Writing Stephen Steyn
Related images Related images
2021

The Possession of Architecture

There are two places where wild things grow. The one is outside of disciplinary boundaries, where open fields promise, threaten or demand radical innovation. The other is where disciplinary boundaries overlap. Overlapping fields are not as open as the undisciplined ones, but, being ambiguously defined, their products present us with a novelty that is often unlikely from within disciplinary boundaries. Their demands are phrased like an invitation. 

In Sculpture in the Expanded Field (1979), Rosalind Krauss describes with crisp efficiency how works in the disciplinary overlaps between landscape, sculpture and architecture have come to be defined within the framework of sculpture. By the mid-twentieth century, sculpture had lost touch with the ground to such an extent that it was effectively plunging into a hole. In dramatic desperation it reached for the outer limbs of its neighbours — landscape and architecture — and laid claim to the ground which neither of them protected because the possession was undefined and shared among them. On this ground, new foundations were effectively set for sculpture, and new limits for its definition were made possible with the introduction of new examples. These works, like the performance art which they heralded, are a radical critique of the status quo. The shifts at the centre from the inclusion of these peripheries were tectonic.

Buildings, as the objects of architecture, are very powerfully identified with financial value — they are even literally called ‘property’ — and, being as they are, more often than not, shared, they are political. But the outline of the discipline has long relied on defining itself against this reality. Architecture has been ‘not property’ and ‘not politics’ for long enough that it does not feel unsafe to say that the hole into which architecture has been plunging is lined with politics and finance. 

And it has been grasping at the edges of its neighbours. Some have reached for the places where they overlap (broadly, capitalism, which is the simultaneity of property and politics), with some success at definition and continuity. But there are other intersections in this expanded field (the places where property and not-property overlap, for example, and the places where politics and not-politics overlap). This neighbourliness of architecture with that against which it has been defined, causes tension, and opportunities. 

With Prompts for a City (on show from 7 October -18 December 2021 at the Gagosian in London under Social Works II, curated by Antwaun Sargent) Sumayya Vally invites us to consider new objects for architecture. In the space created by the conceptual pairing of property and not-property, we find Vally in search of critical ways to express value. And in the zone where politics and not politics overlap, we find her expanding upon the aesthetic criteria for a work of architecture. 

The financialization of architectural objects is, to a large degree, the logical conclusion of the postmodern critique of the Modernist idiom ‘form follows function’, since function (use, daily ritual etc.) is now often less significant in determining the value of an artefact than its financial value. Instead of being a ‘machine for living in’ buildings can become batteries for storing financial value. Emerging forms of ownership, in the face of unfettered inequality, is a very architectural problem and it requires an architectural response. Vally’s response is to focus on intellectual property, which, while it has some established forms of individual ownership, is really in its infancy. Ideas can be easy to produce and share, but they are significantly more difficult to keep possession of. 

The idea is embodied in the work and is to some degree legible, but, it is through the inclusion of the drawings as a constituent part of the work (she calls them architectural manifestations rather than representations) that it is elevated and made explicit. As with her 2020/2021 Serpentine Pavilion, events are central to the architecture. Disassembled structures that are removable from the primary monolith (‘Whitechapel’ and ‘Minaret/Pew’) are intended to be used in some way. It is the drawings that invite us to imagine who might make this use beyond the strictures of owners and private amenity and authorial performance. It is a sort of ‘formance’ art, and a logical continuation of Vally’s early work in practice and the academy.   

On the far end of the fields of finance and politics, there is the space where ‘politics’ and ‘not politics’ overlap — roughly, aesthetics. While there is a fair amount of consideration given to convention (the works are definitely easy on the eye), expanding the aesthetics of architecture beyond the visual appearance of the surface reveals an emerging argument of substantial depth. The pieces are, tellingly, too heavy, or rather too bulky, to move alone. At least two people have to participate. In that event the work is revealed to be about something. It is about the way in which architecture (here in the broader sense, including its design construction and maintenance) convenes us. 

In subtle contrast to some big practices, Vally offers us not ‘a world’ made by ‘an architect’ but worlds, made by an innumerable cast of agents — biological, material and abstract — framed and presented by the architect. She effectively anticipates a shift in our culture from an aesthetic sensibility that recognizes the value of buildings to one that recognizes the values of building.

Related images

Notes

  • Author:
    Stephen Steyn,