Design and Health World Health Design

Emotional Response

Show room 2008, Los Carpinteros (Cuba)
“Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,”
until 25 August, 2008

The Hayward Gallery,
London, UK

Stepping outside the parameters of ‘normal’ architecture can be good for your health, decides Veronica Simpson after a visit to the Hayward Gallery’s “Psycho Buildings” exhibition in London.

How do buildings make you feel? In an ideal world, every architect should be forced to imagine, visualise and empathise with the occupants of any building they design to ensure that, in every possible, practical way, they do not wittingly create spaces that dull or disappoint the senses. Even aside from the practicalities, there are usually too many trust managers, town planners, accountants, unit managers, and clients’ aesthetic sensibilities to negotiate – to the point where such a goal may end up appearing ludicrously indulgent.

But every now and again it’s worth visualising a world where budget constraints, inter-departmental pettiness, politics and even functionality have no place. It’s just such a world that ten artists have conceived in “Psycho Buildings” at London’s Hayward Gallery.

In this bold and visionary exhibition (commemorating the 40th anniversary of the iconic South Bank gallery space) the Hayward has asked ten international artists, whose work is architectural in tone and scale, to respond to the built environment and explore the effect on the viewer of the spaces around them.

Fantasy space
Ernesto Neto’s pagoda of carved and slotted MDF ‘legs’ is the first exhibit you encounter, its form is sheathed in black nylon netting, like a cocoon woven by an enormous spider, or a surreal, domed and entirely un-weatherproof yurt.

It evokes a sense of delight at the tactile nature of the nylon membrane, or the toy-like slotted legs – very much like the DIY plywood dinosaurs you can buy for children – and the delicious scent emanating from three huge, pendulous nylon sacs that dangle from its apex, packed with cloves, coffee beans and spices, looking very much as if the aforementioned spider had left them there to hatch.

This is a space that lends itself to play, to fantasy, or to quiet and contained contemplation – one in which you want to linger. The same cannot be said of the second gallery, a two-room installation up the spiral staircase that looks as if it has been gored by a rabid rhinoceros.

The initial impact to the senses is one of horror: chunks of wood and plaster have been gouged out of the temporary plasterboard walls, at waist-height and below. With a creeping sense of desolation, the eye searches for clues as to the origins of this fearsome destruction. But the scene also conjures up an awesome neglect – not dissimilar to the communal corridors and stairways of the worst mass-housing projects or unloved institutions.

This piece, by British artist Mike Nelson, is entitled “To the Memory of HP Lovecraft” and is inspired by the works of the American science-fiction writer. It’s a place in which you are meant to feel the presence of some alien force, and as you look around, there are traces of uncanny activity: a frenzied network of scratches and scorings surrounds each of the holes, indicating much careful – or obsessive – crafting that sits oddly with the brutal and vigorous blows with which these holes were clearly made.

Strange cone-shaped stacks of woodchips and splinters are piled randomly around the floor. Is it architecture, or simply interior as expressionist nightmare?

Whatever your conclusion, its eerie resemblance to the kind of institutions you could conjure up in your worst nightmares – whether stinking Victorian asylum or unhygienic third-world hospital ward – lingers long after you’ve fled onto the Hayward’s terraces in search of lighter diversions.

A riverside playground
The terraces offer an abundance of entertainments. For starters, a one-and-a-half-foot-deep boating lake has been inserted into the Hayward’s sculpture court, complete with flat-bottomed boats made from wood panels that you can row to the edge of the building and back, observing the far more seaworthy vessels ploughing up and down the Thames – or be observed by bemused offi ce workers in the surrounding glass-walled blocks.

The Austrian artists’ collective that created this space, Gelitin, create ‘demented playgrounds’, we’re told, but this inversion of the natural riverside perspective – surrounded by water, looking down on the buildings below – is delicious, rather than deranged Argentina’s Thomas Saraceno has created a plastic-bubbled geodesic dome, which is meant to offer the opportunity to walk on air – there’s a translucent mezzanine level – but was suffering structural problems on my visit.

Elsewhere, Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih’s “Pavilion of Dreams” is a rippling plywood construction cocooned within billowing plastic safety sheeting and reinforced with zig-zag scaffolding, constructed as if by a maniac with an aversion to the horizontal; inside it, documentary movies are shown about buildings as art. These three efforts are, if nothing else, a reminder that one doesn’t have to do the obvious with outdoor spaces (ie, stick a bench and a couple of pot plants on them and call them a roof garden).

Cuban collective Los Carpinteros’ “Show Room” is an exploding house, depicted as if at the moment of impact. A huge hole has been blown into one wall and the furniture – every stick of it – is suspended in mid-air on wires, tilting as if travelling from the point of impact. It’s a study in frozen momentum, but everything in the house is so shiny and new, there’s no sense of any human involvement. It’s like witnessing a completely sterile bomb blast, evoking little or no emotion, apart from awe at its painstaking assembly.

More engaging, in its ramshackle way, is German artist Michael Beutler’s shantytown construction of coloured paper and wire mesh sheets, which have been woven and clipped into arches and tunnels that lead nowhere, in a seemingly random and colourful architectural chaos.

Human handiwork
But Rachel Whiteread’s “Place (Village)” is one of the most affecting pieces, showcasing Whiteread’s painstakingly acquired collection of some 100 amateur-built dolls’ houses. Stripped of furniture, lit from within, and arranged, in the dark, around three artifi cial ‘hillsides’, it is like some ghostly toy village. The more you stare at these scaled-down dwellings – mimicking Victorian townhouses, 1960s ‘two-up, two-downs’, gothic mansions, follies and towers – the more the marks and personalities of the fathers, uncles, brothers or grandfathers who constructed each one emerge.

Together, they create a haunting record of human ‘inhabitance’ – though it’s not the people who have inhabited these places, it’s the imaginations of their makers and owners. “It has a real feeling of pottering,” Whiteread has said, and this gives it a wonderfully intimate, human dimension. Though we may aspire to the sweeping lines and shiny hard surfaces of the newest and most impressive buildings, it is the evidence of human handiwork and character – with all the chaos, colour and craft that implies – that makes us feel cared-for or acknowledged.

Veronica Simpson is an architectural journalist

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