Art-chitecture: 6 Stunning Artist-Architect Collaborations

There is a thin line between art and architecture which often gets blurred. When artists and architects embrace this ambiguity and work together, remarkable things can happen.

Jon Cornachio Jon Cornachio

There is a thin line between art and architecture that often gets blurred. Many claim that usability is what separates the two disciplines, but that is not always the case. Is a pavilion a work of architecture even though it lacks a specific program? Is a stained glass window a work of art even though it serves a clear purpose?

When artists and architects embrace this ambiguity and work together, remarkable things can happen. The following six projects explore the possibilities of artist-architect collaborations. They are the products of creative and rational minds coming together to create buildings that are both beautiful objects and highly functional spaces.

Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center by Henning Larsen Architects and Batteriid Architects, Reykjavik, Iceland

In collaboration with Olafur Eliasson

The architects of the Harpa Concert Hall knew that its prominent site, located at the edge of the city’s harbor, demanded an iconic building capable of “reflecting sky and harbor space as well as the vibrant life of the city.” To achieve this, they collaborated with Olafur Eliasson, a world-renowned artist and native of Iceland. Together the team designed a 3D façade composed of 12-sided steel polyhedrons, known as quasi bricks, infilled with special color-effect glass. The unique geometry of the façade, inspired by the geology of Iceland, causes the glass to change color and opacity with the angle of the sun.

The collaboration was successful, Eliasson says, because as an artist he was afforded more creative freedom than the architects. As he explained in an interview with The Guardian: “the brutality of clients has created more compromises which some architects have failed to navigate. With art you never have a client who says things like: ‘Can you change that color into green?’, because then they don’t have a work of art anymore.”

Tsai Residence and Guest House by HHF Architects, Ancram, N.Y., United States

In collaboration with Ai Weiwei/FAKE Design

The Tsai couple desired a weekend house centered around their growing art collection. HHF Architects, in collaboration with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, accomplished this with an elegantly simple design of four boxes clad in galvanized iron. The solid boxes are connected by glazed passages which let in natural light while protecting the artwork inside. The wood-framed structure and corrugated metal exterior are a reference to the agricultural vernacular of the region. These time-honored construction details also speak to Ai Weiwei’s interest in craftsmanship, as he has often been critical of shoddy building practices.

The couple was so pleased with the results of the collaboration that, three years after its completion, they commissioned the team to design a guest house on the property. The Y-shaped guest house is clad in corrugated corten steel, which both harmonizes and contrasts with the façade of the main house. At the center of the timber-clad interior lies a gallery space for the couple’s sculpture collection.

Norwegian National Opera and Balletby Snøhetta, Oslo, Norway

In collaboration with Jorunn Sannes, Kalle Grude, Kristian Blystad, Astrid Løvaas and Kirsten Wagle

The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet was conceived as a work of public sculpture. In keeping with this theme, a variety of artists were invited to collaborate on its design. The main façade consists of a sloped, public plaza which appears to crash, like a wave, around the largely glazed foyer. The plaza, designed by sculptors Jorunn Sannes, Kalle Grude and Kristian Blystad, is constructed of 33,000 individually shaped slabs of Carrara marble.

The non-glazed portions of the building are clad in aluminum panels, designed by textile artists Astrid Løvaas and Kirsten Wagle. The panels are embossed with thousands of concave and convex dots, which shimmer in the sunlight and give the façade a fabric-like texture. In contrast to this metallic exterior, the interior features a sculptural staircase of ammonia-treated oak, designed by the architects. You can learn about the contributions of all the artists involved in the project here.

Canyon Residence by LEHRER ARCHITECTS LA, Santa Monica, Calif., United States

In collaboration with Charlie and Jo Ann Kaplan

The Canyon Residence was created by architect Michael Lehrer for his clients, sculptor Charlie Kaplan, and his wife, landscape artist Joanne Kaplan. The couple was intimately involved in the design and construction of their house, a process which took over 12 years to complete.

The collaboration resulted in a contemporary home, finished in white stucco, which sits like a sculpture in the verdant landscape. The steel-framed walls appear to hover above the ground, emphasizing their sculptural quality. The architect worked closely with the couple to create interior spaces, enclosed in sliding glass walls, which can extend seamlessly into the surrounding garden. The organization of the house, around a central glass spine which terminates at a site-specific marble sculpture, also speaks to the collaborative effort of the artists and their architect. In an interview about the process, Charlie Kaplan explained: “As clients, we played to our strengths: Joanne participated in the review of the design and I participated more in the review of the mechanics of the construction.”

Ark Nova by Anish Kapoor, Matsushima, Japan

In collaboration with Arata Isozaki

In 2011, Japan was devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Two years later, Anish Kapoor, a British artist known for his large-scale installations, and Arata Isozaki, a distinguished Japanese architect, collaborated to create Ark Nova, an inflatable concert hall capable of touring the afflicted areas. The temporary structure blurred the lines between sculpture and architecture. Although Kapoor had previously designed inflatable structures, the scale of this project, which was able to accommodate 500 spectators, and functional concerns, such as sight lines and acoustics, necessitated collaboration with an architect. The two made a successful pairing because their work shared a similar preoccupation with color, light and space-making.

The concert hall was skinned in a lightweight membrane of PVC-coated polyester, which enabled it to be easily disassembled and moved to new locations. When inflated, this translucent membrane diffused natural light, giving the space a soft, purple glow. The interior was fitted with removable flooring and seating, built from the wood of cedar trees toppled by the earthquake. You can learn more about the design of this spectacular project here.