Renowned architect joins calls to save Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn

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 said it was “a real pity” that 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.”

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.