AA files No.48 – The Luxor Letters

The award-winning practice Architekturburo Bolles + Wilson won the competition to design Rotterdam’s New Luxor Theatre in 1997. Among the other participants were OMA and Herman Hertzberger. Located in the docklands district of the Kop van Zuid, the Luxor faces both the Maas River and Rijn Harbour, a context that is thematized in its single wrapping façade. An internalized delivery ramp allows 18-metre-long trucks to park directly beside the first-floor stage. The close packing of the ramp around the symmetrical figure of the auditorium instigates the rotational plan diagram. The auditorium itself houses an audience of 1,500. Red, the traditional colour of the theatre is a theme of the external spiral façade (clad in fibre-cement panels), while the inside of this wrapping is lined in red-orange wood panels. The spacious ascending foyers (with five bars) theatrically orchestrate arrival and intermission rituals, while windows frame specific incidents as interruptions to this internal choreography. An exaggerated shadow line overlapping the external panels creates an effect like scaled-up planks of a wooden boat. This detail in turn allows a vertical curvature in the west elevation and a grading of light tones in the horizontal curves. An ‘anthropomorphic cast’ of five actors from the Luxor archives and a giant Luxor lantern add to the visitor’s immersion in theatre. Construction of the Luxor was completed in 2002.

The text that follows is an exchange of letters between Peter Wilson (ArchitekturbUro Bolles + Wilson) and Antoni Malinowski, a painter whose works bring together aspects of drawing, colour and the experience of space. The Luxor includes a number of interventions by artists, and Wilson, who has collected Malinowski’s work since 1987, instigated an installation by the artist in response to the Luxor’s architecture. Their dialogue reflects a long-standing friendship between an architect and an artist, the overlap between their disciplines, and the unique process and circumstances of their collaboration at the Luxor Theatre.

The cross-disciplinary dialogue was further extended when the composer Michael Nyman, who had previously collaborated with Malinowski, was invited to compose a musical response to the art and architecture at the Luxor. This was performed at the opening of the installations on 29 September 2002. In a new work created for AA Files, the process is reversed as Malinowski responds to Nyman’s score.

It seems that the art project at the Luxor is going ahead. I am waiting to hear about the timing. As I recollect, my involvement with architecture (and the AA) began with your and Julia’s purchase of my roofing felt drawing. The first time I saw it hanging along with the wire sculpture you had installed at the bottom I was, I must admit, slightly shocked. Now, 15 years later. I love it. It takes time to detach oneself from one’s children. I also remember the two paintings of mine that you joined together. I think that I would probably also love that now. What I am getting at is the dynamic relationship between pictorial and architectonic space that is established. I wonder how this will work at the Luxor…

Our dialogue reminds me of I Send You This Cadmium Red, a correspondence and an exchange of colours by John Berger and John Christie. I have it, perversely, in German, with copies of handwritten letters in homely English accompanied each time by a particular colour – a communicative colour – that is never quite pinned down by words.

In this spirit I am sending you here another ‘Maltreated Malinowski’. The subtle graining of your red field painting is wickedly out of focus. At the moment of photographing, the winter sun offers a few compensatory striations. A sympathetic sun, not forgetting that this is the house of architects, also balances a vertical block of light on the polished steel of the neighbouring fireplace.

Further liberties have also been taken with the singularity of your work (remember down is up for us Australians). Is this the sort of thing you mean by dynamic relationship with paintings? This red field is certainly an active player in our domestic landscape. In situ it has a respectful amount of white wall all to itself. Enough for one to focus unhindered on the balance of forces, the myriad brush-stroke vectors, the internal choreography of its pictorial space.

Unframed (i.e. no instruction to change perceptive gear) your painted fields do seem predestined to set up extended vectoral relationships with their less considered surrounds. Here the underside of your red canvas shares a horizontal datum with the upper limit of our folded metal. The ambiguous black hole/object (one hesitates to use the word blob) at the bottom left of the canvas qualifies the positive rotundity of the neighbourly and sometimes illuminated paper lantern. It is a negative-positive discourse that is taken up again by the shadowy depth of the 15mm hole drilled through the adjacent folded steel sheet. Here, as with the lantern, and in architectonic space in general, the presence and form of objects and enclosures is rarely gratuitous. They have first and foremost to justify their existence in terms of practicalities, use or technique. The lantern lights. The drilled hole is to allow for the insertion of a screwdriver to a recessed wall fixing. Architecture, unlike painting, is rarely an exclusive, self-contained statement. It must work for its living. Only thereafter may it aspire to a certain aesthetic ennoblement, even a cohabitation, spatial and temporal, with poignant red fields.

