Context in design and art


CrossArtists are all inspired and influenced by their contemporaries, which may or may not be a conscious thing. The age we live in, the information highway, the technologies and materials available to us today, place us in a kind of time capsule, where these present-day conditions are unique. They have never been before, nor will they ever be again. We can’t avoid context. To some degree our creations are a reflection of these times, and when we look back on previous works we see these influences, elements and little stories of those times.  In many notable works of art we can say the artist has captured the zeitgeist or spirit of those times.

In architecture, fashion and trends enable the building to be read, and this can identify the period of time in which the building was designed and the influences the design came under. However fashion and trends only form part of the context of the creative design process, and it is the degree to which this context has been utilised that reflects the success or otherwise of the building, and form its zeitgeist.

Take, for example, Selwyn churches. This was a unique ecclesiastic style of building which originated in the early days of New Zealand’s colonial settlement.

This style speaks about the transition from a long established building in stone (in the “motherland”) to one of building in timber.  The pioneering environment in colonial New Zealand meant architects had to adapt rapidly in order to successfully create durable buildings. The problem was they had to find new building materials from unproven sources, and there were a number of failures despite the use of stone. It was Bishop Selwyn who managed (eventually) to engage two architects who created the celebrated new style in timber, a plentiful resource in those times.

These two, Thatcher and Baber, may have designed in timber, but still built in the Gothic style, blending, if you like, a traditional religious model with a non-traditional (certainly not preferred for long-term durability) building medium. They had an appreciation of the context of the environment in which they were building, which proved highly successful.
Furthermore, intensifying or highlighting certain aspects of the environment, or showing an appreciation of the context in which a piece of work was produced, creates a closer relationship with the viewer, who is able to identify more fully with the works.

Architect and tutor Pete Bosley encouraged us as students to thoroughly examine issues of context in our creative processes. He was one of the architects involved in the design of Te Papa Museum, and he described the design process which gave the “story” behind its inception.

Now whether you like the building or not, there is no denying that it is a powerfully significant national building, and it is the strength of the “story” behind its design that helps to make it so.

The story talks about geology, the landscape, Maori/Pakeha cultural links, and the Treaty of Waitangi, amongst other things, and any one of these factors can be used to inspire the use of materials, or to create certain spaces, shapes or volumes. They can also reference reasons for creating the different aspects of the building.

For example, a central wedge shaped volume within the building symbolises both dividing and uniting, the natural and urban, Maori and Pakeha, with a large replica of the Treaty document at the apex. Also, there are large boulders clustered around the entranceway which symbolise the earthmother, the Tangata whenua, and people new to New Zealand.
So in future years this civic building will be read as the zeitgeist for the time in which it was created, containing all the aspects within the design which we deem important to us in today’s society.

For a further excellent example of the term zeitgeist, track down a book called “The Family of Man”. In 1955 the Museum of Modern Art in New York produced a photographic exhibition “The Family of Man”, curated by Edward Steichen. These photographs subsequently went into producing a book of the same name and they became famous for the way in which the images give a wonderfully complete cross-section through humanity for those times.

Ashley Grant, B(Arch) Artist, Sculptor, Writer

Ashley’s sculpture and creative work can be viewed at the Lightwave Gallery, 31 Totara Street, Mount Maunganui.


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