Stephen Cox RA and Eric Parry RA: set in stone

Published 21 May 2015

Art and architecture combine on a corner of London’s St James’s, where Stephen Cox RA has integrated sculpture into Eric Parry RA’s building. Sam Phillips reports.

  • From the Summer 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Why is the RA an Academy of “Arts” and not “Art”? Because of architecture. The visual arts in plural – fine art and architecture – are firm friends at the RA, and artist and architect Members sometimes work together outside the institution. Stroll down towards St James’s Square and you’ll find a spirit-lifting example.

    On a corner on Duke of York Street a huge sculpted figure emerges from an office building’s grey basalt. The work, Relief: Figure Emerging to E.L. (2014-15), was made by sculptor Stephen Cox, and the building – 8 St James’s Square – was designed by Eric Parry, and this combination is their latest collaboration, in a relationship that goes back more than 20 years. “Most architects are interested in art,” explains Cox when the three of us meet at the site, “but they wouldn’t want to integrate it in their buildings. Eric has the confidence and imagination to incorporate others’ art into his work.”

    Parry trained as an artist before becoming an architect, and when Cox describes him as “a real Renaissance man,” it’s no exaggeration: in the first commercial building he designed – for property tycoon Stuart Lipton – he painted a fresco. Parry tells me he drew inspiration from Florentine palazzi for aspects of 8 St James’s Square, including a loggia-like terrace which, set back from the street, adds to a wonderful variety of depth to the side of the building.

  • Stephen Cox and Eric Parry at Apple Tree Yard

    Stephen Cox and Eric Parry at Apple Tree Yard

    © Benedict Johnson

  • This range of recessing is a hallmark of Parry’s work, making it sympathetic at street level, different angles rhythmically catching the eye as one walks by. “It’s about sculpting a building, rather than letting a system take over,” he says. “The monumentality of some buildings is a complete affront to society as they’re impossible to engage with.” He also has a deep love for what he calls “the haptic, tectonic quality of materials.” The building’s brick and stone were all hand-tooled by craftsmen, a bulwark against “the way that London architecture is going in terms of its fabrication, where elevations are pre-fabricated in factories in Germany or Switzerland as a way of cutting risk.”

    Parry explains how much Cox’s work has taught him about materials, “in particular the miraculous metamorphoses you can achieve with hard stones such as basalts and granites. When you pick them they can become a light grey, but when you polish them they become jet black. And they can change appearance again with libations and oiling. These are complete miracles that seeing Stephen’s sculptures revealed to me.”

    But Cox’s sympathy with such stone was not the only reason Parry commissioned him. Down the small street from the sculpture, Apple Tree Yard once housed the studio of Edwin Lutyens PRA, the architect of New Delhi’s great administrative buildings. For three decades Cox has worked from a studio in the town of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, and the confluence of Indian art and other cultures is his fascination.

  • 8 St James’s Square by Eric Parry RA, with Stephen Cox RA’s two sculptures: an inscribed rail and a relief figure

    8 St James’s Square by Eric Parry RA, with Stephen Cox RA’s two sculptures: an inscribed rail and a relief figure

    Photograph © Dirk Lindner

  • “Lutyens had to create a new order of architecture in New Delhi,” explains Cox, “so he established a hybrid, drawing on both Greek architecture and Buddhist, Mughal and Hindu buildings.” Cox’s figure, hewn out of an 18-tonne block of rough dolerite, nods to another East-West hybrid: Buddhist Gandharan statues that borrowed their ordered naturalism from antique Greek sculpture. Such statues are part of an Indian visual culture that Parry also adores, describing it as “an animate world, fantastically pungent and powerful.”

    Indian sculptors invested their stone with spirituality, says Cox. “Hindu, Jain and Buddhist priests believed that within the mountain they could find the living form of gods, and that’s why you find Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Buddha excavated into mountain sides.” This practice expanded to create rock-carved temples, works in which architecture and sculpture are entirely unified. The way Cox’s figure gradually materialises from the rock was also influenced by Michelangelo’s magnificent Taddei Tondo (c.1504- 05), the only sculpture by the master in Britain, on display in the RA Sackler Wing.

    Adjacent to the relief is an architectural addition by Cox. Three wide blocks of dolerite have been carved with text in tribute to Lutyens and set in a form reminiscent of a Buddhist stupa rail. Above the inscribed stone is Parry’s two- storey overhanging bay, supported by large granite brackets. This “jettisoning of the building outwards,” says Parry, is “slightly expressionistic, like Czech Cubism;” Cox describes it as a “mashrabiya, a kind of Islamic oriel window through which to gaze onto the street. It has given the building an amazing sculptural quality.” Cox reveals he is envious of the great scale of Parry’s works; the architect, in turn, says he wishes he had the freedom of his friend. “Artists start without a brief and define their own world – they have a set of celestial goals,” says Parry. “There are three things to building: money, time and quality, and quality gets screwed all the time. If I can answer a brief by giving craftsmen the opportunity to finish an exterior, I will. And then art can just lift a building beyond the everyday, to another world of possibilities.”

    Sam Phillips (@SamP_London) is Editor of RA Magazine.

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