Regarding the 15-year-old roofing felt issue (the wire sculpture was a matt brass rod to hold down the unrolled felt, it did though over time accrue other fragments of daily life), I think we spoke at the time about songlines, landscapes, etc. I very much enjoyed our recent stroll through the interior landscape of the Luxor Theatre and your response to it. The scouting of sites for Malinowski interventions somewhat reverses our previous roles as originator and appropriator. Your planned work in the Luxor is also a curious inversion of the Royal Court: there you brought a red wall to the theatre, here the theatre is in essence one giant spiralling red wall…

Viewing my paintings as fields of time-space is a key factor in their relationship with architecture – a perceptual drift between 20 and 3D instigated by the viewer’s movement in space. Peripatetic perception seems also an essential component in the foyer spaces at the Luxor. They ask one to dance from one viewing point to another, columns tilting, red expanses dematerializing.

Recently, in Torre Annunziata, one of the more scary suburbs of Naples, I was thinking how real (architectural) space triggers imagined (pictorial) space. The ruins of the villa that housed Nero’s wife offer a perfect example of how well the ancients explored this problem. Roman wall paintings never leave the wall, never trip into virtuality; they always accept and coexist with the two-dimensionality of the surface. This is also why I never frame my paintings. I want them to be part of their background. I want painting and background to breathe together. In diptychs (like the Synchrony Carmine suggested for the Luxor South Foyer) the wall becomes an integral part of the painting. The wall surface both separates and bridges the pictorial space – a gap that engenders unity.

Fascinating at the Luxor is the simultaneity of:
1 the time-space of the foyer
2 the time-space of the city beyond, on the horizon
3 the time-space of the performance onstage

The eye and mind continually shift perceptual gears. I hope that my paintings will add another time-space possibility to coexist with any or all of the above: a folding of 4D onto 2D, the compressed dimensions folded, captured but still alive. (I am of course describing successful paintings.)

You referred to the black enigmatic blobs and shapes in my work. They are just denser matter, the attractors and repulsers of gravity, cuts to another spatial situation (homage to Fontana). In Synchrony Carmine the dot is a very dark red painted with cochineal pigment (crushed beetles). A dot with the intensity and presence to balance the remaining 30m2 of the total image. Looking forward to your response.

Many thanks for your black-and-white postcard report on colour scouting in Venice. I shall tuck it between the pages of my Interaction of Colours by Josef Albers. This is a favourite of mine, also printed almost entirely in black and white, with diagrams of empty overlapping numbered boxes and copious ‘German methodic’ descriptions of colour compositions and effects. It seems that colour, like architecture, transports badly. As the alchemy of your pigments is diminished, if not entirely lost in photographic reproductions, so too is the sensorial effect, the peripatetic perception of architectural space eclipsed in magazine photos (the most common mode of receiving architecture these days).

Spaces in the Luxor are best measured by a moving viewer. Such spaces demand a phenomenological reading, the physical presence of the viewer as subject, as register. Photographs of our works are for us drained of something quintessential, not ‘the thing itself’ but a partial reflection, a fragment. Good photographs interpret, set up other and displaced perceptive sequences, they follow their own trajectory, respectfully distancing themselves from the building itself. The Albers book, with its empty squares, also works in this way. It is a question, a trigger for a further chain of causalities left open for the reader to complete. For me, the most successful media reflection of the Luxor was the most ambiguous, a recent contribution to an exhibition of shadows at the Architecture Museum in Frankfurt. Two of our own decidedly unprofessional photographs are collaged together to look out simultaneously from the depths of the foyer in opposing directions. The caption reads:

The transient type of shadow that slips into the arms and folds of relaxed overcoats patiently hanging in theatre wardrobes. A shadow-type that conspires with reflecting floors to invade, in those quiet moments between performances, the interior landscape of the theatre itself. Duration – performances daily. variations hourly. Exposure – only available at source…

Such secret lives of buildings could perhaps be added to your list of time-space permutations. A spatial intimacy upstaged each night. in the case of the Luxor, as an expectant audience trickles, then floods, through the doors and up the choreographed ramps and stairs. An audience focused as much on the evening’s show as on the building itself: the distracted viewer. according to Walter Benjamin, who does not read but intuits the character, the ambience, the aura of architectonic space. Benjamin compares such a perception with that of the concentrated viewer in front of the work of art. An intense and focused relationship, place-specific (site of the artwork) and of limited duration. Such direct encounters short-circuit intellectual or illustrative interpretation, and are most importantly simulation resistive, non tele-transmissible. In the age of spectacle and image hit, your hard-won colour-fields and our spaces are somewhat anachronistic, and because of this all the more essential, all the more necessary. The durable benchmarks in a fluxus of increasing instability. Let’s meet on the scaffold when you start work at the Luxor in August.

