“art beyond the skill”

Dominic Dubé – Art Beyond The Skill

Architecture is unusual among the arts in that it is required to be professional, and arguably alone among the professions in that it is expected to be in some measure artistic.  The careers of all serious architects must at some point grapple with this duality.  To completely abandon the creative spirit is to become simply a builder – performing a valuable service, no doubt, but not creating architecture.  On the other hand, when the creative architect renounces the demands of the profession – that the building be on time, on budget, keep the rain out and not fall down – that architect gives up all opportunity to actually practice the art they seek to pursue.  So some sort of balance or synthesis between the two poles is necessary; the exact nature of that process can give us a deep insight into the path chosen by a given architect.

For Canadian-born, Bangalore-based Dominic Dubé, the equation has become quite interesting.  Certainly his practice fulfills all the professional demands outlined above; but it is the art beyond the skill that continues to draw him further in each project.  His work could stylistically be compared to that of Mies van der Rohe, Tadao Ando, SANAA, or any number of other practitioners working in the idiom of elegant and graceful modernism.  But Dubé himself disdains such comparisons, and the only comparison that really sticks is to the 20th century titan Le Corbusier.  This, not merely because of Dubé’s adoption of Corbusier’s “Modulor” proportional system, or even his past employment under B.V. Doshi, himself a product of Corbusier’s office.  The real connection between Dubé and Corbusier has to do not with the appearance of the buildings but with a way of working – of balancing the art and the skill.

Le Corbusier famously divided his working day in half: in the afternoon, he did architecture, and in the morning, he would paint.  While Dubé does not keep to so strict a regimen, he remains an active painter, and the development of a painter’s instincts is evident in his work.  The word painterly, in architectural discourse, typically follows from Heinrich Wölfflin’s use, which refers to a swirling Baroque sensibility, in which form is suggested through light and shade rather than through drawn outlines.  But here we are interested, again, not in the content of the work but in the way in which it is produced. The painter is faced with a blank canvas, and then with a single stroke of the brush makes an intervention that transforms the empty field: suddenly there are up and down, inside and out, light and dark.  With a second stroke, we now have the field plus two figures in dialogue with each other, and so on.  The painter must proceed from instincts but also evaluate the canvas as it takes shape; know when the elements are correctly balanced (or provocatively imbalanced), and perhaps most importantly, know when to step away and declare the work finished.
The adaptation of this sensibility to architecture can take many shapes.  Working in Doshi’s office, Dubé witnessed one approach firsthand, seeing M. F. Hussain step forward and confidently paint a winding black stripe across the undulating white roof of the nearly-finished Hussain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad.  This stripe was then re-rendered in black mosaic tiles and remains an essential part of the building’s architectural presence to this day.  This sort of direct application of painting to architecture has certainly appeared in Dubé’s work – witness the gestural, forest-like strokes on the wall at the Caperberry restaurant in Bangalore.  But in general he actively refrains from marking the surfaces of his buildings (for reasons that will be discussed shortly), and so his painter’s hand emerges indirectly.

Consider the recent show of Dubé’s work at Gallery Time & Space in Bangalore, sponsored by Prasad Bidippa. While twin slide-shows of various real and imagined projects flickered past on a broad screen, the only physical objects presented were highly abstracted and enigmatic models, chiefly a set of four pieces rendered entirely in wood by Jayenge.  These were not traditional architectural models.  They showed no windows or doors, no differences of material – only one even indicated separate floors.  Their scale was arbitrary; while a twenty-story tower did carry a looming presence above the heads of all in attendance, the famous Inge’s House and a proposal for a major museum were roughly equal in size.  Significantly, none of them were labeled or described in any way.  The importance, in other words, was placed not on these buildings’ professional function (school, house) but on their presence as pure forms.  Le Corbusier, who once defined architecture as the bringing-together of “masses in light,” would have understood.

Seen this way, the objects are deceptively simple.  Dubé’s work rejects the tendency of many contemporary buildings (particularly in India) to accumulate details, to solve problems by addition rather than subtraction.  Seen at the scale of these wooden models, Dubé’s projects are refreshingly clear, each the product of one or two major formal gestures in a carefully balanced dialogue with each other.  The painter makes two strokes, finds they suffice, and puts down his brush before things lose coherence.

Translated into finished buildings – which do, of course, have windows and doors – this sensibility still carries through.  At the macro scale, the buildings are ruled by elemental formal concepts: the mass on the hill, the box within the box, the curve versus the straight line.  Each one would make a fine all-wood model.  Within, as the building breaks down into individual rooms, the details are not allowed to overwhelm the concept.  If, as a professional, he is asked to provide closets and bathrooms, he does so, but rather than treating these elements as afterthoughts (crammed in wherever they will fit), he binds them into the discipline of the entire scheme.  It is here that the employment of Corbusier’s Modulor grid has proven fruitful – by beginning each design with a restrictive matrix of allowed dimensions and proportions, Dubé allows for any transformation in the design to remain under control.   The oft-requested adherence to vastu guidelines is approached in much the same way: the constraints become productive, ensuring that the painting cannot run off the canvas.

The spaces themselves are elegant and minimal, sometimes with their grids traced out in powdery form-finished concrete against creamy surfaces of white stucco.  With or without these traces of the proportioning system, Dubé expects that the grace of their proportions will be perceived and appreciated.

As a recent participant in Bangalore’s xChange series (an ongoing dialogue among local architects and critics), Dubé showed his minimal interiors alongside heavily-ornamented Indian historical examples.  While he (thankfully) refrains from trite attempts to show how his buildings draw from this history, he (like Corbusier) feels that history vindicates the system: strip off the ornament from the Mughal space and you have the same well-proportioned “vibration” of a Dubé bedroom.  Or, for that matter, a Dubé powder room: just as the models make no noise about distinguishing house from school, Dubé thinks of the different functions within a project as essentially irrelevant to the fundamental questions of architecture.  In this he resists decades of architectural inquiry (e.g. that of Rem Koolhaas or Bernard Tschumi) which has treated function as the prime mover; again like Corbusier (who declared “the plan is the generator”), Dubé proceeds from the composition on the page, the strokes on the canvas.  If they work, so will the building, whether he is painting a board-room or a garage.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there is no attention to function in the realization of Dubé’s designs.  Bathroom and bedroom are identical only in that they are both well-disciplined volumes of space, clad in unornamented material that emphasizes the clarity of those forms.  That they house different activities and have relationships in terms of privacy is acknolwedged and dealt with, often quite thoughtfully.  His houses are not mazes of rooms piling up one after another, but simple, sequenced processions from public to private.  Awkward joints are avoided in function as much as they are in composition.  And while he (again, refreshingly) rejects any claim to derive his designs from their immediate context, he still pays appropriate attention to such factors as view and privacy.

To some, working with a capital-A “Artist” bears a certain intimidation factor, and perhaps even the worry that the willfull creative mastermind will run away with things.  This, of course, is where the professional comes back into play.  Dubé’s many completed projects speak to his ability to see to a client’s needs as well as all the issues of skill.  But it is his painter’s instincts – both to create and to hold back from creation – that constitute the art beyond the skill, and make him one of India’s most interesting working architects.

Text written by Addison Godel

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