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Interview Peter St John: A marriage of of art and graft.

Asure way of coming to a nasty end when driving on the M6 due south towards Birmingham is to look left between Junctions 10 and 9.

You will be doing this because you are trying to spot The New Art Gallery, in Walsall. If you stand before one of the gallery's great windows and take in the view, the M6 is a thread and the moving traffic is pulled along like a Fisher Price toy.

My directions to find the gallery were simple. Turn off the M6 at Junction 10, turn right towards Walsall on the A454 and hey presto! "You won't miss it," said my map instructor. "I think it's a right eyesore."

And he was at least right about one thing. You cannot help but look at The New Art Gallery. It looks like a giant footstep for a giant. It might even stretch to a comfy chair, depending that is, on the size of the giant we are talking about.

It could also be a beehive. The outside is covered in pale rectangles. I find out later from the architect Peter St John that these are in fact terracotta tiles and the Victorians used them all the time.

St John is part of a double act with another architect called Adam Caruso. Together they won the competition to design the new gallery back in 1995.

But do not expect to see the finished article until next year. Although the building work will be finished by the summer, the museum's staff will need several months to get used to the new building and arrange the gallery's permanent collection and raison d'etre.

This is the Garman-Ryan art collection which was donated to Walsall by Lady Epstein, widow of Jacob, a famous son born and brought up in nearby Wednesbury.

St John was enchanted by the collection. "I hadn't heard of it before because it doesn't have a very high profile but it's got work from every single 20th century artist you can think of, including Van Gogh, Monet and Degas." St John and Caruso have reserved the first two floors of the five-storey building for the collection.

It is yet another example of a West Midlands secret so well kept that discovering its very existence makes you feel you have been let in on the conspiracy. Lady Epstein handed over more than 350 pictures, sculptures and antiquities to Walsall in the 1970s, gathered together with the assistance of the American sculptress Sally Ryan, a lifelong admirer of Sir Jacob Epstein.

It is currently waiting in Walsall's town hall for its new home and apparently needs a good clean. But as if to prolong the visitor's keen sense of anticipation for both the building and its prized work, the New Walsall Art Gallery keeps a lot of its suprises for the inside.

St John takes me on a guided tour of what is still a building site. He is 39 and looks a London-type dressed in a black linen suit. He tells me he enjoys getting out of the office and only manages it "one per cent of the time".

He knows the site intimately and every stone and slab of concrete has a story because he and Caruso wrote the plot. But unfortunately his suit is totally impractical for the job in hand. Showers of dust look like icing sugar on his jacket sleeves.

"I hope the building generates curiosity by not giving too much away. It's deliberately not showing too much at once.

"We wanted to give it the character of an old building. It is one mass of concrete. Some of that will be exposed and the rest will have a timber finishing to it. It should be a big house. There will be a certain grandness about it but at other times it will be a more intimate experience."

What I see are various-sized rooms, all at various stages of completion. Some have these fantastically large windows which start at your ankles and give an eye on to Walsall. The higher up you go, the more profound the view looks.

There is a window overlooking the same point of the wharf at every floor. Ahead you can see the way it narrows into a canal before bending at 90 degrees and disappearing.

Beside the canal basin is a black timber building which an unkind observer might call a shed, but is in fact a pub called The Wharf. It too was designed by Caruso St John and recently won the New Build category in the annual Pub Design Awards run by English Heritage and the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). Nobody had won the award for 14 years.

"It's hard to please people when you're designing a pub," St John laughs.

He had never been to Walsall before the commission, which arrived advantageously in the early part of his company's career. Caruso St John was founded in the early 1990s. He does have family in Coventry, however, so he has "some experience of the West Midlands". One cousin is a surgeon at nearby Manor Hope Hospital.

But his first impressions of Walsall were, he admits, mixed: "At first it looked so unpromising I felt like putting the drawings away and forgetting the whole thing.

"I found the site extremely disorientating. Nothing here was built. The canal basin didn't exist and the canal was just a round strip of water with rubbish dumped in it. It had a sense of the East End of London with the amount of derelict and abandoned buildings. It was a nightmare."

