Detail of ‘The Collectors’, Nordic Pavilion, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009, by Elmgreen & Dragset
Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset made for grand Guest Editors in 2013 (W*175). Architecture and design buffs, champions of elevating public spaces and never afraid of a sight gag, the pair make smart (but never alienating) art for smart people. As Guest Editors, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset took us on a tour of their favourite fictional homes, from the punchy pop-art pads of Richard Hamilton and David Hockney and the film sets of Alfred Hitchcock to the angsty interiors of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. We also previewed ‘Tomorrow’, the imaginary home of a fictional architect they conjured at the V&A that year using its archive and their own works
Detail of ‘Any Ever’, 2011, by Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch
Crime (FS), 2003, by John Armleder
‘John Armleder uses furniture designs as ready-mades in his sculptural works’
4166 Sea View Lane, Los Angeles, 1998, by Jorge Pardo
‘Vilhelm Hammershøi’s interior paintings of deserted spaces reveal a lot about the inhabitants’
The Music Room, 30 Strandgade, circa 1907, by Vilhelm Hammershø
Detail of Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, 1956, by Richard Hamilton
Still from North by Northwest, 1959, by Alfred Hitchcock
‘Swimming pools have always been a favourite motif for artists as well as film-makers’
A Bigger Splash, 1967, by David Hockney
‘Death of a Collector’, detail of ‘The Collectors’, Nordic Pavilion, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009, by Elmgreen & Dragset
Still from Behind the Candelabra, 2013, by Steven Soderbergh
Swann’s study is furnished with a custom-made desk, at which he wrote his long-awaited book, The Individual and the Collective
Wallpaper* guest editors Elmgreen & Dragset presented the ‘home’ of architect Norman Swann as part of their guest editorship – but it was all a ruse. Swann was no more real than his South Kensington pile and our peek through the keyhole was actually a preview of ‘Tomorrow’, the Nordic duo’s show at the V&A in London
Photography Jonathan de Villiers Writer Kieran Long
The only really contemporary room in the apartment, the kitchen comes in stainless steel and sophisticated greenish-grey tones. Notice the unique rice cooker in the background. The entrance hall is packed with the relics of a long family history, including a 17th-century Indian wedding chest
While his most famous projects were unfortunately never built, Norman Swann’s influence after three decades as a teacher is one of the important, hidden currents of contemporary British architecture.
Swann’s childhood was spent in South Kensington, London, in the grand apartment first purchased by his guano merchant grandfather Albert Swann. Norman was evacuated from London with his mother during the Blitz, and his infant experience of life on a Somerset farm remained a profound influence on him. In every other respect, though, he lived a childhood of upper-middle-class privilege.
He studied at Cambridge and the Architectural Association, where his graduation project was a housing system in concrete and polycarbonate that could be mass-produced by mobile ‘home factories’ on stilts. It was a time when it seemed possible that social emancipation could be achieved through architecture, and Swann embraced this mission, even as a young man.
Architect Norman Swann’s study, with numerous models and sketches of his utopian projects never realised
After graduation in 1961, Swann was offered a job working at the Greater London Council’s Architects Department, then the largest and arguably most innovative architectural office in the world. However, his scepticism of the bureaucracy of the public sector prevented him accepting the position, and he founded his own practice instead. There were rumours at the time that personal differences between Swann and Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton were responsible for this surprising decision. Chalk and Crompton would go on to form Archigram and are among the most influential of 20th-century British architects. For Swann, the tension between his own identity as a designer and his commitment to new forms of collective living was a constant in his life thereafter.
Kenneth Bateman, critic and contemporary of Swann’s, has said: ‘Swann’s life mirrors so many of that era: idealistic, even Marxist leanings that could never be reconciled with his privileged background. He couldn’t stand to get his hands dirty like the Archigram chaps. Cambridge, too, was a kind of torture to him: surrounded by privilege that mirrored his own. He was a good designer, but politically naïve.’
Swann began teaching at Cambridge University architecture school in 1962, the year that Peter Eisenman submitted his PhD. Arriving in a department split by the controversy of Eisenman’s formalism, Swann came under the influence of Colin St John Wilson, who remained his friend and mentor until Wilson’s death in 2007.
Swann’s decades as a teacher influenced generations of architects, and his students remember him as a gruff, authoritative presence in the studio. In the 1970s, a growing interest in continental philosophy led him away from Brutalism and towards a freer, more organic formalism. His narrow failure to make the shortlist for the Grand Buildings competition on Trafalgar Square in 1985 was one of his greatest regrets. Swann’s proposal, for a monolithic columbarium and office building on the corner of Trafalgar Square, is considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. The competition was eventually won by a conventional reconstruction of the old, Edwardian façade, but Swann’s drawings remain iconic and widely published.
The living room is filled with a mix of inherited, precious Louis XVI furniture, valuable Denton chandeliers, antique artifacts, Georgian-style seating and 1950s designs such as pieces by Hans Wegner
Swann’s collaborator on Grand Buildings was the youthful Daniel Norris who was then his year-out student. Norris went on to found Norris Form Workshop in the early 1990s and became the youngest ever winner of the Stirling Prize for the London house of Russian businessman and disgraced politician Anatoly Morozov.
In the 1990s, Swann’s office dwindled as commissions dried up, and he retired from practice and teaching to write. His long-anticipated book, The Individual and the Collective, is intended to be a synthesis of revolutionary politics and post structuralism, explored through the public spaces of Tuscan villages. Swann’s life has been dedicated to the politics of architecture. His refusal to pursue financial reward has meant relative hardship later in life, but as he ends his career he leaves behind an important legacy of a complex man with high ideals.
Swann’s study. His hand-drawn sketches recall a time before CAD renderings