The degree to which the imagination may seize upon a thing as the starting point for its own singular expansions, is a direct outcome of the thing’s balance between allure & allusiveness, and inaccessibility & exclusion.
It is precisely the unsaid in poetry or prose, the lacunae of meaning in their lines which is seized upon by our imagination, which adds an ineffable depth unique to each reader. Architecture can be similarly expansive through calibrated absence, through the combination of a strange form of appeal in a building or place -an alluring resonance in its form- which when combined with an inability to access its interiors or approach its walls, excites the imagination to such an extent, that it fills the unapproachable place with all the fevered speculations of a mind piqued by an unsatisfiable curiosity. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews made their temple and temples intensely visible, in fact omni-present in their landscapes and cities, and yet entirely untouchable -off limits- because they knew that the less people experienced something, the more inaccessible it was, the larger that thing loomed in the mind, the greater its aura became, the more people would dream at night as to what its interiors contained, the more they whispered amongst themselves tales of impossible grandeur and terrifying strangeness. In the ‘Island of the dead’ series Arnold Bocklin repeatedly painted a scene, an architectural-natural scenario which visualised an isolated place of loss, constructed of recognisable, ancient & elemental items, cypress trees, architraves, a wall, a cove, a ledge, all of which were however composed in such a way that they were de-familiarised, made strange, rendered as being entirely outside of our recognisable experience. The island paintings were representations of a notional, inaccessible place which existed only in the interaction between the curiosity piqued in the observer by the depiction, and the imaginative trajectories and narratives conjured up in the observer’s mind which were woven around Bocklin’s allusive imagery.
Exhibited at Sto Werkstatt (May to July 2014)?as part of Re.presence (together with Clerkenwell Design Week) web project here, co-curated by Amy Croft & myself with new commissions by Lawrence Lek, Ilona Sagar, Studio Baako and Carl Fredrik Valdemar Helberg, two 300 by 300 by 150mm blocks of semi-opaque material veil a ring of structures suspended as frozen silhouettes in the middle of the gallery space. The contours of forms are just about discernable through a milky haze. A hut, a hall, a dome, a tower, a ziggurat, a bow, an ogee, a collection of archetypes eating into each other in a never ending circle of architectural cannibalism. There are no doors, neither from their insides out, nor from the outside in; there maybe however between themselves. There is an enclosure, an outside interior more interior than their insides bound by the ins and outs of their blank walls. There is also its outside outside we inhabit, which has a circumscribed gap of white undulating walls in it, like the sliver of soft white skin covered by a ring.
There are moving images next to this block. A video (see below). A guide. A diversion. A sinking into word and sound and movement. A gentle opportunity to oh-so-very-briefly switch-off from the surroundings and enter into a dialogue with an architecture which can only really exist, can only really mean anything if you imagine it as something, if it is illuminated by your mind?s eye. The ideas that come to you in the shower, the forms you enter just as you are hovering on the edge of sleep, the inexplicable object in the bric-a-brac shop, the outline of a building in the distance that no local can name for you. Things seen from the outside. Their insides just for you.
The film is best watched with headphones
Below a Q&A between myself and Tremors Magazine about "Outside"
Tremors: How did the idea for Outside initially come about?
ANF: I?ve always been fascinated by places which are known in some way to us, but are inaccessible. From religious spaces like the realm beyond an iconostasis and the interior of the Aron Ha?Kodesh, to the celebratory architectures of infrastructure where a pumping station looks like a palace, and a ventilation tower looks like a circus tent, but all of which are unapproachable; buildings which in some way indicate their importance through form, but preclude the gratification of full comprehension via unfettered access, have always seemed to me to be bastions of ambiguity, fortresses for the imagination. Outside has been gestating for 2 years now, evolving initially as my own internal bastion of mute forms, it eventually became something I could craft into an architectural hieroglyphic both signifying and embodying the notion of form as an alluringly negative presence.
Tremors: What determined the form of your central piece ? did you draw on plans, sketches, buildings or any other specific architectural forms for your creation?
