High-RiseSpace Explorations, 1997
There's a road called the Euston Road, and it runs from Regent's Park, past Euston Station, finally terminating at King's Cross Station. These are the Capital's gateways to the north of England and Scotland. They are major stations. The Euston Road is a major thoroughfare. Between the two stations there is number 110 Euston Road, a concrete tower block standing 15-floors high. To one side of this is the site of the curious architectural and administrative event that will one day be this country's national library. In turn, this is flanked by the outrageously be-spired St Pancras hotel-cum-car park. All three buildings are imposing. And all three buildings are grand, in their own ways. Yet none of them fully understand their current function, as they're asked to do things outside of, or beyond, their original design. Form, in this case, is failing to follow function.
It is the concrete tower that we head towards. It used to house the Shaw Theatre, a library and offices, but now it doesn't. Now it stands empty, in the state of limbo that redevelopment brings. Or it would, were it not for Space Explorations. It's not quite empty; another form of redevelopment is being practised, even as the team of builders carry out their brutal cleansing. Perhaps the building, finding itself 'between jobs', has only now found the time to do what it wants. It finally has a chance to have some fun, express itself. Or, at least, find an expression of itself.
At street level the tower is boarded up on three of its sides. The fourth side has glass doors, made semi-opaque by a thick layer of dust. Not welcoming, but interesting. We know that the building is closed, that it is a building-site, and a certain thrill comes from entering that to which we would usually be denied access. The exhibition acts as a backstage pass, and we're able to explore part of London's massive, continuous building programme. We get to see exactly those things that numerous child safety campaigns have warned us that we should 'Keep Away' from. Finally we experience the raw danger of such a colossal structure. We don't want to 'Keep Away', we want to see inside, we want to see just what a building-site is like. We want to see what a building is like before every one of its surfaces is clad with a human-scaled veneer. We don't want to see carpets and doors and corridors and offices. We want to see the structure, not the decor. We want to see whole floors stretching out before us, ringed with windows giving us an altitudinally sliced view of the city. And who wouldn't? This is our city, and these are the buildings that we inhabit. Surely we're allowed to gain some understanding of them?
Concrete dust fills the reception area. A guard sits at his desk and watches a badly tuned portable tv, as he does all day and all night guarding hundreds of feet of nothing much. A couple of builders hang out eating their lunch, reading their tabloids, and wearing their hard-hats. Another desk has been set up at the back of this cramped and dilapidated space, and here sit a couple of the artists. We are informed that we have to sign in - in case there's an accident, you see. We will have to sign out again later. Also for safety reasons, we will be accompanied by a guide. We follow our guide to the lift.
More of a loading lift than a passenger elevator, this beast lacks the reassuring sense of normalcy that such things are designed to exude. It also exhibits certain idiosyncratic tendencies of its own: you can't call it from upstairs, it has to be sent up to you. We learn that this is achieved by hollering the floor number down to reception via the other lift shaft. The other lift shaft? A hollow drop right down the centre of the building, without lifts, and without doors or safety barriers. A black drop, vast and uncompromising. We would stand at the top of this column of air shouting instructions on how to find us, like a rescue mission. It feels like a disaster movie, or like the sort of thing that happens to other people - it's always someone else who has to walk the length of the tube tunnel when there's a fire underground, or has their windows blown out in explosions. At any rate, our guide takes us to the top. We'll follow gravity back down.
Step out of the lift, walk up the rarely used steps, step into the light. We're out onto the roof. A chill breeze sharpens the blinding sunlight - so much sky! Birds sing loudly. Very loudly. Unnaturally loud, in fact, and this is because they're being pumped into the wind by four PA speakers. An artificial country idyll with a harsh edge. Slowly it begins to grate the nerves. In the middle of the roof stand four piles of chopped logs. Their faux-innocence - a forced rusticism that cloys like fairytales - tempts us to lug them to the edge, and lob them into the void. A void that, we mustn't forget, is populated down below. But this will come later. Markus Eisenmann's 'Prototype for an Amene Landscape (Black Forest)' constantly jars our mind as we do the expected thing, and look out across the city. Sound was a wise device up here; Eisenmann knew that visually he could not compete. It doesn't feel like being in a city up here; the dense claustrophobia has disappeared. It's amazing how quickly you can leave the city if you just travel vertically instead of horizontally. What is it they say - space is only half-an-hour away if you go by car? The birdsong stops. The hiss of the old recording becomes prominent. An authoritative, male German voice begins. His manner is informational, almost patronising. It was recorded for schoolchildren, German schoolchildren in the 50s. They were to be taught of the joys of nature and the Black Forest. What's the relevance of this persistent fantasy of nature? And why is the fantasy always rooted in the 50s? The only black forest we can see from here is a knot of tall buildings, perhaps the only such cluster in London, covering a square mile out to the south-east. We know it's a jungle out there, and equally Eisenmann knows we must face up to it. This is our nature now, this is our world.
