Dossier | Skilled Workers Guild: The Empirical Renovations of the Chapuisat Brothers | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Skilled Workers Guild: The Empirical Renovations of the Chapuisat Brothers

  • Les Frères Chapuisat, La résidence secondaire, Vercorin, Suisse, 2012. Photo : Robert Hofer, permission des artistes | courtesy of the artists

Skilled Workers Guild: The Empirical Renovations of the Chapuisat Brothers
By Bénédicte Ramade

The Chapuisat Brothers have built their reputation in timber and concrete, having been invited, over the past ten years, into art centres in their Helvetian homeland, France (at Credac d’Ivry-sur-Seine, the Villa Arson in Nice, and the Musée des Abattoirs in Toulouse), Canada (at Vancouver’s LES Gallery), and recently South Korea (at the Song Eun Art Space in Seoul) to design inhabitable architectural sculptures based on plans that are as complex to construct as they are to explore. For, standing before a work constructed by the Chapuisat Brothers, one has every right to wonder whether the forests of struts and canopies of boards conceal a hidden fault in the host building, or whether their intervention is meant to repair a defect or restore a building subject to escheat. Although their modus operandi borrows from the fact-based logic of TV renovation shows, the conclusions that they lead to do not have the same virtues. Always on the verge of collapse or destruction, their version of renovation does not offer a moral based on ameliorative criteria; instead it opens up an empirical perspective of spiritual transformation, a philosophy that affects the architecture as much as its inhabitants. There is a before and an after Chapuisat.

“Fair and courteous” is the motto adorning the coat of arms of the Chapuisat brotherhood, whose numbers are in constant flux. Gregory, guru-like in appearance and mastermind of the “Brothers,” lives and works in situ, inviting journeymen to join him at each stage of his grand tour. Having worked for many years in tandem with his brother Cyril, he alone now forms the central core of the brotherhood, and the number of brothers and sisters accompanying him is tailored to the ambitions of the construction projects that have flourished in Switzerland, France, and as far away as South Korea. Strictly adopting the journeyman tradition, the Chapuisat Brothers live wherever their empirically and systematically specific projects take them. Like a team of renovators — but less “tacky” and more dishevelled than those on home renovation shows — they create an aura of suspense wherever they land. The invitations that they receive do not conform to the usual call for tenders, which involve precise frameworks, plans, nomenclature, scale models, SketchUp previews, and budgets. The Chapuisats’ method is, paradoxically, one of strict empiricism, and the “solution” temporarily provided to the exhibition space is always acrobatic. Reacting to the architecture, the brotherhood works with basic construction materials: wood, cardboard, insulation, concrete. Qualifying the erected structures as sculptures considerably reduces the aesthetic import of their experiential mazes, for what the Chapuisats construct are labyrinthine hideaways that are camouflaged in the gallery or that grow on makeshift pilings in the middle of a room like viral grafts. Dividing the capacities of the location in this manner, the renovations promise nothing of the happy outcomes of a television program with its succession of “improvements.” Here, they are of a spiritual rather than a structural order, a less tangible yet fundamental ethos that affects walls and users alike. Renovation à la Chapuisat challenges the client, safety committees, and finally the visitor, all of whom, in turn, are disoriented by the vague parameters of the impending challenge. As for the site, it is literally unhinged, diverted from its primary function to accommodate this amiable architectonic colonization.

In late winter 2013, France’s Maubuisson Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery that has been a contemporary art centre for over ten years, welcomed the Chapuisat Brothers (Le Buisson Maudit, 2013). Since constructing within the twelfth-century walls required not touching the building’s frame, the work was self-supporting; and because empiricism allows for flexibility, Gregory Chapuisat conceived of a suspended labyrinth, supported by a forest of wooden struts. The wood piling supported a canopy of finely cut raw timber boards of fragile aspect that traversed the chapter house, skimming the crossed ogives. The team formed and grew to about ten members, who settled in and colonized the premises by living there for the duration of the project. Inspections intensified to assure the viability of the construction; fire fighters responsible for authorizing the opening of the exhibition to the public made frequent visits to the art centre to understand and test the progression of the labyrinth’s route before declaring it safe. And it must be said that the route was not simple. Several emergency escape hatches had to be incorporated, and the region’s elite rescue workers even came to train regularly in the structure, as it posed challenges from which cadets could gain valuable experience. The technical expertise required to keep these tons of wood aloft without the support of the surrounding building forms the epilogue to a lengthy and uncertain project, for empiricism is not always compatible with the administrative and procedural limits of public exhibition space management.

