Olaf Street sounds as though it should be in some Scandinavian city or other. No doubt there’s a street so named in several Norwegian towns, but there is also an Olaf Street in London W11, of mysterious origin. Could King Olaf II of Norway, fresh from asserting his suzerainty in the Orkneys, have decided to celebrate by keeping an English mistress in what was to become West Kensington a thousand years later? For those who can’t always afford taxis it’s an area which is now served, if somewhat erratically, by Latimer Road Underground Station and the 295 bus; but, whatever its beginnings, Olaf Street, London W11 is still off the beaten track and it’s a very surprising place in which to come across a large and exceptionally elegant modern art gallery. This gallery, sensitively transformed from a yellow- and red-brick coachworks, is part of the Louise T. Blouin Foundation and Institute. Within it, lectures on weighty subjects are held.
There are many strange aspects about this location. It’s not in Notting Hill, nor is it in Shepherds Bush exactly. It’s in a sort of no-man’s-land between the two. A street sign proclaims that Olaf Street is in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but an application on a lamp post for the Louise T. Blouin Institute to hold parties and stay open after midnight indicates that the very same street belongs to Hammersmith and Fulham. It’s not until after dark that a more transcendent truth becomes manifest. At night, a permanent ‘lightwork’ by the Los Angeles-born artist James Turrell transforms this remarkable creation of Louise T. Blouin McBain — the partially New York-based, jet-setting French–Canadian mover, shaker, socialite, philanthropist and art-magazine owner — into a very bravely located cultural outpost of North America.
A year ago a James Turrell show marked the opening of this unusual Institute. Now is also a good time to visit. Turrell’s aesthetic themes of space and light are continued in the current exhibition devoted to the work of Richard Meier, the architect who is famous in America above all, perhaps, for his gigantic multimillion-dollar Getty Center in Los Angeles, which opened in December 1997.
The Getty Center, built on a high chaparral in the Santa Monica Hills, has even been compared by Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian to the Emperor Hadrian’s sprawling Villa at Tivoli in the Sabine Hills east of Rome. The Getty Center houses the paintings and other works originally bought for the Getty Museum in Malibu. Since the Malibu building (which now concentrates on Greek and Roman antiquities) was based on ancient floor plans and designs for villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s safe to call it either Pre-Modern or Post-Modernist. In contrast, the architecture of Meier is, in a nutshell, Modernist. The architecture, however, is only half the story of this show.
Meier is understandably more eclectic than the first generation of Modernists, and he has expressed interest not only in the modern greats but also in the Baroque era and in the whole history of architecture. He is passionately keen on what he calls ‘the colour white’. Even when he uses stone or wood these materials tend to come as close as may be to being white, too. In photographs of Meier’s work, however, you can see daytime patches of pure blue sky peeping and shining through glass or through empty spaces framed by stone or metal. At night, in contrast, thoughtfully lit interiors, seen through large expanses of glass, look attractively orange from the outside.
Born in 1938, Meier is a second-generation Modernist. As an innovator, therefore, you can’t fairly compare him with Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. Meier did work for a time with Marcel Breuer (born 1902) of Bauhaus fame. The latter was a designer of classic chairs but the rather luxurious-looking chaise-longue in this show by Meier (Americans call it ‘chaise lounge’, apparently) is never going to be as popular as Breuer’s pioneering tubular Wassily chair, for example.
As everybody knows, architectural exhibitions can be rather dull and tiring for the layman. This show is neither. Meier doesn’t design only chairs and stools. He also has designed plates, glasses, pitchers, bowls, cutlery, a ‘Tea and Coffee Piazza’ and a watch without a dial. The most striking object here is a limited edition grand piano in black lacquer and silvery metal. The large architectural models of the Getty Center, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy and the Neugebauer House, Naples, Florida, for example, are superb. Backed by big photos a visitor can imagine himself on site. Some of Meier’s architectural drawings are admirable, too.
Meier is also showing his collages and his abstract metal sculpture. The collages are somewhat less lively than those of Kurt Schwitters but their plane tickets and female nude photos have a certain intimate, autobiographical charm. Alas, this has largely been neutralised here by hanging them in identical pure white frames and in perfect rows like drilled soldiers. The abstract sculpture is not up to the Anthony Caro standard, of course, but it more than passes muster.
Judging by his work, taken as a whole, Meier is a cultured, idealistic and creative perfectionist. His architecture has the capacity to lift the human spirit. The only general reservation I have about architecture which is so clean and white and transparent and neat is that just occasionally it can become a little spooky; not in a Gothic horror way — you need dark crypts, etc., for that — but spooky in a sort of cold and empty way. Imagine a perfect Modernist swimming-pool forever unencumbered by friends.
I first heard Louise McBain talk at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Most listeners came to the conclusion that her interest in visual art was not so much for its own sake as for what it could do in terms of international communication, business opportunities, and so on. Be that as it may — and bearing in mind that it takes all sorts to make a world — she has created something remarkable in Olaf Street, London W11. It is to be hoped that, when the vast new Shepherds Bush Centre is built nearby in a year or so, her Institute will spring to life not just when there is a lecture, music recital or at
Private View time (when celebrities and other glamorous types abound) but on a daily basis.
Two constructive suggestions. Will whichever London boroughs are concerned please grant permission soon to have signposts pointing the way to the elusive Olaf Street? Secondly, please may we have something to sit down on in the galleries — not counting Meier’s piano stool — to read the catalogue, for example? The Institute admirably boasts a pleasant café and in its fridge at the moment are some small bottles of Blossom Hill Chardonnay from California. I did mention that this is a cultural outpost of North America — an outpost which adds a unique flavour to London’s cosmopolitan credentials.