November 2009 saw the opening of the much talked about CIRCA on Jellicoe, a purpose-designed exhibition venue covered in a highly seductive cloak of lustrous warm brown shades.
November 2009 saw the opening of the much talked about CIRCA on Jellicoe, a purpose-designed exhibition venue covered in a highly seductive cloak of lustrous warm brown shades. Significantly, CIRCA’s launch corresponded with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of that famous evolutionist statement, On the Origin of the Species (1859), a text that concerns itself with natural selection. Charles Darwin’s absence at CIRCA is made present via the new structure’s crowning Darwin Room; adding to the über-naming of the gallery, the base of the edifice carries a third name, Speke, after the British explorer John Hanning Speke. The finite nature of these naming gestures contradicts the openness of the gallery’s main name, CIRCA, much in the way that the allusion to place in the venue’s naming makes it sound somewhat like a northern suburbs restaurant.Despite the cabinet of names, architecture, here in an iconographically reductive way, commands a powerful presence: I have rarely heard non-architects talk about design with such enthusiasm. Uncritical as this general appraisal may be, it inspires hope for the emergence of an architectural discourse from within a broader public who uses South Africa’s built environment on an everyday basis.Wise as the organisational link between the postmodern extension of the Everard Read and the new building is, CIRCA does not fulfil architect Pierre Swanepoel’s ideal of “taking back the street”, as he expressed in a speech on the opening night. This stance is too one-sided. If anything, the street should be given back to the city by developers and architects. Simply stretching the same paving texture across the asphalt of Keyes Avenue to link the respective galleries is not enough. This gritty urban surface – stretched to its logical conclusion – might have taken the everyday user, with real conviction, all the way up the curved ramp to the threshold of the gallery’s main exhibition space. An opportunity to literally pull the street into the gallery is lost in the visually busy concrete-grass strip landscaping that leads one to the foot of the slowly ascending ramp. At street level, on Jellicoe that is, the low wall edging the elliptical core of the building unfortunately forces visitors heading for the entrance off their orbits. Having passed through the deceptively transparent monumental glass sliding door, one is half-heartedly introduced to a number of Karel Nel’s large format ‘unfoldings’ of outer space. These look cramped and have no room to ‘breathe’ in the monastically tight Speke spaces. To the left, the fire-escape, which masks off the neighbouring petrol station on Jan Smuts Avenue, seems to nod to a similar idea used by Marcel Breuer in his 1966 design for the new Whitney Museum of American Art, also a corner building that he wanted to ‘protect’ from the more brash numbers lining New York’s Madison Avenue and 75th Street. In the case of CIRCA, the screening device is pulled much too far forward, effectively hiding the gallery from view as one approaches along the Jan Smuts trajectory from the south – an irony resulting from architecture’s notorious obsessions with hiding things undemocratically labelled as eyesores.Leaving the ground plane, CIRCA demonstrates a clever outward twist – of the New York Guggenheim’s (1959) inward ramp example – which prepares the visitor for the art to come. Ascending the ramp towards this gallery’s cocoon-like main exhibition space one finds oneself on the inside of the façade but simultaneously still outside – between the dermis (the building’s concrete core) and its epidermis (the curvaceous three-dimensional bar-code which becomes wall-like in perspective and dissolves when addressed at a ninety degree angle). This deep façade reveals an accomplished borrowing and development of Mies van der Rohe’s restrained use of ornamentation (I refer here to Van der Rohe’s application of his emblematic bronze-coloured steel I-sections to the soaring façade of his iconic Seagram Building (1958) in New York). In their tight rhythmic arrangement, CIRCA’s curtain wall of T-shaped aluminium profiles result in this façade’s subtle changeability, constantly oscillating between opacity and transparency, movement and stasis.At the top of the first ramp, circulation and gallery merge into a cacophonic art cocoon. Once inside, any attempt to meditate on the deep space depicted in Nel’s work, or the monolithic word shapes of Willem Boshoff’s reflections on ugliness, beauty, appearance and reality, is severely disturbed by the space’s amplification of urban traffic sounds. The looming bulkhead above is also visually loud; its off-centred position on the ceiling lends it excessive importance, and its lowness is distracting. The largest works are poorly placed. One is forced to contemplate them where one has the shortest distance to do so. This dilemma is inscribed into the geometrical nature of the ellipse and threatens to become a permanent enemy of curatorial efforts. In this central space, Nel’s book-like excerpts of realms too large to fathom do better with more space around them; placing them on plinths, however, is conservative and detracts from the potential they harbour to lose oneself in all that their imagery might suggest. These works beg to be suspended – as their content implicitly is – in time and space. Elaborate text panels adjacent these depictions further deprive viewers of escaping into the dream-space of their own imaginations. Nel’s Trembling Field (2009) was made for the opening two-man show, titled Penelope and the Cosmos, and the context of the new space. A quivering body of water is held in an elliptically-shaped steel vessel; the water surface is reflected up against the gallery wall. The recurrence of ovoid bodies of water and light within the gallery’s ovular envelope come across as contrived and sentimental. The frozen, rippled monolithic surface of Boshoff’s Cavafi’s Circle (2009) is more convincing than its more literal neighbour, but its modest size cannot compete with the scale of the other works in the space. It would have been refreshing to see this work in conjunction with some of the artist’s other stone works, which seem to drift aimlessly in a loose arrangement outside the actual gallery. Getting to these works involves three options. One is to walk up to the Darwin Room and use the ascending staircase, alternatively to return the way one came; the third option is a red herring. The main exhibition space includes a non-existing corner, an elliptical advantage, offering the exciting prospect of a second outer-building experience. It is, however, unnaturally blocked by a sign that unequivocally offers: “Private”.