ANF: The design went through quite a long period of constant revision during which it absorbed, and eventually synthesised quite a few references, from the plans of certain grouped megalithic temples in Malta, to the original layout of ancient Baghdad, Leonardo?s ideal churches, Vignola?s ovals, the baths in Ostia, Stirling & Gowan?s Churchill College, Hejduk?s Prisoners, the Ouroboros, Bocklin?s Isle of the Dead, and so on. It was important to clearly blend in as many resonant precedents as possible in order that the piece indistinctly recall works past and other in the mind, without however obscuring its own formal clarity and internal consistency. The architectural observer?s equivalent of having a name on the tip of one?s tongue, but never managing to quite catch it.
Tremors: Why do you describe the final form as architectural cannibalism??
ANF: It is an entirely closed system in which the forms are overlapping one another, end to end, in the moment frozen within a relationship that implies their absorbing of one another, their merging together, impossible but present psychologically in the rotational nature of the composition, the way it is impossible for a snake to eat itself, and yet the symbol of a snake eating its own tale implies this very act. Autofagy, and yet at the same time eternal return because the implied consumption happens along the trajectory of a circle, and so will always return to where it began. It is an architectural Ouroborous, it looks only inwards on itself, it likes its own flesh.
Tremors: Why did you want the structure to have no doors??
ANF: For the plan. For its complete internalisation, the total split between inner and outer. The architectural-historical figure of the abstracted plan needed to carry the point across in the terms of that language, which only speaks through wall thickness, solid and void, and so Outside becomes simply an undulating outer thickness and an inner thickness, framing an impregnable inside. It did at various points during development have doors, but they destroyed the hieroglyphic clarity of the plan, took away its voice.
Tremors: And how important is 'calibrated absence' for the work?
ANF: It is probably the most important factor, that balance between giving enough to trigger the imagination, to fire off associations, to lure the observer into forming suppositions, whilst making sure that enough is never given to explain what is seen in any way, since ?knowing? in this instance would curtail the imaginative acts of exploration and speculation.
Tremors: You mention the allure of inaccessible architecture. What questions would you like your audience to consider whilst viewing the piece??
ANF: I wouldn?t want to pose any direct questions. I think the film and the models, the drawing, they set a tone, and if successful, they might prompt viewers to recall similar places in their past experience, or that they studied in the past, and re-inspect the feelings that were aroused by them, rediscover the embedded strangeness and wonder of those things to some degree, the way someone else?s old family photos always remind one of your own past, bring back your own memories, because old family photos have that unusual quality of all being similar, of time making them all seem to refer directly to one another, across families, across continents...
Tremors: Would you like then to ask how their imagination interacts with architectural space for example?
ANF: It would be very nice to hear from those people for whom the work triggered speculations, memories, ideas, and get a compendium of imaginary outcomes, like the reverse version of the piece?s compendium of references and inspirations?
Tremors: How is your piece a site for the imagination to explore any more than say a Frank Gehry model?
ANF: I believe firmly in the power of existing formats and types. They exist for a reason, they thrive because they tap successfully into our way of comprehending the world around us, and I enjoy modifying or tweaking the things I make to fit within one or more of these recognisable modes of representation. The Architectural model, the architectural historical plan, these are I believe perfect and irreplaceable outlets for a spatial idea, and manage to simultaneously embed it within a historical continuum, whilst in no way restricted its uniqueness or singularity. So in a way this piece is no less of a site for the imagination than a Gehry model since materially it is also a scale representation, and therefore can be grasped by any inquisitive mind in the same way, only this work is different by degrees, in that its end is not the representation of something else with its own larger issues relating to its site, its construction and so on, rather here the only issue being explored is the allure of the representation itself, with the site being the mind, and the construction being its poetic allure. The means are similar but the ends are very different, and so the resulting image in the observer?s mind between the two will be contrasting as well.
Tremors: You use the quote:
"Buildings as ideograms of pure cognition, templates of the mind itself."?Alexander D'Hooghe?
Why did you chose to quote D'Hooghe - do his ideas on urbanism influence yours??
ANF: In the context of this project the notion of the Group influenced me a lot, together with Aureli?s notion of the platform, of the demarcation of neutral ground from where a system can be externally observed. The idea of Symbolic form as somehow anterior to experience, inherently objective and yet entirely shared and communal, abstract and yet sensual, Urban and yet operating entirely on a psychological and cognitive plane. D?Hooghe on Cassirer: ?The Universe of Symbolic forms is an interface between the abstract cognitive work of the mind and the world of phenomena and history. A project for a modern monument, in this sense, is nothing less than these templates of cognition externalized, poured like concrete into the ideograms of understanding.?