Leg Godt/Play Well

At the centre of Demented Architecture sits Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project (2004). Thousands of gleaming white Lego blocks are scattered across a gleaming white table inside a gleaming white gallery. The work beckons the viewer to enter the space of the exhibition, but also to enter architecture as an experience or a question. Invited to play with the blocks, viewers can build and demolish. Structures emerge from the rubble and fall back into it, suggesting a city in constant renewal and transformation. Eliasson turns the process of architectural model making into the work itself. He does not make a model for something to be built in the world. Rather, the work ishis participants’ collective modelmaking activity, made in and of the world.

As an artwork, The Cubic Structural Evolution Project invites us to play at being architects. In doing so, it nags at the border between the often-duelling disciplines of art and architecture and prompts us to consider the role each plays in shaping the world. These concerns speak to other works in the exhibition, which take on—and often parody—architecture and the mythology of the architect.

Eliasson’s participants are not the only ones playing architects here. The actors in Jasmina Cibic’s videos restage historic debates concerning architecture and power in post-war Slovenia. The central protagonist is State architect Vinko Glanz, whose architectural programme was charged with representing the nation. Cibic’s videos slowly reveal Glanz’s philosophy of architecture, and especially turn on its insistence that art and artists must submit to architecture’s primacy. Cibic responds by making Glanz the subject of her own work, which questions rather than affirms architecture’s power to reflect anything more than the ego of its maker, blundering committee decisions, and the ideologies of specific times and places.

Eliasson would also take issue with Glanz’s assertion that art must serve architecture. The Cubic Structural Evolution Project blurs the border between art and architecture, reversing the terms by which we generally encounter the disciplines. It presents architecture both as a subject for art and as subject to it, rather than the opposites. Eliasson upends Glanz’s claim that ‘either the artist adheres to the proportions of the allocated surface or he produces an artwork for which we must subsequently allocate a space within the building’. Eliasson’s large-scale immersive environments transform the experience of architecture in different yet related ways, with elements like walls and ceilings becoming sites of phenomenological inquiry.

The Cubic Structural Evolution Project is one of the few works in this exhibition that does not feature architectural models or plans. Most of the architects depicted cling to the finished model or plan—made in the sanctity of the studio and imposed on the world—as an authoritative form or truth. In Henry Coombes’ film I am the Architect, This is not Happening, This is Unacceptable (2011), Clive, a retired architect, is sucked into the model for a utopian city he has built in his attic. While living within a city of one’s own making should be every architect’s dream, Clive finds himself victim to his own aesthetic, being destroyed as an impurity by his own creation.

The theme of architect as megalomaniac, struggling to control the world they build, passes through this exhibition, from Vinko Glanz to Clive. It is, also, potentially inherited by Eliasson’s participants who make their own dream buildings and cities, either through collaboration or in conflict with those sitting near them, and in relation to what has gone before. Their activity parodies the history of architecture as a contest to build the tallest skyscraper or leave the most indelible mark on the world.

Eliasson invokes the failed ambitions of modernist architecture. His installation co-opts key elements of modernism: whiteness, truth to materials, lack of ornament, and pure structure. Participants are left to play with and reconstitute the ruins of modernism. There is a supreme irony here. Modernism’s formal austerity alienated the very humanity it sought to save, but Eliasson has turned its elitist language into one of the most popular participatory art works of our time. He does this by embellishing modernist architecture (and art) with the one element it refused to offer—user adaptability. His installation does the impossible: it makes its public crave modernist form.

A different take on ‘truth to materials’ underpins Kirsty Lillico’s rendering of floorplans from modernist buildings in salvaged pieces of carpet. The utopian architectural ideals her sculptures grow from or out of are now consigned to the cultural skip-bin—as intellectually dirty and discarded as the used floor coverings that now hang or slump from the wall as sculpture. Her material speaks of the domestic realm and of the body, both of which were marginalised in modernism. Le Corbusier designed his Unité d’Habitation (one of the floor plans Lillico repurposes) based around the proportions of the ideal six-foot ‘Modulor Man’, who was drawn up according to the Golden Section. Lillico’s second sculpture takes the floorplan from the brutalist apartment where she lives in Hataitai. Unable and unwilling to live according to Le Corbusier’s ratios and maxims, she too takes modernist architectural ideology as a readymade, to be reused and refigured. Perhaps there are commercial applications here. After all, ANKER, the carpet manufacturer, promotes its Le Corbusier collection as perfect for modern apartment living.

