In late May I found myself in a huge plastic geodesic bubble on one of the Hayward Gallery’s terraces. It was hot, humid and painfully bright, and I was forced to put my jacket over my head as some sort of protection. Twenty feet above me on a kind of sealed mezzanine another visitor sprawled; the transparency of the dome made it look like he was flying, but his movements caused the whole thing to shake.
Five minutes and I’d had enough of this deeply uncomfortable, but impressively visceral experience. I had just experienced ‘Observatory, Air-Port City’, 2008, by a young Argentinian artist, Tomas Saraceno, who believes (according to the wall text) we are all shortly going to inhabit a floating city several miles above the earth.
This is just one installation at Psycho Buildings that demands a certain amount of physical endurance. ‘Life Tunnel’, 2008, by Tokyo collective Atelier Bow-Wow is like an extruded Libeskind building made of stainless steel. You have to more or less crawl through it, a space that managed to be bright and claustrophobic at the same time. Michael Beutler’s installation is a big assemblage of chicken wire and tissue paper in which you get lost. Gelitin, a collective based in Vienna, creates an artificial lake, across which a select few could row in a tiny, wobbling boat made for the purpose.
Other parts of this entertaining show suppose a more straightforwardly visual experience, although no less affecting. Several stage the aftermath of apparently violent events. Mike Nelson’s ‘To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft’, 1999, 2008, takes two of the Hayward’s upper galleries and subjects them to a process of violent deconstruction; panels are prised away or hacked with a knife; in some places a shotgun appears to have been used.
Los Carpinteros, from Havana, shows a house as if at the moment of explosion, its exploded fragments suspended in space from wires. Do-Ho Suh’s ‘Fallen Star’, 2008, is a scaled recreation of the (literal) collision of his childhood home in South Korea with the apartment block he first occupied when he moved to the US. The site of impact is strewn with splinters and debris.
This bizarre scenario is the apocalyptic counterpart to Rachel Whiteread’s contribution—one of her best works for years—a creepy assemblage of dolls’ houses, displayed in darkness, but lit from within. Tobias Putrih built an eccentric cinema on the third terrace showing architecture-related films by artists. The only disappointment is Ernesto Neto’s predictable installation, all diaphanous polyester and testicular lumps—but its junction with the Hayward’s internal ramp make for a pleasing, Oscar Niemeyer-like moment.
This is a remarkably straightforward show, for the most part. The title was the late Martin Kippenberger’s, and describes, bluntly, a desire for architecture that subverts the visitor’s experience. There are few wall texts and one needs to bring little along except an open mind and a sense of fun.
However, it hinted at, without really addressing, a set of rather more serious questions. Architecture and human experience have always been associated, and while few these days believe in a cause-and-effect relationship between buildings and behaviour, architects for the most part continue to say that their work may contribute to happiness or wellbeing: it is an idea that dies hard. Psycho Buildings is equally deterministic, but the feelings it wishes to generate are conventionally negative ones: claustrophobia (Atelier Bow-Wow), the uncanny (Whiteread), horror (Nelson), vertigo (Saraceno), and others that are too hard to name.
The aim seems to be—let’s use a hippy term—to freak out the visitor. It all has a decidedly psychedelic bent, very reminiscent of the Hayward’s 2000 show of kinetic art. More serious potential here is left unexplored. Read Freud’s case studies in the context of this show and it is striking how strongly architecture figures and how often it seems to condition the experience of his patients.
But the psycho buildings of Freud’s imagination were no funfair—they were the site of real, sometimes appalling psychological trauma. The artists of the Hayward show seems to invoke this, but pull back from it, unsure what kind of experience they want to create. A lot of fun, but a slightly less than satisfying result.
Richard Williams is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh