For their latest artistic endeavour, the Barbican have taken on the role of the surrealist, or is it rather of the perverse architect, perhaps private detective is most suitable, seeking out unexpected relationships in our cities and subconscious alike. This is an event confronting complex ideas through equally complex methods and it should come as no surprise that such guests as Freud, Tati and Matta-Clark have been invited to join the usual suspects. The diligent readers amongst us will be told we are about to enter a dream; the rest are confronted with an inauspicious entrance through a pocket of darkness, hints of an identity at first nervously lurking out of grasp before becoming gloriously clear yet confusing all at once. The darkness is a doorway through closing eyelids, be sure to press Duchamp’s nipple to enter. Once eyes open again, a different world is laid out ahead, familiar but slightly askew, a world which Foucault might consider heterotopic; conventional rules no longer apply because the very syntax that holds words and things together has been destroyed, previously incompatible entities may now interact within the same space.
The first point to note is that The Surreal House is a true indulgence for architects and as such so is this article. Endeavouring to posit architecture within a series of decisions that are cultural, social and political reactions, it captures the age old tug of war in the profession between the real and the abstract, all the while in a dream-like state. The house is an all-encompassing and binding notion for us humans, it is of course a self portrait of its owner but also of its architect and builder. The official line of the exhibition is to highlight the importance of the house within surrealism, whether consciously or not however, we are conversely presented with the surrealism within the house, floating about in the heart of our domestic lives and the very humble roots of surrealist thought, a realisation that life need not make sense and is all the better for not. Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison, the most crucial of exhibit inclusions, beyond physical appearances, interplays house with mind as the box which encloses all emotions, its greatest function to contain these feelings without exploding or collapsing. The house/mind balances a manic spectrum of emotions, from ecstasy to despair, the beginnings and ends of lives, all that is not decisively, unequivocally ‘functional’. Therefore we are not dealing with the Modernist machine of functionality, with its perfection and plumbing; the presence of Villa Savoye’s dark days offers unanticipated comment via Tschumi. Here, architecture not only indulges in being an art, but also as a moving image, an art of experience that only works at eye level.
John Hejduk, on a blind date with Andrei Tarkovsky in a room coined The Sacrifice, was an architect whose work crafted a gateway to the quixotic subconscious of architecture’s brain, allowing a much denser, metaphorical world than the one we know and converse in. Through imagination and languages unseen before, Hejduk discussed the joy of any first conversation in its utter unpredictability, an infinite and non-elitist pool of inspiration for the creator. The Surreal House is one such first conversation, avoiding the predictability that a big London show labelled with surrealism so easily could have morphed into by carefully piecing together a thoughtful narrative. As with any influential, rule-inventing movement such as Surrealism, which has become so ingrained in everyday life, it is almost impossible to describe it as groundbreaking and innovative as it was at its inception, the new narrative rather allows new routes of enquiry, opening the mind for this to become at least a possibility. The narrative of The Surreal House is not a straightjacket, fencing in only the ideas that suit the look, no, it is outward looking with a welcome mat at its threshold. For this, Carmody Groarke must be congratulated as exhibition designers, for they have created spatial relationships as intrinsic to the event as the valuable art pieces themselves. A subtle yet adventurous procession contorts around the lower level between a series of containers, as the experience of being within the house[s], contrasted with the upper level, which acts as the step back, an investigation into the context and a sense of other worldliness.