Potential Architecture: Ambika P3, London

Bold new works exemplify the ethos of a university’s unique underground experimental exhibition space

March 12, 2015

Source: London Sidelines

Space age: Ambika P3 offers a versatile area for many different uses, including fashion shows, art installations and dance and music

Potential Architecture

Ambika P3, University of Westminster
35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS
Until 19 April 2015

The space is a real driver for the work that’s in it. We can adapt the space to the work, making a completely new environment. We are looking for artists interested in addressing the volume

Just opposite Baker Street Tube station, on London’s Marylebone Road, stands a small metal gate by a ladies’ lavatory. Those who venture through descend to an underground car park, with skips, bicycle racks and rubbish awaiting collection. It is hardly a picturesque route, and nothing indicates that it is the most direct entrance to Ambika P3: a vast hall where engineers once tested concrete to destruction that the University of Westminster turned into one of the capital’s most remarkable exhibition spaces in 2007. A vast crane in the main gallery still stands as a reminder of its former function, although it has also proved crucial in facilitating the shifting of heavy artworks.

“The architectural department always moaned about this space,” recalls director Katharine Heron, professor of architecture at Westminster, “because it was occupied by engineering, and we had little to do with them. Then it was empty for a while, but architectural students are quite bold in setting up projects of unusual sorts and occupied the space without any of the university knowing about it.”

Such “guerrilla” activities, continues Heron, “got rather extreme at one point, and I was roundly told off. It was then mothballed formally.” Yet some former students who had gone on to a major architectural practice remembered what an interesting space it was and offered to put in £25,000 to bring it back into use. The university also contributed funds, and it was therefore resurrected under the name of Ambika P3, in memory of then chancellor Lord Paul’s daughter Ambika (1963-68).

From the start, the space was shared between the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, based on-site in Marylebone, and the Faculty of Media, Arts and Design in Harrow. So Michael Mazière, reader in film and video, was brought in as curator. It was always envisaged, he says, as “a project space, a space for experimentation…Before it was being used to experiment on concrete; now it’s being used to experiment with ideas, art and architecture. Just the materials are different.”

So how have these ideals been translated into practice?

About a third of the time, Ambika P3 is rented out commercially for events that form part of the creative economy: art fairs, London Fashion Week, launches of new products in lucrative design areas such as cars and video games. This has made the space host to myriad “wildly different events”, wrote Sally Feldman, then dean of media, arts and design, in a brochure celebrating its first two years. “When Marks and Spencer came to launch their summer collection it was decked out as a demure Chelsea boutique, complete with coffee tables and a bar.” This formed “quite a contrast” with the party thrown by Calvin Klein for the Frieze art show, where “you entered to a tableau of muscle-bound hunks clad only in the tightest of boxers”.

The acoustics at Ambika P3 are not particularly suitable for theatrical events, but the site has been used occasionally for dance and music, notably English National Opera’s 2014 revival of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, the story of Margaret Campbell, the “dirty duchess” of Argyll, celebrated as the only opera with an aria about oral sex. Equally ambitious was Stifters Dinge, an installation incorporating five pianos but no pianists commissioned by Artangel from the composer Heiner Goebbels – staged first to a seated audience and then as a free installation spectators could wander around.

Heron stresses that Ambika P3 is “part of the university, not just something that happens to be collocated with it”. It is therefore used for the freshers’ fair, Student Pride, exams, degree shows (students on the mixed-media course have to make site-specific works for it), even an annual alumni event within one of the exhibitions. This still leaves about a third of the year for a programme of curated exhibitions, including two or three major ones lasting five to six weeks – and generally linked to a big academic conference on the same theme – interspersed with the occasional smaller one.

Given that it is a vast stark industrial space with no natural light, Ambika P3 is highly unsuitable for, say, an exhibition of understated watercolours. Film, video, sculpture and bold, often architectural installations, in contrast, come into their own perfectly.

“A space can be very interesting architecturally without much architectural design,” explains Heron. “A raw space can be an interesting space for both art and architecture to work in. It would be very easy to spend a lot of money on this space and make it into a gallery that is incredibly limiting and conventional. What we’ve done is create a space that is incredibly enabling.” (There are plans afoot, however, to make the entrance to it more obvious and accessible.)

“Most of the work is created for the space itself rather than parachuted in,” continues Mazière. “Whatever is in that space has to benefit from being in that space, has to actively want to be in that space – the space is a real driver for the work that’s in it. We can adapt the space to the work, constructing a completely new environment. We are looking for artists interested in addressing the volume.”

If Ambika P3 has always been most interested in bold experimental work at the boundaries between art and architecture, its current exhibition fits this philosophy perfectly.

“Now it is more common for people trained as architects to want to express their ideas in a poetic form while free from the constraints of having to build a building,” explains guest curator David Thorp. Potential Architecture brings together four architect-artists who took part in a symposium at Westminster and are interested in raising questions about “how people and objects relate together in a public space, and how the urban environment is being transformed in aesthetically questionable ways – with huge developments, generated by the profit motive, becoming real eyesores”.

Alongside the established Russian architect Alexander Brodsky, Thorp goes on, Apolonija Šušteršic has created “an underground discussion club to look at gentrification, the lack of public housing, the gulf between rich and poor”, while Joar Nango, himself from a nomadic Sami background, has been working with Mongolian felt to make “a prototype for an outdoor cinema that could be built in Ulan Bator”.

The final person whose work appears in Potential Architecture is Sean Griffiths, co-founder of the famously provocative FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) practice, who is now a professor in Westminster’s Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment.

His ambition, as he tells it, has always been to “expand architects’ very narrow set of concerns, which means that all buildings built today look exactly the same and so are not advancing architecture. The profession has been swallowed whole and completely appropriated by the property industry. At FAT, we were saying, ‘There are alternative ways of practising architecture’, bringing in art, literature, philosophy and science.”

As part of this broader campaign, Griffiths has built a labyrinthine corridor out of suspended door frames, “taking very familiar things and making them a little strange when they are hung off the floor and look as if they have committed mass suicide. I want to bring out hidden meanings in things which seem innocent such as endless oppressive corridors.

“I have spent my entire career trying to provoke the architectural profession, and am not going to stop now.”

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