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London, UK – Surrealism and the house: dream homes should stay as fantasies

Why surrealism’s dream houses are doomed to fail

Dream houses have been on my mind since visiting the current Barbican Art Gallery exhibition, The Surreal House. The show is a pleasure: a thoughtful and well-curated display in what must be one of the more difficult exhibition spaces in London. At its core are the ‘greatest hits’ of surrealism, from René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp.

But taking a broad church view of surrealism, as something more akin to a state of mind or set of techniques, the curator Jane Alison also makes room for contemporary sculptures from the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Paul Thek and Louise Bourgeois. Even more intriguing, she includes films, prints, journals, objects (few visitors will forget Freud’s skeletal consulting chair, hulking in its glass box) and architecture.

This diverse range of works is pulled together by a thesis: that surrealism was incubated in the house. No space, it argues, was more productive for surrealism’s most potent and strange imaginings, largely because the house was the surrealists’ preferred metaphor for the psyche and the unconscious.

So prevalent is the house within surrealist art, in fact, that visitors may wonder why no one has thought to focus on it before. Be that as it may, the Barbican has got there first, and does not waste the chance. The unifying theme of the house slices through well-trodden territory, brilliantly drawing out correspondences between works of domestic architecture and other media: between Salvador Dali’s spindly ‘crutches of reality’ in Sleep (1937) and the equally spindly pilotis of OMA’s Villa Dall’Ava (1991); or the endless steps of Casa Malaparte (1942) and the long passage of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Slow House (1991).

The exhibition’s neatest trick, however, is the way it produces its own surreal sense of interiority as it unfolds. The architects Carmody Groarke have skilfully transformed the Barbican’s unremarkable galleries into inky, mysterious black boxes.

Navigating this twilight world, you are encouraged to forget the existence of an outside (at least one that matters). In the show’s surreal accumulations, we enter a self-referential space of psychic signs and symbols, one that hovers between the known and the latent. This is what surrealists liked to call ‘oneiric’ or dream space, and it remains surrealism’s true home.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that the exhibition lends itself so well to the creation of a dream space. The exhibition is, after all, a temporary condition; its spell dissipates once you step outside its precincts, back into London’s streets. The difficulties arise when we seek to make our dream houses permanent, as so many do.

The exhibition’s ambition to convince us of surrealism’s continuing relevance to architectural design (as distinct from surrealism’s engagement with the house) throws up a dilemma for architecture: how can the surreal house, this mirror of the psyche, be transformed into the permanence of brick and stone? Is it ever possible to reconcile amaterial dwelling with the drives and desires of the oneiric? Dare we try?

The Surreal House does not give much play to projects that respond to this challenge in a literal way and which result, inevitably, in ovoid or womblike spaces (think Ushida Findlay’s Soft and Hairy House, 1994); the wonderful cosmic egg of Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1950) is as far down this road as we go.

Instead of focusing on the formal or material possibilities of surrealism, the exhibition seems more interested in tracking how it has informed architects’ creative processes (for instance, Rem Koolhaas’s adoption of Dalí’s Paranoiac-critical Method), or how a surrealist sensibility may have influenced broader shifts in architectural culture.

For instance, a beautiful but elegiac series of photos from the 1950s of Le Corbusier’s crumbling Villa Savoye is hung next to Bernard Tschumi’s later Advertisements for Architecture, which openly celebrate the house’s decay. Tschumi’s appreciation of the Villa’s abjection is attributed to his embrace of surreal values - the found, the unexpected, the uncanny - and surrealism’s transgressive point of view.

This example works, although at times, ‘surrealism’ is deployed so loosely as to make it seem almost any avant-garde architecture can be claimed by it. It is only with the uncanny that we encounter some precise architectural limits. However fluent designers may be with the unheimlich or unhomely, they leave the darkest side of the domestic to be mined by writers, film-makers, and artists.

Take that unheimlich artist par excellence, Gregor Schneider, whose 2004 Artangel installation, Die Familie Schneider, twinned two identical East London terraced houses, peopled by identical characters performing identical scenarios ranging from the mundane to the horrifying - a distracted women washing dishes, a man masturbating in the bath, a body, legs sticking out, in a garbage bag - scenes that were all the more disturbing for being so perfectly doubled. (The absence of Schneider, beside whom Maurizio Cattelan seems mere kitsch, is one of The Surreal House’s few real missteps.)

One can see the difficulty with designing this sensibility into a contemporary house as opposed to, say, chancing upon it in an existing setting. Indeed, attempts to do so seem mostly doomed to fail, as does the project of building a dream house itself. Surrealist dreams collide with the realities of building: not only pragmatic, will-it-stand-up realities, but conceptual ones, too.

For real homes have never reflected the individual psyche as exclusively or perfectly as surreal homes do. They do not stand apart from the world; they mediate it. They do not float free of reality; they help constitute it. And in this sense it is appropriate that the dream house is most satisfying when it exists as a promise, a future pleasure, deferred.

As philosopher Gaston Bachelard states, ‘It is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later […] so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it.’ And so we wait, and the dream home remains, tantalisingly and productively, just out of reach.

Readers' comments (1)

  • There is no finer example of surrealist architecture than Las Pozas, an architectural masterpiece lost deep in the Mexican jungle created by Edward James, close friend of Salvador Dali.

    Too many people understand surrealism as some absurdity with dripping clocks. In fact it is a matter of the exquisite enhancement of reality to a dreamlike state. Architects generally reject all forms of naturalism in favor of the abstract. It is the failure of modernism, and all the more reason to experiment with intuitively accessible yet fantastic forms.

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