High Times


Zbiginew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp Set has left Demented Architecture, destined for another exhibition in Poland. As with the urban cityscape, nothing remains vacant for long, and a new structure has already risen up to take its place. Kirsty Lillico has added a third of her soft sculptures to the exhibition. Made of carpet and from the floor plans of modernist buildings, Lillico's sculptures play with the form, function and experience of architecture. I often wonder whether architect James Beard recognises himself in the slumping sculpture modeled on the floor plan of an apartment from his Hamilton Court building. Or even if Lillico, the apartment’s current occupant, sees the sculpture primarily in terms of the place where she lives or as a new strand of her practice. After the exhibition ends, would it be too weird to hang the sculpture on the wall of the apartment? It puts a new spin on that ever-present quest for work/life balance. 

Kirsty Lillico High Rise 2015 

This new sculpture is both like and unlike her other work in the exhibition. Firstly, the materials have changed. With the support of Sallee—maker of custom carpets—Lillico has used new rather than recycled carpet. Part of the impact of this shift is formal. The new carpet holds its shape and falls differently than its worn, second hand counterparts. Its colour and surface are rich and lustrous, rather than faded and threadbare. The presentation too is different. This sculpture does not cling to the wall but drops from the ceiling. The relationship which the sculpture poses to the architecture that supports it and the body of the viewer that stands in front of (and now) behind it has fundamentally shifted. It somehow becomes at once both more and less sculptural, and signals that something different is at play. 

This sculpture is less bound to the experiences of the real world which the earlier iterations carry through every stain and tear. It belongs elsewhere. Rather than reuse floor plans from existing buildings, Lillico has here turned to fictional architecture—specifically Robert Laing's apartment on the 27th floor of the 40-story, 1000-suite tower block from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise. A master of dystopian architectural spaces, Ballard, like Lillico, is less interested in architecture itself than in the psychological power buildings exert over their inhabitants. It's not surprising that both have turned to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation or ‘the Radiant City’. It hovers within or behind Ballard's monstrous structure and provides the floor plan for Lillico's third sculpture in this exhibition.

When working off real buildings, Lillico starts by tracing and cutting pre-existing floor plans into her material. With High Rise she has had to work differently—from or off the page. In what amounts to a form of interpretative architectural reading, she has had to glean and sense the shape of the apartment from the descriptions and movements of the novel's characters. Ballard doesn’t always help here. He is less interested in describing architecture than using it symbolically to represent the inner state of his characters. There is a sentence in the first chapter that has provided the strongest guide:

"The apartment had been expensive, the studio living-room and single bedroom, kitchen and bathroom dovetailed into each other to minimise space and eliminate internal corridors."

The question of how these spaces might dovetail proved particularly vexing. In figuring this out, Lillico shared the drawings she had made with architect Michael O’Brien who interpreted Ballard’s description slightly differently. He suggested:

"The thing about your plan that I have a slight issue with is the size and the kitchen. Studios usually are a one or two room apartment. In a one room apartment the bed, living, dining and kitchen are all in one space with a small bathroom off to one side. In a two room studio, you would have the bedroom and bathroom as one space and kitchen/dining/living as another space. I think Robert’s apartment would be the latter. He mentions that it had been expensive, which would imply a level of spaciousness. A clue to the layout of the kitchen in the text says 'As he stood amongst the garbage-sacks in the kitchen, trying to coax a few drops of water from the tap, he peered over his shoulder at the dull fog that stretched like a curtain across the sitting-room.' This implies he can see the sitting (living) room from his kitchen. I suspect that the plan would be more squarish than rectangular, with the bathroom in the top left with bedroom in bottom left. The kitchen/dining/ living would be to the right side of the plan…" 

This dialogue between artist and an architect over the appearance and dimensions of a fictional architectural space gets to the heart of this exhibition, which plays on and hams up the relationship between these disciplines.  A recent talk at City Gallery Wellington dwelled on another of these productive working relationships—embodied in the house/painting Humbug. Painter Peter Adsett and architect Sam Kebbell worked together and challenged each other through this project that collapses the experience of painting and architecture. It is now the place where Adsett lives and paints.

Lillico's late injection of High Rise into Demented Architecture has shifted the readings of an exhibition that had settled. Suddenly everything reads differently, feels a touch more sinister, and other presences come to the fore. Michael O’Brien, for example, has provided more than just an architectural ear to Lillico. His presence can be found in a few works in this exhibition. O'Brien is Lillico's neighbour. He also lives in the Hamilton Court apartment building. The floorplan in Lillico’s original sculpture is from her own apartment, yet it also provides an echo of O’Brien's own. It turns out that as an architecture student he also assisted Russian artists Brodsky and Utkin with the construction of their ill-fated public sculpture in Civic Square in 1992, also documented in the exhibition.

In truth, Ballard was never far from the conception of Demented Architecture. The architect Anthony Royal in Ballard's novel provides the exemplar for the 'demented architect' trope that runs through the entire exhibition. According to who you read, Royal is based either on Le Corbusier or British Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger (who in turn became parodied through a Bond villian). Like Goldfinger with his Balfron Tower, Royal lives in a palatial penthouse apartment as the super-ego of the building—overseeing his vast social experiment. While the style of Henry Coombes' film I am the Architect that anchors Demented Architecture is often called Lynchian, his portrayal of the architect is certainly Ballardian—especially when overlaid with the Oedipal implications where the artist-son makes a film at least obliquely about his architect-father.

Tom Hiddleston as Doctor Robert Laing in High Rise

English Director Ben Wheatley has taken on the task of adapting Ballard's novel for the screen (yet to be released in New Zealand). Like Lillico, Wheatley must have puzzled (differently) over how to represent the interior spaces of Ballard's dystopian apartment block, which provides far more than a simple backdrop to the story. His solution is to set the film within the social and architectural context of the 1970s, also when the novel was written if not explicitly set. This was a period dominated in the UK at least by the upsurge and subsequent resistance to Brutalist Council Estates. Among the early responses to the film and its representation of architecture, Architectural theorist Owen Hatherley has cautioned against understanding this apartment block through Brutalism. He recently tweeted 'Not seen the film and it may be great but anyone who thinks High-Rise is set in a council block hasn't read it', quickly followed by 'it is not Balfron Tower, it is the Barbican. Thank you'. Hatherley presented a lecture at City Gallery Wellington on the art and architecture of the Moscow Underground in association with Demented Architecture.

In attempting to make connections between the work in Demented Architecture and Ballard’s High Rise as introduced by Lillico, one might think that the connection to the exhibition’s primary medium of Lego would prove the most resistant.  Enter the mysterious Lego Loki, who has undertaken his own project to make a scene-by-scene adaptation of High Rise in Lego (brickhighrise.co.uk). Like Lillico and Wheatley, Loki has had to imagine and draw these architectural spaces in order to remake them in his medium, with special attention paid to Laing's apartment. 


And, also, to return to the exhibition, what else is Olafur Eliasson's Cubic Structural Evolution Project but an attempt to unleash the tribal class warfare that takes place in or through architecture in the pages of High Rise? Is Eliasson as artist playing the role of the demented architect who sets this action in place? Or perhaps he is more like Ballard—setting the scene in motion and willing his work's participants to, consciously or not, play the role of Anthony Royal.

Kirsty Lillico would like to acknowledge the support of Sallee.

Demented Architecture is on until 8 November, 2015 at City Gallery Wellington. Free entry.