Ivrea 1991 is a wall-based work comprising ten objects in differently sized frames that are hung close together to form a single rectangular display. Each frame is approximately 10 cm deep and contains a three-dimensional model of an architectural ground plan set into a wooden mounting board, and the frames, models and boards are all painted white. The shape of each frame relates to the form taken by the ground plans within them, which include a semicircular structure, a plan made up of irregular hexagons, and several schemas featuring linear arrangements of rectangles. The frames are each hung on the wall approximately 3 cm apart and the structure as a whole is displayed at a distance of around 160 cm from the ground, as measured from the centre line.
The title of the work, Ivrea, refers to the town in northern Italy in which the company Olivetti is based. Founded as a typewriter manufacturer in 1908, Olivetti, which now makes a wide range of electronic, computing and communications products, was noted during the twentieth century for the attention it paid to the design not only of its products but also of the factories, homes and other facilities used by its employees. The ten ground plans featured in Ivrea correspond to buildings commissioned by Olivetti from the 1930s onwards in its effort to provide an environment in which its workers could be happy and productive. The buildings are the Olivetti headquarters, a detail of the welfare centre, a cluster of family homes for employees, the theatre of the La Serra social and residential complex, individual family houses for engineers and managers, Office Building 2, the Ovest residential complex containing apartments for single people and couples new to the company, the technical and administrative offices of the machine tool factory, the research and development centre, and the restaurant of the community hall (see http://www.langlandsandbell.com/ivrea.html, accessed 12 November 2014).
The work was made by the British artist duo Langlands & Bell (Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell) in London in 1991, and was shown in the exhibition Like Nothing Else in Tennessee at the Serpentine Gallery in London the following year. Each unit was made by the artists in two parts. First, an opening was cut into a flat wooden board in a shape corresponding to the footprint of the architectural model, and a plain wooden frame, with mitred corners strengthened with staples, was fixed to this with 5 mm head screws. Secondly, this assemblage was glued onto a five-sided box that contained the architectural model. The front of the board and the model visible through the shaped opening were painted a matt white, and the frame and reverse of the object were finished in a hard white satin cellulose lacquer.
Langlands & Bell first met in 1977 while studying Fine Art at Middlesex Polytechnic and have been working together since 1978. Throughout their career they have used their work to address the ways in which architectural structures advertise the values and beliefs of their designers and owners, while at the same time embodying the histories and influencing the behaviour of those who interact with them. Ivrea is one of several works containing ground plans made between 1989 and 1997 that investigate the relationship between architecture and power. In 1996 the artists stated:
You could say that architecture is always controlling, violent, authoritarian, because it’s a will to plan events … Even if the final reality is dystopian it is still a will towards Utopia, an attempt to improve things, to shape the future.
(Langlands & Bell in Serpentine Gallery 1996, p.132.)
The clean, sharp lines of Ivrea’s models, the appearance of cleanliness and purity arising from the use of white for all elements of the work, and the neat way in which the various parts fit together to make a simple, coherent whole reflect the utopian ideals that underpinned modernist architectural projects in the early to mid-twentieth century. However, the way in which modernist projects such as Olivetti’s catered to every aspect of life in the hope of producing a positive, harmonious environment in which to live and work quickly became understood and experienced as forms of social engineering.
Langlands & Bell (Works 1986–1991), exhibition catalogue, Valentina Moncada, Rome, London 1991.
Langlands & Bell, Germano Celant and Hans-Michael Herzog, Langlands & Bell, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1996, reproduced pp.74–5.
Supported by Christie’s.