Just back from Rotterdam. The diptych will be hung in the South Foyer on 28 June – a small performance in itself, considering the 11 metres of wall it occupies. I will be up on the scaffold painting the North Foyer ‘red wall work’ over the summer. Strolling from one to the other of these sites is an exhilarating experience. If the rhythms and complexities of the foyer spaces are, as I see them, an ultracontemporary symphony, then my additions must take on the role of a solo. (One of Michael Nyman’s violins perhaps.)

The hanging performance made me quite nostalgic for the planning and construction phases of the Luxor (first-pile spectacle, banquet on the roof for site workers before the summer break, highest-point fireworks and regular appearances of performers or ballerinas amongst helmeted operatives).

Now, after the first year of public performances, a further phase in the building’s evolution, the theatrical arrival of your theatre-set-sized works. A small but enthusiastic Luxor-gang audience for the white-gloved fine-art lads’ precision handling and hanging, and also, as my seriously unprofessional photos confirm, for your inspired direction.

The diptych wall is a special point in the spiral Luxor plan. The principal tectonic actor – the red wall – entering the building and having sliced curtain-like between harbour and foyerscapes, wraps the auditorium and finally dissolves into a not entirely satisfactory grey-green recess. Exactly that recess now filled and focused by your colour-fields. And it works. Although no skilful theorizing will ever completely explain why, and no photo will come anywhere near capturing what you referred to as a symbiosis of architectural and pictorial space. All the better, buildings and paintings only give up their secrets to those ,who give them time. And who experience them first hand. Lucky Luxor audience rising through the stair chasm below your picture, attracted first to the balcony edge, the twilight harbour panorama and from there about-facing to enter the auditorium, to be confronted with the richest red in this red building, with a depth that anchors your pictures in the mass of the Luxor and an ambiguous radiance answering harbour-reflected light.

Well that’s the upper reaches of the south Rijnhaven Foyer dealt with. Next the upper reaches of the north Maas Foyer. I am looking forward to visiting you on the scaffold.

The Wall Painting in the Maas Foyer
This is the vermilion I used at the Royal Court Theatre. So perhaps my work will be a bridge between one theatre in London and another in Rotterdam. After all, every theatre needs its ghosts, and the ghosts of the Royal Court will now haunt the Luxor.

I remember that in one of your interviews – I think In El Croquis – you mentioned the Roman link to the Luxor architecture. I think it was related to Vitruvius’s description of theatre buildings. The vermIlion pigment is also related to the Romans. They used it in their wall paintings. It was a visit to Pompei and the studies I made of the paintings at the Villa of the Mysteries that made me use this particular pigment in the Royal Court. There is something about red that makes it a space-generating colour. The Greeks believed that red is the only colour uniting the elements of light and darkness, because in full sunlight red appears brightest of all colours while in the dark it looks the darkest.

The black pigment I use really is soot. Consequently it is very light and quite a contrast to the heavy vermilion, which is made of mercury and sulphur. The black is light but appears dark, the vermilion is heavy but appears light. like you, I try to bring what is outside the building In. Where you have broken the building walls in every possible way, I stretch and twist my black lines. In this corner of the building, the dancing movement of the light soot traces in and out of the vermilion and becomes an invitation for the eye to wander along some Imaginary path.

When I was a child, brought up in a small flat in Warsaw, without even a balcony to play on, I used to enlarge my space by playing a game. I would walk with a mirror held out in front of me, so that what I saw was the ceiling. I was walking on the ceiling, inhabiting new, unknown space. I am reminded of that game every day here.


After a week here, the perceptual overlay and initial imbalance of placing the diptych in such a powerful and complex space is finding its equilibrium. Maybe this is because architectural and pictorial space are, in the end, animated by the same light: Rotterdam light, reflected off the Rijnhaven, with its slow-barge comings and goings, and looming warehouse silhouettes changing dramatically every few minutes (as Dutch light should). The large window, the wall of glass that filters this light (upward harbour-reflected light accepted, direct sunlight louver-rejected) has very special proportions. Coming up the stairs through this volume of light, the eye registers a bit of the painting’s red as a playful elaboration of the auditorium’s red wall. Then, from halfway up, the full diptych vista is revealed. At that point it takes on an autonomous status, carves out its own space.

