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Rachel Whiteread: ‘Faithful to a truly architectural project’


Whiteread’s architecture autre interrogates the psychic response to space

There have been many attempts since the 1960s to challenge the conventions of architecture: architects themselves have experimented with what Reyner Banham famously called an architecture autre – constructing ‘paper’ architecture, imagining utopian projects, contesting stylistic norms and inventing technological alternatives. But that such critique does not demand professional credentials is demonstrated by land and installation artists proposing full-scale environments that place the viewer-subject in critical spatial, and by implication, architectural conditions.  

Rachel Whiteread, however, as exemplified in her first ‘architectural’ project, is less concerned to tear down ‘architecture’, and more interested in interrogating  the psychic response to space in the specific context of her own life. Closet (1988) constructed as a cast of a mock-up of the claustrophobic sensation of a child shut-in; Ghost (1990) a plaster cast of a room that resembled her own; Untitled, a room cast from a space that she built herself; all were enquiries into an internal state of mind rendered external. None was quite as dramatically symbolic as the cast entitled Shallow Breath (1988), the underside of a bed resembling her father’s last resting place. Claustrophobia, suffocation, and what one critic called the ‘mummification’ of air itself, were evoked by non-expressionistic, quite banal-seeming objects that, on close inspection, turned the experience literally inside-out at one-to-one scale. 



Two drawings for House, 1993

These first experiments were triumphantly capped  by the extraordinary ‘installation’ House (1993, demolished January 1994) that painstakingly solidified the interior  of a quite ordinary row house about to be demolished by the local authority. What was, in one sense, simply the logical evolution in sculptural scale from bed to closet to room to house, that would have been on its own a dramatic enough evocation of interior life turned inside out, in this context took on the role of blunt opposition to planning policy. The conventional ‘slum-clearance’ programmes, increasingly in the 1980s utilised as the instruments of developer capitalism, were here stopped in their tracks, so to speak; or rather the ‘house’ as last remaining fragment of this policy stood as an emblem of resistance. And resistance all the more poignant as it entombed the last remaining fragments of a life led within. More so, as it was in turn erased by its ‘second’ demolition after only a few months.  

‘It takes little more than the added sense of space charged with equal psychological meaning, to see in Whiteread’s surfaces all the intensity of the space they once enclose’

In his evocative book Smooth and Rough, the critic Adrian Stokes – building on the theories of his analyst Melanie Klein – hazarded that the surfaces of buildings were to be seen as so many representations of a child’s first experiences: the smoothness of the mother’s breast contrasted with the roughness of the need to bite. It takes little more than the added sense of space charged with equal psychological meaning, to see in Whiteread’s surfaces all the intensity of the space they once enclosed. Where Reyner Banham, Alison and Peter Smithson, and the ‘new Brutalists’ of the ’60s had represented their own form of resistance to International Style with raw concrete surfaces and rough geometrical solids, now the surface of this concrete object was scarred, not with the wooden formworks of Corbusian béton brut, but with the precise traces of everyday life, once inscribed on the walls and openings of a domestic interior, but now transformed into an exterior surface.



Left: Untitled (orange bath), 1996, right: individual objects



House construction, photos by John Davies

Whiteread, however, was not content to stop with  the domestic, or rather to be content only with the public intimations of the private. Her next work, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, worked with both private space: the primal hut, the single sarcophagus; and public space: the temple and the library. Stranded in the space  of the Judenplatz, this Ark with its closed doors, registers its contents, rows of books on its walls; compared by  some to a bunker, this shuttered reading room is neither monument nor house, but both, as it forms a memory  trace of those perished or forced into exile from  their houses.

Perhaps in reaction to the enormous implications of such a trace, Whiteread’s later work has looked to installing permanent memories of more ephemeral objects – garden sheds (Detached I, 2012), boat houses (Gran Boathouse, Gran, Norway, 2010) – or installations that themselves will self-demolish, as in the collaborative Snow Show work in Lapland with Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in 2004, or the temporary Embankment at the Tate Modern in 2005, itself, as she has noted, a trace of packing and moving on after her mother’s death, with its casts of simple cardboard boxes. Here Whiteread returns to the dialectical intersection of personal and public trauma, the exploration of the universal in the particular that began in Closet and Shallow Breath.



Holocaust Memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna, 2000

Whiteread’s work has often been compared to that of other ‘architectural’ installation artists, Dan Graham for example, or more directly, Gordon Matta-Clark. But while both of these artists sought to problematise architecture in its essence, Graham by querying the very norms of vision, Matta-Clark by carving open the closed worlds of suburban houses, pier-head sheds and Parisian apartment buildings, Whiteread seems to have other targets than the simple opposition to professional norms.

Rather she is fundamentally explorative, teasing out the hidden implications of interior worlds, opening the insecurity of any closed space to public view, but at the same time exhibiting the living patina of private existence. And of course, where Graham and Matta-Clark are undermining the Modernist ideology of transparency and enlightenment – by constructing alternative environments that produce opacity in the one case,  and opening windows where none existed before in the other – Whiteread in her construction of closed worlds which once were open, is more faithful to a truly architectural project: that of providing analytical case studies, as it were, of the principles of shelter, and the dream-work of its design. In this sense, Whiteread, self-defined as a sculptor, may readily be included in the registry of architects.