When I was a child, my French grandfather would take me to the park at Saint-Cloud in Paris to visit the ‘standard metre’, a metal bar kept at a constant temperature in a vault buried deep under the hill. It was a source of great amusement to us that the British had tricked the French into ratifying the British meridian at Greenwich via the promise of recognizing the metal metre as a standard (which they still haven’t done more than 200 years later). I am still amazed by the vastness of the project of standardizing units and measures using handmade objects in velvet-lined cases.
I have often travelled to visit particular sites and buildings, initially inspired by my parents’ apparently limitless enthusiasm for cultural destinations. At some point in the late 1970s, we visited the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul de Vence. I became obsessed with Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926–31), which I saw there; much later, I paid homage to the work again at the Whitney Museum of American Art after they acquired it. Something about how it was made from bits of leftover crap is fascinating; every character hinted at a recognizable form, which came to life when made to perform by Calder’s bear-like hands. Circus is endless and fantastic; Calder carried it around the world in two battered suitcases and never really considered it an artwork, and yet he worked on it for much of his life. It affected me in ways that the French puppet theatre, Théâtre de Guignol, never did.
On visits to Paris, our grandmother (who did not live with nor talk to the grandfather mentioned above) would hypnotize us with tales of her youth in Alexandria aided by the mysterious objects that populated the exquisite Bauhaus interior of her home. Her best friend, the photographer Denise Colomb, used to tell us how she’d managed to convince Antonin Artaud to have his first portrait taken, and that compassionate image formed my first encounter with him.
One of my innumerable ‘aunts’, who kept a Pablo Picasso in her cupboard, also lived in Saint-Cloud. One day, at a neighbour’s house-warming party, a giraffe’s head suddenly appeared, framed through the first-floor windows above a billowing silk curtain. For some strange reason, the new neighbours had hired it to celebrate their even stranger house: the swimming pool was on the roof, its columns went in different directions and the curtains billowed outside the building. The next time I saw those curtains was in a book, when I was at architecture school; only then did I realize that they belonged to the Villa dall’Ava, one of Rem Koolhaas’s first domestic builds. I was studying at the Architectural Association School in London, where the architects Alison and Peter Smithson were, at the time, something of a cult. The Smithsons had, in fact, banned curtains from their Economist Plaza in London, so as not to interfere with the building’s lines. The significance of curtains struck me again during trips to the Middle East, when I’d often be stuck on the women’s side of the fabric divide while visiting mosques. Those curtains always seemed somewhat tokenistic, hanging loosely and carelessly, never actually blocking the view, and yet defining boundaries.
While studying, I quickly realized I was much more committed to the conversations that the theorist Mark Cousins and the architect Cedric Price had in the bar than to designing buildings myself. My first London years were heavily influenced by daytime cinema visits and late nights. I was mesmerized by the mysterious associative fragments of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and the clock scene in Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990). I was reading bits of Artaud, Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, Beatriz Colomina, Luigi Pirandello and Manfredo Tafuri, dancing to Broken Beat, listening to Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1995), attempting to decipher Henri Michaux’s squiggles and navigating London using the techniques I had learned from the Situationist International. As a result of all of this, I never designed a single building and made myself unemployable in that field forever. Full of questions about how to position myself, I visited the film director Jean-Marie Straub, who gave me precious advice: walk around a place three times and find the strategic point from which you can see something without destroying its mystery. ‘There is nothing’, he said, ‘but topography.’
It was at the Architectural Association that I met Dominic Cullinan; I don’t remember how I ended up being shown around the houses that he built with his friend Ivan Harbour, from the leftovers of building sites using a lot of goodwill, on what was then known as ‘crack alley’ in Dalston, east London. The buildings were designed around an exuberant concrete staircase, a double helix cast in situ like some sort of homemade baroque device, functioning separately for each house and yet beautifully complicating the properties’ boundaries.
I once dragged a friend hundreds of kilometres on a detour across America to go to Marfa, Texas, but it’s Donald Judd’s car that has stuck with me. He owned a jeep, which he adapted to his particular needs with a monstrous brushed-steel box containing cooking and storage facilities. That same year, I slept in a car several nights in a row (I was 20 and couldn’t even legally drink in the US), on a trip to track down Louis Khan’s villas around Philadelphia. I used Khan’s enormous monograph as a guidebook and, through sheer luck or perseverance, managed to get invited inside all of the properties. I was enchanted by an element in one particular house: a bench inserted into a window wall that allowed you to sit both in the corner of the building and seemingly in the garden. I have never forgotten how tenderly people spoke of living in Khan’s buildings. It was something I encountered again in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which he also designed: the shop’s cashier almost made me cry describing how much she loved sitting beneath the concealed skylight that washed sunlight down the concrete walls. I was won over by this intimacy with the things that surround a life, and how they depend on their relationships to other things (which is true of all things, but with furniture and objects it becomes intentional, as Louise Lawler’s photographs have shown me). Of course, I had known this through the almost talismanic power of certain objects, present or missing, that related to my scattered family and its complicated history. However, I still didn’t really trust the notion of the ‘genius creator’.
Then, one summer, I went to see Malmö’s Eastern Cemetery, in southern Sweden, and fell in love with the fittings of the Flower Kiosk, which was designed by Sigurd Lewerentz. Not much more than a shell, it wears everything related to use on its concrete skin: electric wires and lighting fold out like line drawings on the ceiling and walls, doorframes are attached directly onto surfaces and windows are glass panels fixed onto openings. This revealed a path for me that seemed worth following, between necessity and delight.
There is something apparently passive about functional objects, as if they are always waiting and wanting, and yet they structure gestures and form possible approaches. I am grateful to Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) for exposing domestic objects as instruments of normalization, and for her refusal to be determined by them. But it is always hard to clarify in what way our habits form our environment, or whether it is existing conditions that, in fact, shape our actions. The elements of the built environment are always prepositions: they speak with, in, on, by, of – like the work of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Rita McBride.
I have always been biased towards the fragment, the elements of larger wholes. In Saint Jerome in his Study (c. 1475), by Antonello da Messina, it is the unrealizable (as I discovered during several attempts to reconstruct it) architectural dias on which the saint sits at his desk that I keep lingering on, both as material and conceptual form – it organizes the painting and the architecture of the interior, but it also delimits the figure of the intellectual, surrounded by ‘cats and books’ (as Georges Perec might have it) in solitary contemplation. Through this painting, I learned that the domestication of space happens by means of its being inscribed (here, both the inscription of the book and of the furniture). It is the part, the segment, that allows space to be habitable, which is not communicated as knowledge but as the possibility for life.
Perhaps this explains my particular affection for Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), which was given to me by the filmmaker Eyal Sivan at exactly the right moment. In it, I found a voice, a tone and a position which undoes that most cruel of intellectual fallacies: analytical distance. The book explicitly foregrounds its construction and, in this way, exposes its own ambiguity, its fundamentally biased and deceptive angle and the fact that – just like art – any work is always part of the world it attempts to address.