The darker side of modern architecture also hangs over this exhibition. Zbigniew Libera’s concentration-camp Lego set (1996) turns an architecture of evil into a toy. Libera’s ‘correcting devices’ link the ways children enter the adult world through games and fantasy to the oppressive and horrific actions that take place in that world. No modern structure symbolises suffering or horror more than the concentration camp.

There are two works made of Lego in this exhibition: one endorsed by the company, one not; one to be played with, the other secured in a vitrine. Both leverage the company’s key marketing promise: ‘With Lego, you can build what you want’. Where Eliasson offers a collective art experience that opens up architecture’s  imaginative possibilities, Libera reminds us of the architectural forms that have come from them. Placed in conversation, these two works beg questions. What would happen if someone used Eliasson’s blocks to build a concentration camp? Would the gallery intervene? Would other participants? In different ways, both works push at the point when play, art and architecture turn dangerous.

Eliasson’s installation is as concerned with destruction as with creation, with what gets destroyed and what is preserved. He leaves the decisions in the hands of his participants, echoing the ways that post-war culture has had to decide on the fate of the architectural form Libera toys with. Should concentration camps be destroyed as sites of evil or maintained in the service of memorial and education to ensure that the atrocities that took place there never happen again? In editioning this work, Libera suggests that this potential to relive and rebuild the past lies latent in the human and architectural imagination.

Cibic is equally concerned with the ways architecture is subject to changing political and cultural imperatives. Nazism makes an appearance in her work too, in the wallpaper that frames her videos. This wallpaper features commissioned botanical illustrations of the Anophthalmus Hitleri, an endemic Slovenian beetle named after Adolf Hitler by Nazi sympathiser Oscar Scheibel in 1937. Due to taxonomic tradition—that assigned names cannot be changed— this blind beetle has been burdened with history in a way that much architecture has been able to shed by changing its form or function. Art has often enabled this architectural decontamination, exemplified by the recent conversion of an Alfred Speer-designed Nazi air-raid shelter in the centre of Berlin into Sammlung Boros, a contemporary art gallery. There, the first major commission was Eliasson’s Berlin Colour Sphere (1995). This suspended ball of mirrors transformed the building’s imposing monumental interior, creating a spectacle that encouraged the architecture to forget its past. Here, Eliasson’s installation raises the spectre of architecture’s dark history,yet its participatory mode ultimately carries something more generative and optimistic.

The Cubic Structural Evolution Project is imbued with architecture’s potential to transform a dreary world. This grand promise underpins many other works in the exhibition: from the fantastical ‘paper architecture’ of Russian artists Brodsky and Utkin to a proposal for a colossal cathedral in the shape of a faucet that pours an endless stream of water into Seattle’s Lake Union by American artist Claus Oldenburg. Where Eliasson’s installation refuses to ever be finished, the works by these artists remains unrealisable.

For the actual architectural realisation of the fantastic, this exhibition brings us much closer to home. In 1953, Edgar Roy Brewster built the Norian House in Sanders Avenue, New Plymouth. Touched by God and obsessed with bees, Brewster based his house on the hexagonal structure of the honeycomb. Right angles were banished from the house as, he claimed, they were from nature. Brewster considered right angles evil. To emphasise the point, he observed that  the swastika is made up of 20 of them. Along with the architecture, all furniture and fittings took hexagonal form, including a trimmed print of the Mona Lisa displayed in a six-sided frame. Brewster’s application for building consent seems unable to convey the full visionary dimension of what is a down-on-the-farm, regionalist Buckminster Fuller-type project. It begins humbly: ‘I hereby apply for permission to erect an experimental house …’​

Published in Demented Architecture, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2015), 2–9.