Recently the experience, purpose and contexts of architectural space have been subject to various kinds of scrutinies. The contemporary obsession with how buildings appear from the outside – through aerial photography and online images – dominates how they are perceived, commissioned and valued. This preoccupation with surface has divorced human presence from architecture. In the context of the recent Grenville Tower tragedy in London where considerations of external appearance took precedence over the safety of human life, these issues have more pressing significance.
In their manifesto for the 2017 Venice Biennale of Architecture, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, propose to ‘go beyond the visual’ to ‘the choreography of everyday life’. Architecture, they claim, has the potential to provide ‘free spatial gifts’ such as the earth, the wind, shade, the moon and clouds. These, they say are part of the ‘silent language’ of an architecture ‘that speaks’. They propose considerations between gravity and ‘legibility’, of the struggle between weight and light, and light’s capacity to ‘melt structure’. Ironically though, some have suggested that their work represents yet another Brutalist revival.
Architectural theorists in the meantime have examined the relationships between interior spatial experience, subjectivity and architectural space. Robert McCarter’s The Space Within (Reaktion, 2016) for example, considers how certain architects have addressed how a building is encountered from the inside rather than what it looks like from the outside and how this has been the starting point for design. He discusses the importance of interior space over time, against how an external façade creates and defines the space around it.
The subjectivity of architectural space and the ways that interior and exterior meet are addressed differently in Jane Rendell’s recent book, The Architecture of Psychoanalysis (I. B Tauris, 2017). Through a form of experimental structural writing which draws on autobiographical experience and various photographic archives, Rendell considers how material environments influence the inner world of memory and imagination. Described by critical geographer Steve Pile as a ‘braiding’ of architectural criticism and psychoanalytic insight, Rendell’s book addresses architectural space through the structures of memory, desire, trauma and loss and the possibilities for their representations.
In the painter Vicken Parsons’ exhibition earlier this year, Iris (a reference to the technology of looking), her paintings ‘become both a window on to the world, and a doorway for light and colour’, moving between illusory space and the picture surface whilst implying an emotional ‘exposure of inner experience’. Their interplay between three-dimensional perspective and flatness suggests an ambiguity between representation and abstraction. Modelled to some extent on the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi’s (1864 – 1916) paintings of rooms – the dark interiors, the fall of light on interior surfaces, a reduced colour palette, nuances of tone and glimpses of domestic materials such as tablecloths and wooden tables – Parsons’ works invoke a similar kind of atmospheric psychological interior space. They seem flooded with light of different kinds, reflected in apparently highly polished surfaces or falling from an unseen source, whilst their materiality appears to be invested with emotion.
Hammershoi and Parsons’ works evoke Alison Marchant’s 1993 Camden Arts Centre exhibition, Charged Atmospheres: a series of enlarged, almost room-size black and white found photographs of the interiors of derelict mansions. Some bleached out by light, overexposed or eroded, the images of empty rooms, some with partially collapsed ceilings and the marks left by absent furniture, seem charged with loss. The catalogue essay of Parsons’ work by critic Richard Morphet (‘Charged Spaces’), considers the interdependency of two spaces – the mysterious environment into which the viewer is drawn in the paintings and the flat field of the picture surface. This play of flatness against shallowness acts as a screen through which we enter into a space of contradictions where openness and containment, balance and tension, definition and uncertainty, illusion and gesture all play against each other. Both Parsons’ and Marchant’s work seem to imply what lies unseen and beyond what is visible between expectancy and speculation, atmosphere and emotion.
In the exhibition, Room with a View (Kunstalle-Mainz, 2009) the German painter Matthias Weischer constructs simulations of interior spaces which he describes as ‘receptacles to be filled with objects’. Through creating an interior space and then ‘furnishing’ it, he arrives at a form of ‘object theatre’ where things evoke memories and emotions through the interplay of their psychological connotations. Like Parsons and Hammershoi, through both depiction and the reflection of their materiality (see for example, Hammershoi’s Interior with the Artist’s Easel, 1910), Weischer’s works can be considered as two-dimensional installations which show their own construction of illusion where dissolving figures are performers in their arranged domestic settings.
There has been much written about the relationships between Rachel Whiteread’s work with architecture in their connotations of solid / hollow, inside / outside, full / empty space (Tate Britain, 2017) and Whiteread invariably draws on domestic space and its objects: house, cabin, wardrobe, room, mattresses, chairs, spoons, hot water bottles, books, etc. In the casts of interior spaces, space becomes an apparently solid mass – memorial-like and impenetrable. Her objects reveal how things look like from the other side of reason – the incidental and unintentional marks made by life and the poignancy of what remains – yet the process of casting itself is dependent on logic.
Commentaries on Whiteread’s work have focused on the significance of the missing and various kinds of loss such as repressed memory, associations with the uncanny, imprinting and abandonment. The art historian Jackie Wullschlager (FT, 16.09.17) segues between Whiteread’s Untitled (Room 101), a cast of the BBC office which inspired Orwell’s torture chamber in Nineteen Eighty-Four and whose ‘eerie inside-outness externalises an inner world and dramatizes how we project our desires and terrors to animate space’, and Malevich’s white square, the ‘embodiment of Russian modernism – the art of the revolution which morphed into the dystopia in Orwell’s novel’. In House, Whiteread’s concrete cast of the interior space of a terraced Victorian house in London, Wullschlager draws a similarity to the look of Brutalism widely associated with architectural dystopia and whose psychological effects, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health can include anxiety, depression, alienation and despair.