But when he walked around the town centre with Caruso he began to get a different perspective. "I was surprised by the town. It's got quite a small-scale centre with a walkable area of shops and public buildings. I enjoyed the scale of it and it still had a sense of middle, something you don't find a lot today."

The view of the town from St Matthew's church, whose steeple greets you from the heights of the gallery, seems to have given the architects the link they needed into Walsall.

"We decided the building needed to be tall enough and powerful enough to look beyond the site and be part of other buildings in the town." It now forms a triumvirate with the church and town hall. Instead of the seven hills of Rome or even Sheffield we have the three peaks of Walsall. St John compares its relationship with the town to the Statue of Liberty's protective vantage point over New York.

He trained at the Architectural Association (AA) and met his future partner, who is Canadian-born, when they both worked at the same architectural practice in London more than ten years ago.

"We were both passionate about building our own ideas and it was the height of the recession when we started so we weren't agonising about how busy everyone else was."

They were both lecturers at the University of North London, apparently a traditional way of starting off, relying on a steady income to subsidise their research work and build up the practice.

Credibility is all in this business and Caruso St John started small in a very big way. They began by designing private houses commissioned mainly by various members of their family. They also designed and built their own homes and Caruso's domicile in Highbury, north London, became something of an architect's grand tour.

They entered lots of competitions and won the New Walsall Art Gallery Commission. "I'd be surprised if there is another practice under 40 building a project on this scale."

Apparently I caused some hilarity when I phoned Caruso St John to request an interview and asked for the press officer. The company only employs a handful of people and St John describes both himself and Caruso as "not commercially-minded people. There is no business side and design side."

The partnership works because the pair are so very different. "He's the boisterous, talkative one and I'm the reserved English one," he laughs.

Do they argue? "We can't afford to argue. Disagreements are quickly suppressed. We are very close friends. You have to have a completely trusting relationship when you are connected to someone in your business. We see so much of each other. He lives just 400 yards away from me and our families are very close. We don't go to the pub or the cinema anymore as we see so much of each other during the day."

So how do a pair of architects share the workload? "Architecture is a collaborative process, at least I think it is. Your work is exposed because it can have a profound effect on other people's lives. Collaboration therefore is vital. I would be far too anxious about my work without it. No one person can realise a building so you're looking for somebody who can balance your own character."

Listening to St John talk about his work and aspirations is a lyrical experience. The language is poetic and fluid.

St John on the view of Walsall: "It's a romantic experience. It makes you dream a bit. It's an amazing collection of buildings. The chimneys are quite melancholic."

St John on architecture: "What interests me is how buildings affect every experience we have and what people recognise in buildings. There are fleeting images in this building you recognise. If the people like something too immediately it doesn't last. It should grow on you like an awkward friend."

I feel St John is rather affronted over lunch in The Wharf later when I admit I do not know what to say about the gallery's architecture. I feel I have neither the language nor the education for that kind of critique. I wonder what the people of Walsall make of it, an incongruous juxtaposition next to Bhs and Woolworths.

But he concedes it is a common affliction. "What you say is felt by a lot of people." Architecture in this country is generally very conservative in its patronage of practices whereas countries abroad positively discriminate towards younger thinkers.

In Switzerland, Spain and France the population debates architecture and newspapers run their own architecture pages. It is a floating subject whereas in this country we need HRH the Prince of Wales to stir our consciences, a man incidentally that St John shares some views with.

Caruso St John are known for their love of building materials. They like the idea of letting the original surfaces and textures of concrete, old wood and stone stand for themselves.

They are now considered "young Moderns" but such a worthless title belies their preference for character and warmth. One commentator described the pair thus: "They have about them the air of Arts & Crafts architects of the turn of the century working in a Modern idiom."

Certainly Peter St John is the first art and craftsman I have met in a black linen suit but there is definitely something of the missionary about him. He loves the fact the gallery will be a "true public building", used as much for its coffee shop on the fifth floor as for its impressive collection of 20th century art.

"Hopefully it will feel like a view of New York," he says at the top of his gallery as we take in another view of Walsall. "People will come here to meet a friend for coffee or have dinner with a lover." Walsall has never sounded so inviting.
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Author:Lynch, Finola
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 22, 1999
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