A sharp, low building at the north end of the Place Georges Pompidou is home to a reverently preserved example of an intriguing type of interior. The building in question was designed by Renzo Piano to house the unique atelier of Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
In the words of the Pompidou’s free leaflet, Piano’s reconstuction ‘is not intended to be an ethnological recreation of the layout of the place down to the smallest detail, but to communicate the unity that Brancusi created between his sculptures inside that studio space.’
Apparently Brancusi had amassed a significant number of works within his studio towards the latter end of his career. In that singular space he had them arranged in ‘mobile groups’ – groups of objects in such perfect spatial arrangement that the groups became, to his mind, works in their own right. He even refused to sell works toward the end of his life, that he might not disrupt the delicate equilibrium which he had created; when works were sold, they were replaced with plaster versions, keeping the spatial balance intact.
As a designer and maker myself, I can relate to the desire to understand a thing which one has made in a spatial context. The desire to put it in a space with other objects, and feel how it pushes and pulls on them. Indeed, the dust covered groups of objects on our coffee table attest to the difficulty of moving on from a particularly good arrangement of things.
One of the objects on our coffee table at present is a bowl designed by Max Lamb, a contemporary designer who has more than a passing similarity with Brancusi in his approach to forming material. Lamb’s approach to working up forms often seems to involve an engagement in dialogue with material, a give and take in which the material’s response to the sculptor’s strokes is central to the form a piece takes. In the words of the leaflet again, Brancusi ‘considered the material to have a life of its own, a uniqueness that he had to seek out and understand in order to achieve unity with the form, believing that the sculpture was already contained within the material chosen and his task was to reveal it.’
Back in Brancusi’s Atelier, it is difficult not to buy in to his assertion that there is a right way to arrange these objects. There is an exquisite sense within the space that things are as they should be. Despite the absolute stasis of the works, hermetically sealed within Piano’s glass walled studio rooms, there is an exquisite sense of tension and slackness, between the objects, the groups, and the space between them. This is a feeling that was missing when, in June this year, Elizabeth and I saw his Bird in Space on its own at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The Atelier Brancusi is beauty in arrangement, and a powerful argument for an understanding of space that goes far beyond the functional.