Andrea Grützner’s research is almost always focused on the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the individual’s perception of their built environments. ‘I think when an individual interacts with a building or space, they break into a balancing act between likeness and abstraction,’ she says, ‘between orientation and dissolution.’
All images: Andrea Grützner, from the series Hive, 2017 ongoing Courtesy of the artist, Julie Saul Gallery and Robert Morat Galerie
As a teenager, Grützner strolled the corridors of her soulless German school buildings with nary a particular thought. ‘I just took it for granted,’ she says. ‘In Germany, most schools and university buildings are very standard and functional. They were built between 1960 and 1990, and nothing about them resonates much.’
But when Unseen, the prestigious Dutch photography fair in Amsterdam, announced its theme for the ING Unseen Talent Award earlier this year, Grützner’s backflipped to those school days, or her earliest relation- ship with the halls of academia. At the time she was in Melbourne, Australia, for her solo exhibition at the Centre For Contemporary Photography, which presented the series Erbgericht and Tanzte. The local university, RMIT, provided her with a studio. And it was the ongoing reconstruction of that academic campus that got her thinking about architecture-for-education as a topic. The Unseen theme was Common Ground. ‘And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that pretty much all of my work explores this topic in some way,’ explains Grützner.
The reconstruction of RMIT is called New Academic Street and it’s transforming the heart of the campus. For two decades, the university has been embracing cutting-edge internal and external architecture – erected in all styles from deconstructivism to post-modernism, and often embracing the uncanny. Huge holes, for example, break up geometric and angular forms, and internally, seemingly slimy green surfaces create a cavernous atmosphere. ‘The historian and critic Anthony Vidler deliberates about how forms of the uncanny in the design of buildings might also lead to a higher identification with our hyper-modern and often homogeneous environment,’ notes Grützner. ‘For me, it is more a reflection of our fragmented identities.’
It’s the same sort of curious chaos at RMIT that works as a sort of metaphor for orientation and alienation. ‘Experiencing the spaces sometimes feels like one is operating in a computer game,’ says Grützner, ‘like they could close with a sudden snap and swallow you. As a player you have to advance from level to level.’
‘Added to that, there are lots of observation spots,’ she continues. ‘This communicates transparency, but also social control. There are spaces where you can close a curtain around you, which is a flexible approach to architecture providing a private space in a public area, but from my observations, I did note that security officers check those areas more often.’
On the question of the familiar versus the unfamiliar, Grützner points out the massive differences between the mundane architecture of the German schools she is so familiar with, and the more creative approach at RMIT. ‘But then when it comes to interiors, they do feel more familiar and universal,’ she says. One example is the pathways, with big arrows providing students with bold instructions regarding direction. ‘I think they also work as a metaphor for goals,’ Grützner says. ‘They show the correct career path – directly forward.’
It was the newest buildings along New Academic Street that Grützner focused on for Unseen. ‘I was inspired by the attempt to provide bigger, flexible, open spaces for students to meet, learn and relax,’ she says. ‘Often the facades are left in their original state and the extensions reaching backwards are redone. There are so many potential uses, and from behind, it can all start to resemble a crazy maze. I was constantly discovering new hidden parts.’
In the reshaped campus there is ample opportunity for students and faculty staff to find common ground in order to share their knowledge and to facilitate communication. ‘But I think the space also uses the idea of common ground in another sense,’ says Grützner. ‘The bold design, colour and form, reminded me of a more universal pop culture of comics, science-fiction movies and computer games, universal references that so many students share no matter their location.’
The resulting photographs – a winner of the Unseen ING Talent Award 2017 – are a mesmerising and colourful interpretation of Grützner’s research. The familiar references and corridors, and the unfamiliar bold creativity are layered into a mash-up that leaves the viewer with a feeling of camaraderie, despite being equally unfamiliar. ‘Some are collages using either double-exposure,
or cutting and aligning different images,’ Grützner says. ‘Some are just put upside down to replace the familiar with the unfamiliar. But for all of it I used my knowledge, memory, emotions and intuition, and my own approach to research, which is both theoretically and visually open.’
The results pull together a variety of loose strings into something new, with a vulnerability, and chaos, gleaned from the commonality of references. The success of Grützner is that via her photography she has shown how buildings can indeed create and relate to communities beyond what may be typically believed.