The human exploration of the construction itself is a very appealing aspect for the permanent members of the teams, who must come to terms with the frustrations of visitors who are incapable of entering the work due to claustrophobia, excess weight, physical condition, or age. This initiation can take place only on the conditions set by the Chapuisats, whose physical stature determines the size of the entrances and passageways. Experiencing one of their works opens the door to a different state: the brave achieve the status of initiates who have endured the ordeal, following the example of the skilled journeymen who execute their work in quest of spiritual transformation and the perfecting of their art. The art of being a spectator is thus enhanced through the practical experience of an environment owing to the Chapuisat Brothers. The space temporarily “renovated” in this manner offers a temporal and physical experience beyond the exhibition and the reality of the art centre. An unrestrained space, chaotic and disorganized in appearance, liberated from its usual contingencies, a zone free of obligations and regulations situated in the standardized space of an institutional building, the result of this subjective and empirical renovation frees the architecture of its habits. If there is an improvement or renovation in the ameliorative sense of the term, paradoxically one must seek it in the disorder brought about by the Chapuisats, in the disruption of the usual functioning of the space.

This functional hijacking that the “fair and courteous” brothers engage in reaches its peak “effectiveness” in the context of a domestic construction, such as the mountain chalet in Vercorin that they transformed in the summer of 2012. The abandoned dwelling was left to the conversion talents of the empirical renovation team, which grafted onto the interior of the structure, up to the ridgeboard of the roof, a labyrinth of raw fir planks, concealing convivial spaces, including a dining room, reading areas, bedrooms, and a belvedere. The austere chalet, colonized by the viral and chaotic architecture that now crowned the building with a bristling dome made of pale wood, experienced its last summer in a vitalist explosion. The temporary, almost rickety renovation endowed it with unique charm, generating intense activity in the form of visits to a previously desolate place, despite poor access to this community Grail. The colony of wood was occupied by the brothers, hosts happily devoted to passing on their nomadic ideal. Transformed into a living organism to be penetrated by climbing and hauling oneself up as though one were navigating an Hébertist obstacle course, the Résidence secondaire generated a new form of life and communion, a dynamogenic transition before the decline.

In this respect, the Chapuisat Brothers guild members analyze and question architectural determinism with a critical perspicacity that Gordon Matta-Clark (whose Anarchitecture cut through norms and conventions with a chainsaw) would not have shunned. The very experience of Matta-Clark’s extreme building cuts in abandoned apartments and houses during the 1970s, the menace to the body as a point of reference, and the quasi-performative challenge of navigating such spaces form the fundamental aesthetic foundations of Chapuisian constructions. The very ethos of a project such as Food (a community restaurant in New York’s Soho neighbourhood established by Matta-Clark in 1972) corresponds to the community effect that underlies the majority of Chapuisat constructions open to sharing. The kinship between the brotherhood and the “master” Matta-Clark, however, transcends these obvious similarities. In 1976, Matta-Clark aspired to launch a social and architectural renovation project in the Loisaida (derived from the Hispanic pronunciation of Lower East Side) neighbourhood of Manhattan and thus metabolize his acts of architectural dissidence in the direction of communities. (1) An actual training program for “environmental cadets” was developed in order to convert and renovate apartment buildings in an experimental fashion, and, by a process of “contagion,” transform the individuals involved. Ahead of its time, the Loisaida project remained unrealized — no doubt due to its anarchic methods and the unconventional nature of Matta-Clark’s “renovations” — yet it carried the seed for what today characterizes the essence of “Chapuisism,” the transformative potential that is instilled in the Chapuisat Brothers’ architectonic experiments and that imbues the spaces with unforeseeable vitality without being based on any functional amelioration. The renovation deregulates the destiny of the space, liberating both the structure and its users. Worthy spiritual sons of Matta-Clark, they have constructed a nomadic identity that allows them to dramatically change a building, occupying the spaces to carry out a subtle yet radical renovation, revealing both the hidden shortcomings and the qualities of the structures. Long after the work has disappeared, there is indeed an after-Chapuisat, a spirit of renovation whose effects cannot immediately be measured.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

(1)“A Resource Center and Environmental Youth Program for Loisaida.” See Mary-Jane Jacob, ed., Gordon Matta-Clark. A Retrospective (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985).

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