Stepping down the deserted stairwell away from the roof, we head for the 15th floor. Of this vast space we can only enter about a metre, our path blocked by Daniel Sancisi's 'Streetfighter'. This partition runs the width of the space, doubling back on itself briefly at the ends, a steel frame with yellow filtered glass. Our tight path becomes an observation deck, one floor too low. And narrow too. An indoor observation deck, then - for observing the interior. Highlighting, as if in yellow marker-pen, the entire space: 'look at this'. We could easily duck under the barrier to have a real look at the space, but then it wouldn't be a 'real look' would it? We're interested only because we are removed. It has become a spectacle for us, not an active experience. We are allowed to be passive because we recognise the viewing conventions. The stripped features, which we may have considered unsightly or worrying, are now but interesting sights to be consumed with a tourist's eye. We're happy like this, we know what to do, and we don't have to judge. Everything is neutral when reduced to a view. We step away, satisfied. Without knowing why.
Paint, dust, steps. More steps, steps down. A window at the side: a view of the British Library, Neo-Gothic St Pancras looming behind, teeth bared at the sky, vying for supremacy. Down to level 12. This floor has been bisected, Giorgia Vaux having cut it almost entirely in two with a large wall. It seems to hover in the space. It is wallpapered, and the design is vertical stripes. These stripes are too precise for the broken building, our eyes failing to register them. Or perhaps they recognise them only too well, and so choose to ignore them? Whatever, we find our vision continually slipping off the work, making it a conscious effort to remember what we're meant to be looking at. But then what are we meant to be looking at? Shouldn't we find ourselves examining this vacated space? Is that not the aim of this work, this show even? Should we notice that the wallpaper on this piece is flock, that it is orange, olive and beige? Or should we notice that the two square pillars that it runs between have a tide mark of disrepair from where the skirting-boards were removed? Is it more interesting that the rigorous patterning and perfect flatness of the paper gives the effect of a two-dimensional superimposition on the space? Or does the pock-marked and cracked concrete floor, with its alarming proliferation of small holes running clean through several floors, compel our interest more urgently? Or do they all warrant equal attention? Perhaps so, because Vaux's piece is entitled 'Hotel', and as such hints at the next phase in 110 Euston Road's history. So this desolate structure is what we would find if we peeled back the future hotel's skin? Should that alarm us? But then, what is underneath the floor that you're standing on now? Should that alarm you? What is disconcerting, though, is the shear misplacement of this wall; it is so utterly incongruous, as if digitally cut-and-pasted, floating unanchored in the space. Yet this is exactly what will happen: designers will paste 'hotel room designs' into the structure and - Bingo! - an hotel.
Entering the stairwell on our journey down, we begin to hear distant sounds. Thumping, rattling, and crashing. Cold steps, rubble. Banging and smashing echoing up the stairs, getting closer. We arrive at the long, low space of level 10. The sound of Massimo Bartolini's lone drum kit being played for all it's worth rolls around the space. It emanates from the far end. We cross. Pumped out from serious speakers, and obviously recorded in some sort of echo chamber, this is the first part of 'The Mouse in the House (Head No.1)'. The second part is further back, in a small, contained room. This room has been painted a blinding white, and its corners have been covered, enabling the walls to curve round to meet the floor and ceiling. We can't enter, so it holds an illusory, unreadable quality. But this is merely a stage for the arrows. Jerking slowly enough to follow, but fast enough to disorient, are two white projections. Firing about the unearthly space, they spasm in time to the sounds. The abstract, mathematical space is dragged out, impinged upon, and extended into the building as the sound rumbles over several floors.
