Renowned architect joins calls to save Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn

Daniel Libeskind attacks plans to sell off Cumbrian structure once owned by celebrated modern artist

The architect Daniel Libeskind has criticised plans to sell off a unique Cumbrian barn once owned by the celebrated modernist artist Kurt Schwitters.

Merz Barn, near Elterwater, is to be put up for auction next month after funding could not be found to save the studio, which Schwitters, an anti-fascist artist, had made into artwork in itself.

Libeskind told Architects’ Journal that it was “a real pity” the custodians were being forced to sell the building, which has received donations from the artists Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Tacita Dean.

Architect Daniel Libeskind: ‘It’s a real pity.’
Architect Daniel Libeskind: ‘It’s a real pity.’ Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Libeskind, who was responsible for the Grand Canal Theatre (now called the Bord Gáis Energy theatre) in Dublin and the Imperial War Museum North in Greater Manchester, said: “It’s a real pity (and a sign of the times) that Schwitters’ life-affirming [Merz Barn] is possibly about to be destroyed.

“As one of the only art ‘shrines’ to freedom in a world increasingly threatened with authoritarianism, it should be preserved as a warning against propaganda and conformity.”

Schwitters, an anti-fascist German artist who fled the Nazis to Norway in 1937 before eventually settling in the Lake District in 1945, used the studio to create works with subversive ideas that went on to shape British art.

His use of found objects and rubbish to create collages and surprising imagery laid the foundations for pop art and today’s thriving conceptual art scene.

He imagined Merz Barn becoming a modernist cave, with artefacts embedded in the cement walls. Most of what he managed to complete before his death in 1948 is now on display in Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery.

Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, Schwitters devotees who have maintained and championed the barn since 2006, gave up their battle to preserve the building for posterity.

“It is a really shocking moment for us,” Hunter said in October. “This is such an important site, so valued by many artists, including the late architect Zaha Hadid. But we have run out of money and will have to put the whole estate up for sale in the new year.”

A picture of Kurt Schwitters at the Merz Barn.
A picture of Kurt Schwitters at the Merz Barn. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

Hunter and Larner, who jointly founded the Littoral Trust to safeguard Merz Barn, say they had made nine substantial applications for renewed Arts Council funding over the last decade, each of which had been rejected, despite the support of prominent figures including the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and the Conservative former arts minister Ed Vaizey.

“This summer we realised how tired we were,” Hunter said. “I am 75 and Celia is 85. We have already sold our two homes in the area to fund maintenance of the barn and there is nothing else we can do. It was the Arts Council that originally encouraged us to take on the project, and they were generous with capital funds and with supporting our artistic programme. But they changed their minds and have not told us why.”

• This article was amended on 24 November 2022 to correct details of when Schwitters fled Nazi Germany. A link and a reference to the original Architects’ Journal interview with Daniel Libeskind was added on 25 November 2022.


Robyn Vinter North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kurt Schwitters's Merz Barn under threat from property developers
German artist’s ‘outstanding’ unfinished work in Cumbria could be sold after art institutions refuse to save it

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

08, Jun, 2017 @4:32 PM

Article image
Historic Merz Barn art studio could move from Lake District to China
Stone building used by influential German artist Kurt Schwitters may be sold due to lack of funds to maintain it, owners say

Frances Perraudin North of England reporter

07, Jan, 2018 @2:44 PM

Article image
Watermill and shipwrecks among heritage sites listed in England
The Historic England list also includes two cab shelters in London and first world war training trenches

Caroline Davies

15, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Merz Barn faces closure
Lake District shrine to modern art where Kurt Schwitters worked on his last great dadaist project under threat after losing grant

Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

19, Oct, 2012 @6:10 PM

Article image
Call for more diverse Lake District sparks row over area's future
National park’s boss accused of using the issue of diversity to turn region into a ‘theme park’

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

02, Jan, 2020 @3:38 PM

Article image
‘A lovely building’: charity launches plan to save Bristol’s Rupert Street car park
Concrete multistorey threatened with demolition but C20 launches campaign to keep ‘innovative’ building

Jamie Grierson

24, Feb, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Art pioneer Kurt Schwitters’ Lake District retreat to be sold for development
Followers of the German modernist give up hopes of preserving his working studio, the Merz Barn after funding cut

Vanessa Thorpe

16, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Last known Wordsworth descendant joins fight to stop Lake District pylons
National Grid has agreed to use underground cables within national park, but plans to put pylons 10 metres outside it

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

29, Dec, 2016 @3:22 PM

Article image
Artist's barn damaged in Storm Desmond given £25,000 lifeline
Swiss art gallery steps in to save Kurt Schwitters’ Lake District experiment in art and architecture at the suggestion of the late Zaha Hadid

Maev Kennedy

04, May, 2016 @8:54 AM

Article image
Beatrix Potter's Lake District holiday home given Grade II status

Lingholm and its beautiful woodland grounds inspired some of the best loved children's books of all time

Maev Kennedy

05, Sep, 2013 @6:00 AM