Interesting how colour changes. Its experience varies depending on how it enters your field of vision. Approaching the diptych from below, from the stair chasm, the greenish grey wall resonates with its blue areas. A colour attraction that seems to accelerate the ascent, that is until the carmine red takes over and arrests. From the facing bar this red is unforgiving, overwhelming, piercing. Approached from the left, following the red auditorium wall, the eye, already attuned to red, dives softly into the deeper carmine of the painting. Like the view through the glass wall, the painting simply unfolds. Cisca from the Luxor said it’s like the wind. I like this idea of capturing but not depicting elemental forces.

Meanwhile on the other side the scaffolding went up. I began to place the x-ray drawings of the diptych on the opposing Maas Foyer wall. Then the trickier task of picking the lines through the drawings and extending them into the expanse of your building-scale red wall. I am still struggling with them.

I am totally envious of your phantom-of-the-opera status, rattling around the summer closed Luxor. I imagine you taking a break in row 6, wandering to the south side (with diptych detour) for some sun on the terrace, pulling up one of our red corner chairs to whichever window-framed slice of Rotterdam matches your mood, simulating a Swiss ramble on the multiple stairs or doing a few backstage/front-of-house laps around the auditorium. But this is an architect’s reverie, a compensation perhaps for our traumatic exile from our products, our building-site playgrounds, once they take up their planned use. I am forgetting also your struggle with the red wall.

At least you do not have to lock out any curious Popes as did Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Also, the scaffold which suspends you some 18 metres above the entrance is breathtaking but stable, at least it seemed so when we clambered up for a detailed line inspection. Vasari reports that Michelangelo rejected Bramantes’ design to hang the Sistine scaffold. The problem was a logistic one, how to paint over the rope holes bored through the ceiling once the scaffold was down.

Your work on this particular stretch of the spiral red wall annotates another significant moment in the Luxor plan. The wrapping wall has just passed from outside to inside. just crossed the externally projected proscenium line. the glass of the entrance façade. an interface between the everyday spaces of the city and the internal world of the ‘house of illusion’. Your projections make their appearance just at this point. fluttering deeper into theatre space. across the heightened red of the auditorium wall and across the even more subtle nuances of your two window-like vermilion rectangles. At least this is what I am anticipating.

In combination. your two works – suspended before and painted on the Luxor wall are earmuffs, a symmetrical bracketing of the auditorium, addressing both the north and the south foyers. They qualify the depth of this enclosing wall. which is in fact two walls with stairs and auditorium lobbies buried between. The outer layer is red. the base for your inscriptions. The inner layer is grey-green, the diptych background, an intermediate shadow zone between bright foyer space and the black box of the auditorium.

Your two interventions also highlight the double orientation of the building. A counterpoint to the spectacular views and a conclusion to the audience promenade through the foyer landscape. They also balance the ground-level works by the Rotterdam artist Milou van Ham. Her two-sided text screen responds to the visual connectedness of north and south. Rijnhaven and Maas below the auditorium. Like your pieces. this was the result of a positive dialogue between artist. architect and. of course. the Luxor gang. The second intervention from Milou. just inside the entrance. almost directly below your wall painting will complete the overall north-south. See you on 10 July.

P.S. I like the idea of Michael Nyman composing something on the theme of the Luxor i and your work. It’s only 43 years since Edgar Varese composed the Poeme Electronique – for Le Corbusier’s Phillips Pavilion just down the road in Brussels. Like everything that Le Corbusier did, it was accompanied by a book; an original Dutch copy has pride-of place on my bookshelf.


Day changes to night within the surprising window-openings of the Luxor – knee-high late-afternoon shafts on the grand promenade stair. framed rectangles on the red wall. My rectangles of vermilion glaze are. from an oblique angle. lighter than their matt red background. Face-on they reveal a sombre depth – vermilion’s alter ego.

While blacking my lines I became aware of shadows appearing within the surrounding vermilion. Time and light subverting the work. The process of painting directly on a prepared surface, no corrections possible, introduces chance and a certain transparency into my working process. the rhythm of brush strokes recorded live. Real pigments also behave unpredictably. a controlled gamble like the random number puzzle below your Bridge Watchers’ House that I could see from my scaffold. The latter has just come down, like a theatre curtain going up to reveal the finished painting. A tense check to see if my painted lines work without their metal foreground – only a few minor adjustments required.