Three floors down and the sound has finally receded into the depths of the building. The echoes, which gave a sense of scale, have gone as we approach Matthew Tickle's 'Bleached Interior'. This piece also announces its presence from a distance, not by sound though, but by smell. A chemical-clean air sharpens the atmosphere as we move toward the work. This is level 7, and it has shrunk to the size of a small room. The room is made of wood. Sterling board, actually, as used for the emergency repair of windows after bomb blasts. Following the vast spaces upstairs, it feels claustrophobic in here. Institutional strip lights. And that smell ... clearing the sinuses, the air is damp and disturbingly germ-free. Daily, the walls are rubbed down with bleach, making them paler. The chipped patterning of the boards is exaggerated as the colour bleaches out, the contrast pronounced. A large object hangs on one wall, covered by soft cotton. The work's list of materials suggests that this is a photograph, but we cannot see it. It is packaged, protected as much by its padding as by the box-room itself. So this is a kind of shipping crate, but one allied to a sense of cleansing and repair. The photograph is a blind-spot, both there and not there. A definite absence. And this is a room in a building. And the charge that it contains is muffled, made ambiguous through its sterile storage. But then what is a room in a building, an hotel, if not a storage device. A sterile container. Comfortable, maybe, but by its nature it both flattens differences and diffuses, or defuses, specifics. Spaces can become sterile and deadening if not used with extreme caution.
Stepping away from this toxically clean atmosphere, we drop another floor to level 6. Open-plan once more. The columns that run in pairs down the space each have a fixture fitted. Louis Nixon's ten different folded-steel cabinets silently occupy the room. Painted in various flat industrial colours, they have an air of specificity. These are cabinets that would hold machinery that would control the building: lighting, heating, ventilation. And yet they are obviously functionless; parts of their design facilitate against other parts. Strange vents cut in odd places, locked doors to sections that have no lids. Pristine and facile, they are almost nothing. An amalgamation of signs that say 'industrial furniture'. Part of that world of contrived blankness, wilful anonymity, they sit within the frame of the disposable office environment. Nothing in this frame has any inherent value, all is levelled. Do as you please, they say, nothing matters, it's all the same. They're self-contained vacuums in this space, this empty space, this space which has had its history erased. But erasure always leaves traces, and this is exactly what these objects avoid. They resist a worldliness. Some would say they lacked souls. Products of a system that values but one thing.
We drop down in the lift to find the final work. From the seventh floor we aim for the basement. Our ever-present guide guides us, by their torchlight we navigate the large, high-ceilinged spaces of the ground and lower floors. It is strangely grand down here. That a building this size can be so quiet and empty suggests that we're on the other side of some apocalypse. Dust, rubble, wires. The odd brick. We can feel the size of the rooms by the sound of our footsteps, even though the torch only picks out a thin, jerking cone before us. It's cold. We acknowledge the space around us, a 360-degree sphere of awareness. For once we rely on a sense other than sight. Our guide stops. This is it, we are told. They fumble with a mechanical object. It's pitch black. Tiny electric motors begin to whir. Film purrs through a 16mm projector. An image appears on the far wall, grainy black and white. We recognise the view from the roof. But we were never that close to the edge. Melanie Counsell, whose work this is, is very close to the edge. The camera sways around alarmingly, London's skyline arcs and jerks past our eyes. The camera tilts, in slow-motion the street sways up into vision. Traffic moves directly below. Then ... blurred tumbling as the camera falls, whiting out, hitting the Euston Road: the pavement infront of number 110. The film ends in white, untitled.
The camera has felt the urge that we all feel. Why do we have to fantasise about that drop? We cannot help but imagine falling, gently rolling through the air as street-level accelerates to meet us. Our guide switches the projector off, and the space flicks into silence again. We remember the view in our minds, feel the tons of concrete and steel above us, sense the millions of cubic feet of space - empty and cold and dusty, lit with a pale daylight. It's a shame that we can only truly grasp the spaces that we have fallen past, after we have fallen. Few get to understand buildings like this. Few can have stood on a roof, and then journeyed down, aware of the weight the building has, down into its roots. We cannot separate that view from the spaces from the basement from the works that articulated it all, fired it all. The flood-like wreckage of redevelopment washing the surfaces away, leaving a detritus of materials, materials that make buildings like this. And as we viewed it all the flood washed through our minds too, carrying our comfortable, unthinking acceptance of buildings away. Our consciousness of spaces is left raw and exposed. This is why it is that when we leave High-Rise, we find every space we step through acute and intense.
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists