From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Ron Arad is rarely without his trademark hat. Today’s example is pulled over his head, urchin style. He likes to keep his head covered. Is it for religious reasons? “No. I have no religion in me. Some people have good hair. I have a good hat.”
At once Arad launches into another thought, not connected with headgear. “This workspace is what I call a progressive kindergarten. I am not organised or responsible or methodical. I rely on others” – his team of 20 – “to be all those things.” They are, he says, architects and engineers and people who are well ordered. “I jump from one thing to another. Look at that,” he says, pointing to a sculpture on the table. “No one asked me to blow some glass and stick it in a bucket.”
Secluded from a busy north London thoroughfare, the approach to Arad’s hidden world is unpromising. As you climb the old fire-escape-style stairs and open a weather-beaten wooden door, you feel you might be entering a garden shed or workshop fronting some shady enterprise. But inside the transformation to hi- tech and rampant elegance is absolute.
“It used to be a sweatshop. When we first came it was full of old sewing machines,” Arad says. “I liked the idea of an indoor-outdoor space – there are little courtyards between the various buildings.” One houses his celebrated curved table-tennis table: all in his team are ping-pong addicts. Is he competitive? He laughs at the very possibility that he wouldn’t be. “Yes. I’m competitive.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, Arad studied in Jerusalem at the Bezalel Academy of Arts, moving to London in 1973 to train at the Architectural Association. “I had a privileged childhood, with nothing to rebel against. Yet I always had a profound dislike of convention. I always wanted to find a way of not doing what I was supposed to and getting applauded for that!”
He has an international reputation as architect, industrial designer and artist. All are connected. As we walk round the vast arched gallery which is his studio, he indicates a dizzying variety of objects he has created: wrap-around eye wear, jewellery, furniture of every kind, including his 1981 Rover Chair – “I picked up this Rover seat and made myself a frame” – and the iconic curvy Bookworm that can be bent into any shape to make a bookshelf (pictured above).
On a raised gallery, on walls, on ledges, on the floor, items made of tubular and tempered steel, unnameable kinds of textured or sleek-smooth plastic, silicone, polished aluminium, glass and Perspex are shaped into coils and spirals, louvred and slatted and each possessed of industrial beauty. It’s hard to find a straight line. The canopied polyamide roof, designed to last ten years, is now 30 years old, weathered only by a few cigarette burns from the days when workers in the office next door tossed their stubs out onto it. ‘Sometimes it leaks,’ he muses, more out of interest than despair.
Arad’s current architectural projects include revamping Washington D.C.’s Watergate Hotel and building Beit Shulamit, a cancer hospital in northern Israel to serve Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze communities. “Architects have a duty to do good things,’ he says. For all the wit and fantasy in his creations, he has a strong sense of responsibility that extends to the way he works with his team. A design may start with his drawing but the process quickly becomes collaborative. This is so with his new, kinetic sculptural installation for St Pancras International Station, the latest commission by HS1 in collaboration with the RA. A suspended double swirl of spun aluminium, it will, he says, "not obscure the clock!” – that vital tool of travellers.
For the RA’s Summer Exhibition Arad has designed for the Annenberg Courtyard Spyre, a constantly moving sculpture with a built-in camera recording live footage of its surroundings. It certainly looks alarming (he shows me a video realisation), swinging over the heads of passers-by in a voluptuous, snake-like arabesque, or bending down like a long-necked Jurassic sauropod. Might it be mildly terrifying? “Not at all,” he says, with a semi-sinister, infectious giggle. “It’s huge, that’s true. But it’s dancing for you. Normally we are looking at sculpture, now it is looking at us.”
Thought of Train of Thought – Terrace Wires: Ron Arad RA is at St Pancras International Station, London, in partnership with HS1 Ltd, from 7 July to January 2017.
Ron Arad’s Spyre is installed in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard as part of the RA Summer Exhibition from 13 June to 21 August 2016.
Fiona Maddocks is a journalist, broadcaster and Classical Music Critic for the Observer.