The next morning the shadows within the vermilion had expanded. a shadow play. ghosts of the theatre. Somebody once compared my paintings to the quick yet (paradoxically) delayed movement of mercury towards a breaking point at which it is immediately replaced by another movement. Here it’s the mercury in vermilion (mercuric sulphide). its alchemical potential to change from light to dark activated by the brilliant July light. Unpredictable. dangerous and full of surprises.

The original skeleton of lines, negative projections of the diptych. are fermenting. These shadows within the vermilion glaze stretch through the history of painting. The alchemical secret of synthetically mixing yellow sulphur and quicksilver arrived in Europe from China in the Middle Ages. Its colour is very special. a pure red (neither bluish nor orangey), absorbing all but the red within the spectrum. Vermilion’s molecular structure is particularly volatile: occasional electrons can be knocked out (seeing colour is seeing electrons at play) causing a change from bright red to black. as noted by Pliny (in relation to the mineral form of vermilion) and visible in many Italian frescos. Here the River Maas is dark with brilliant light reflections. the history of Rotterdam hitting the Luxor wall and setting off these vermilion transformations.

Our midnight stroll through the empty theatre was a revealing first encounter with the finished work. From two floors below you appear to have dissolved the wall into jellyfish like transparent ripples. Front-on you introduce an unexpected intimacy through the changed status of this 20-or-so metres of wall, a dimensional modification of architectural space. Games are played with the light. An elusive sinking in or springing forward, reflectivities activated by the moving viewer. These are qualities that defy the camera, thankfully.

The Sunday afternoon launch, with crowds from Rotterdam. London and Germany levitated though the foyer, from red wall to diptych, by Michael Nyman’s musicians, was an enlightening experience. A synthesis of our discourse, of pictorial and architectural space, of authors and audience, of nuances of red and resonances of cellos. Such moments, such spaces, are today also fated further to resonate in various media incarnations – fragmented refractions in the pages of AA Files. your forthcoming London show. My invitation to this has just arrived, red of course, a fragment of the Luxor wall. Your black painted markings enhanced by the scratches of an over enthusiastic franking machine, and further by a post employee inspired hopefully by the poignant composition passing in range of his wavy stamp. This is where we started: your painting entering into chance relations, a discourse of images; and qualifying, as does a work of architecture, daily life.

Michael Nyman: Music for the Luxor

Do you think there are similarities between creating architecture and composing music?
The composing process tends to deal with the accumulation of small details rather than ~ the big picture – I don’t think I’ve ever sketched a whole piece on the back of an envelope or paper napkin (if that’s what some architects do) and then proceeded to put this vision into tangible form by drawing it up in ever more practical detail. Also, I’ve never had to fit a piece to a particular space. Of course the financial/logistic concerns and the client briefings are very different. I suppose that writing a film score may be comparable but the constraints are tighter than any architect would ever agree to work; with. So – when I’m allowed to be free – the musical ‘construct’ that I make is as free from pre planning as possible. (At least it is these days – in the more constructivist 1980s I guess process/structure was most often predetermined – by me – but the effect of running something as unpredictable as sound through these processes gives a kinetic, emotional and even formal result that is, even at best, not as predictable as a building might be.) Nevertheless, the spatial effect of a brilliant building may be equally revelatory and unpredictable….

What was it about the architecture and painting at the Luxor that inspired you?
I was inspired by the setting and by the looseness of the linear landscape. This allowed and encouraged me – perhaps via a kind of sixth sense – to make something quite lyrical and flowing. But within that, the fast music was very tight and repetitive whilst being asymmetric in feel. It also possibly tapped into Antoni’s and my common (or maybe uncommon!) Polish background.

Is there such a thing as site-specific music?
On the day of the performance at the Luxor I improvised a performance that became site-specific. (To be truthful, for the first time in my life – my music is always site-specific I suppose, but the sites are conventional – the concert hall, the opera house and the cinema.) The string quartet, playing the carefully composed score, were sited against the south window. At first they appeared to be playing quietly to themselves, because the ‘audience’ were in the bar listening to the brass players who were playing music improvised on the spot, taking Antoni’s linear composition as a ‘score’. As the brass players moved, under my instructions, from the bar towards the string quartet they did a number of interconnected things. They drew the audience with them and they progressed from ‘uncomposed’ to composed music (since I gave the players instructions that when they moved to a position where they could actually hear the quartet, so the material they played should derive from what they heard). So they led the audience into an environment in which there was (composed) music that they did not previously. know existed (since it was not audible from the bar – certainly since it was obliterated by the brass players, but also because it was very distant), and in doing so they simultaneously ‘animated’ the north-south axis of the building.

© AA Files