possible to erect a building in the same or similar idiom. Bauhaus architects, including Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, fashioned famous chairs (still in production) in the 1920s before they were able to translate the ideas embodied in these designs into radical buildings.

Equally, the blow-up plastic chairs of the mid-Sixties, although fun to sit on, were intended to be more an exploration and celebration of the possibilities of new materials and manufacturing processes than the Sheratons of the day. The Post-Modern excesses of Italian architects, including Alessandro Mendini (Poltrona di Proust, 1978, a deliberate trivialisation of Baroque architecture and Impressionist painting) and Ettorre Sottsass (Carlton, 1981, a perverse shelving system veneered in wilfully banal laminates) were precursors of the most extreme (what the Italians liked to call "ironic") statements of Post-Modernist architecture. It is unlikely that anyone would sit for very long on a hand-painted Mendini armchair.

The same criticism - can't sit on it, it's impractical - has been levelled at some of the designs on show at the RIBA Architecture Centre. Here, you can come to grips with door handles by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw, and encounter a Neo-Constructivist coffee set by Zaha Hadid, wilful furniture by Piers Gough and Procter-Rihl, cool light fittings by Rick Mather, a rowing boat by Nic Bailey and, on a more clinical note, hospital furniture by ABK (Ahrends, Burton and Koralek).

While some of the pieces on display are decidely functional and with widespread, if not universal, application, others are prototypes or test- beds for new ideas. Architects and artists do not always make good product designers. Buildings tend to be much less sophisticated objects than, say, cars. When Le Corbusier attempted to design a city car (there is a full-scale wooden model of this in the Design Museum) or Mies van der Rohe a limousine, the results were all but risible. Le Corbusier's city car, a fascinating shape, would have been a nightmare to drive, while Mies's limo was, judged by the work of the great car designers and engineers, as old-fashioned and awkward as a carriage clock. Charles Holden's design for a London bus was far less imaginative and forward looking than London Transport's own engineers; the architect was treating the double-decker as a mobile building rather than a vehicle.

Product designers, in contrast to architects and artists, rarely indulge in rhetoric and philosophising in the things they shape. No one goes to John Lewis to buy an ironic statement when what they want is an iron. Or to buy an iron with a smoothing surface studded with spikes. The latter belongs to the art gallery.

Back at the Serpentine, Langlands & Bell re-introduce us to the idea that architecture and furniture are perfectly valid media through which the artist can explore lines of enquiry and personal obsessions. In between Langlands & Bell and the hospital furniture of ABK is a pantechnicon of designs and design ideas that, ranging from the practical to the polemical, keep us free from thinking in constricting straight lines and from assuming that the plan of our banal modern offices is neutral. And even from assuming that a chair is simply a machine for sitting on.

Langlands & Bell, to 27 May, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 (0171-402 0343)

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell will give a lecture on their work on 21 May, RIBA Architecture Centre (address below); credit card bookings, 0171- 631 0460 between 1pm and 5pm, Monday to Friday or buy tickets from RIBA bookshop.

Products of Desire, to 25 May, RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 (0171-580 5533)

100 Masterpieces, to 6 October, Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 (0171-403 6933).