Martha Thorne, Lack of communication: something current generations need to address

Yolanda Regodón. Associate Director of Communications. IE Business School

23 September 2013

Some months ago I was at the Villahermosa Palace where I had a date with art and with two Americans, namely Edward Hopper (1882 -1967) and Martha Thorne. We had arranged to meet early in the morning in a building that is a prime example of palace architecture in Madrid.

Executive Director of the Pritzker prizes and Vice Dean of IE School of Architecture and Design, Martha Thorne was punctual and full of enthusiasm. “It’s such a luxury to begin the day like this,” she said. And it certainly was, because it’s pretty unusual to be able to look around a 19th-century palace just before it is opened to the public, and to enjoy some time alone with Hopper’s paintings and talk to city-planner Thorne about American history, about art, about architecture, and about all things human and divine. The conversation comprised lively dialogue, in stark contrast to the lack of communication among Hopper’s subjects and static landscapes. Hopper’s paintings depict routine, modern life and the solitude that comes with it, while Thorne loves dialogue and observation. She sees lack of communication as something current generations still need to address.

Thorne feels Spanish but is very American –a citizen of the world. She was born in Rochester, New York, but Philadelphia, Buffalo, London, Chicago, Madrid and Hamburg have all played a part in her life. Hopper lived in New York for almost his entire life, but also spent time in Cape Cod (Mass.) along with brief stays in Paris, Holland and Spain.

The Thyssen-Bornesmisza Museum prepared the most extensive Hopper collection in Europe, with 73 paintings that show how his style evolved over time and what motivated him. For Thorne, an artist has achieved his or her objective when their work inspires memories and emotions. We talked about Hopper’s landscapes, his buildings and his architecture, his colours, his shadows, his subjects and his lack of dialogue. But more than anything else we talked about the importance of how we choose to approach life.

There is a great deal of communication between art and architecture in Hopper’s paintings. The majority feature human figures, but there are also buildings and landscapes. Hopper is very aware of the physical environment. Thorne is convinced that painting and architecture are related, citing architect Zaha Hadid and how she has been influenced by Russian constructivism as an example.

The way you are brought up and educated coupled with the different influences in the life of each person are like unexpected accidents that shape you. Realism influenced Hopper, but so did his trip to Paris to understand colour by studying impressionist art. Thorne was greatly influenced by her experiences in two cities: London and Madrid. The U.S. is her home country and where she began her education at the University of Buffalo, moving on later to London School of Economics in the U.K. “That period in my life was extremely enriching and provided me with a prism through which to see the world. But it wasn’t until I came to Spain that I managed to integrate work, family and friends, and the importance of human relations, the way we communicate, feel passion for things... All that is thanks to my experiences in Spain.”

Hopper’s paintings are not cheerful. He places you in a static situation that makes you feel slightly nostalgic when you realize that it is long past. “Hopper doesn’t open doors to the future. He simply somehow tells you to stay still and take a second to look at the past. His painting has the capacity to make people reflect on things, to make the public think.”

Some people demand a forgotten commitment of the artist; others, silence. I asked Thorne to tell me about the qualities of the 21st-century architect. “An architect has to have imagination, innovation, profound technical and cultural knowledge, and he or she has to be absolutely tireless. Being an architect is being in a constant struggle. You have to try to experiment, try to make every project a good project, keeping an open mind. The way I see it you shouldn’t just seek out paths or projects that consist of designing a new building, but architects should also try small projects, perhaps restorations, landscape architecture – all using the capacity for spatial awareness.” She feels that Mies van der Rohe’s legacy of “Less is more” is almost always right, certainly more so than “less is a bore”.

As we walk around the exhibition there is a painting that touches Thorne’s patriotic vein. The moment she sees it she says: “This is the one.” It is the painting called “Gas” which belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s a painting of a gas station, with a man who is working or is the owner. “This painting embodies America, it is an individual. For good or for bad. Life in the U.S. focuses on the individual, on making your way in life, having your business, even if it is just a small gas station where at the end of each day you have to put everything away and close up... I see it as a painting that captures the very essence of American life. We may only see a painting but it’s also the way I see people’s lives. I’ve often asked myself where you find the balance between the individual and society, or between the individual and your community. As an American in Spain, there are times when I feel completely Spanish and integrated, and others when I feel very American.”

Starchitects

Cities and their buildings. Some experts say that the days of starchitects are over. “Today a lot of cities are reinventing themselves, and some are trying to use buildings designed by big names in architecture to shape the city and create an identity. However, the current economic situation means we have to think long and hard about how we spend money, and how to do it efficiently and in the right way. It’s always necessary to think before doing something. You have to ask yourself who is the best professional for a particular project. You can’t rush into an urban project, it’s too important. You have to evaluate a whole range of options and research who will be the best person for each one.

A good building has to have a number of features to satisfy an architect, but more than anything else it has to serve the purpose for which is built. “It has to be a measured concept, in which nothing is surplus to requirements, and nothing is missing. There are many buildings that you could take things away from and they would still be the same. It has to be a “good neighbour” to buildings in its immediate vicinity, and take into consideration its surroundings. It has to bring something to its environment. It’s not an isolated building; it forms part of a city, a landscape, or whatever else it affects”.

I cannot resist asking her if the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel Prize of the world of architecture), of which she is the Executive Director, is evolving, and about its current status. Thorne is convinced that the Prize is evolving, but that it is doing so very slowly because it has such a consolidated reputation that the tendency is to resist change. She says that enormous efforts are being made to find talent in places where you might not expect to, such as Asia, India, and Africa.

“Will it take long before Spain is once again a hub of architectural talent?” I ask her, and she replies that there is a great deal of talent in Spain. “Architecture in Spain has a particularly redeeming feature, namely that sometimes it is very profound. There’s no room for empty gestures. Communicating that depth requires an effort from those of us here in Spain, and also for the Judges’ panel of the Pritzker Prize, who need to examine very closely what they are doing. In Spain there’s a history of extremely good architecture, and that makes the challenge even greater. We cannot be complacent. A major challenge now facing Spanish architecture is to take stock of where it is, and where it can go from here, and ensure that it does not remain stuck in either the past or the present.”

We would like to thank the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and its Director of Communication, José María Goicoechea.
 

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Dean Martha Thorne discusses her thoughts on the Pritzker Prize 2017

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