By Laura Iloniemi
John Marx’s watercolours, first published in the Architectural Review, are a compelling example of an architect’s way of thinking informing the visual arts. Quiet and subtle, they are nonetheless captivating works in terms of how they explore notions of a sense of place, of how we inhabit built space and how we experience these phenomena in the core of our being. There is an existential quality to Marx’s paintings rarely found in the medium of watercolour and even something of the psychologically piercing observational quality of artists like De Chirico.
It is fascinating to see connections with such powerful work in Marx’s nine by nine inch watercolours. Perhaps it helps to be an architect to be as spatially ambitious as Marx is within this modestly sized series of watercolours. Here, he explores a subject matter usually reserved for much bigger works of art and carries this off with the conviction of someone used to starting with a blank sheet of paper and transforming this into a building.
In this sense, Marx’s watercolours are very much the explorations of an architect, an exploration concerned with an atmosphere created through memory and association and also through our peripheral vision, a seldom appreciated aspect of how we truly experience buildings and places. Too little is made of how painting can explore this type of narrative and meaning. And far too few architects are actively engaged with this medium. Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop have been recent exceptions, while Le Corbusier, the Modernist hero, remains the most celebrated.
As architects strive to communicate their way of thinking, Marx’s watercolours are an example of a humane approach in terms of conveying emotional meaning in relation to our surroundings. As much of Marx’s subject matter reads as “built landscapes” – heightening the role of the manmade while in balance with the natural world – it offers a message and a sentiment that is perhaps more important than ever to relay to wider audiences. As a method of working, watercolours have an inherent fragility that makes the portrayal of this message all the more poignant. Marx’s works also celebrate the poetic immediacy ingrained in working with watercolours where the artist’s hand is forever present and a foil to an increasingly virtual world.
In this vein, Marx’s inhabited landscapes point towards an answer to an inquiry poised by Sir John Soane’s Museum Critical Drawing Talk Series, “If drawing once allowed architects to visualise possible futures, might its rebirth point a way towards recapturing architecture’s optimism and agency?” The optimism of Marx’s watercolours, and also that of his poems to be published in his forthcoming art book, is certainly ingrained in how Marx works as an architect. Their variety reflect the richness he values in the way architecture should be approached. Not as something reductive but as something as widely engaging as possible.
As Marx writes, “We, as architects, and as a culture in general, might benefit from embracing the concept of design value across a much broader spectrum than we currently permit.” And it is in this very spirit that Marx’s watercolours are an all-important supplement to his architecture, enriching his work and allowing a fruitful cross-pollination of ideas and also emotions to create moments – be they in his watercolours, in his poems or his buildings – that dare to be hopeful.
The above is an extract from an essay from John Marx’s watercolour book to be published later this year by Oro Editions.
Watch this space for further details.