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“The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams.” The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s tender observation, made in his hymn to architecture, The Poetics of Space, speaks eloquently to the art of Do Ho Suh.
Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1962, Suh moved to the United States to study in his late 20s. The experience of displacement sowed the seeds of an oeuvre whose sculptural manifestations — from the blood-red fabric staircase suspended in Tate Modern to door knobs and radiators sculpted from pastel-rubbed papers — express a quiet longing to recover the intimacy of home.
His journey through the poetics of belonging, allied to a career that has seen him exhibit in institutions and biennales worldwide — currently he has a solo show, Do Ho Suh: Almost Home, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC — made Suh the ideal choice when London’s V&A Museum sought an artist to collaborate with on its project for the Pavilion of Applied Arts at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture. Visitors to Venice hoping to see his sculptural works should be satisfied with a trip to the city’s branch of Victoria Miro gallery, where his solo show of interior details — light switches, a telephone — replicated in paper will be on view.
Entitled Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse, this year’s project at the Pavilion of Applied Arts centres on the V&A’s decision to salvage a fragment of Robin Hood Gardens, an east London social housing estate that is under demolition. Designed by British architects Alison and Robert Smithson and completed in 1972, the Brutalist-style estate was built in pre-cast concrete on a modular grid format. Signature details included aerial walkways, which were known “as streets in the sky”. Out of its ashes will rise Blackwall Reach, a £300m project that will include both social and private housing.
The Smithsons hoped that Robin Hood Gardens would be a “demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living”. Although its success was always disputed, the announcement in 2008 that it was to be demolished kicked off a passionate preservation campaign headed by such architectural luminaries as Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers.
Once destruction was inevitable, the V&A salvaged several three-storey sections of the façades and the interior fittings of two flats. The initial impetus for the project came from Liza Fior of muf architecture/art while she was completing a residency at the V&A that focused on creating strategies for the museum’s new wing in east London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Now, one section of the building — though not for display in the museum — will be on show in Venice, alongside a film by Suh. V&A senior curator of designs Olivia Horsfall Turner says she chose Suh — who filmed inside still-occupied apartments and an empty one — because of his gift for combining documentary detail with expressive feeling. His work is very “rigorous and site specific but it’s more than a record,” she observes. “It has emotion as well.”
For Suh, part of the project’s appeal lay in the “fundamental difference” between his approach to buildings and that of the museum. “They see spaces as an architect would, that is, as a physical entity, a hard shell. For me it’s the intangible quality — energy, history, life and memory that has accumulated [there],” he told me over the phone from Seoul.
To evoke these ephemeral traces, Suh devised a specific method which involved time-lapse photography, 3D scanning and photogrammetry. While a traditional architectural photographer documents a room “in a split second”, Suh’s use of time-lapse saw his camera move from “floor to ceiling in 30 minutes”, taking hundreds of shots that he then “stitched together” to create the effect of an animation. “You could get the same effect with a video camera in 10 seconds,” he says. “But because it takes 30 minutes, it reflects the lengthy experience of the residents, some of whom had lived there for 25 years.” Meanwhile, photogrammetry, unlike traditional laser scanning, allowed him to capture “the visual information” of the room.
Suh’s experience of displacement suggests he will be a sensitive diarist of these residents’ final chapter in their homes. “It was something in the back of my mind, a subtle discomfort . . . an unsettling feeling,” he recalls of his first years in the US, when he found himself living in a building vastly different from the traditional Korean house in which he had grown up. “Things like the height of the door, the tradition of the door knob, the spatial organisation of the flat — it was less culture shock than architectural shock.’’
Ultimately, of course, his relocation proved enormously fruitful. For the former residents of Robin Hood Gardens the future is less certain. Little wonder the V&A’s project has provoked controversy. Initially, their decision not to sign the original petition to save the building, yet turn its destruction into an occasion for display, saw the institution accused of opportunism. Meanwhile the dire state of social housing in the UK, highlighted by the Grenfell Tower fire last summer, fuelled the fear that, in the words of architecture journalist Owen Hatherley, the project could be in danger of decontextualising the fragment from its social origins. “It was somebody’s house once and that must be respected. There are many ways this could go horribly wrong. It could end up as a fetishised object, for example.”
Horsfall Turner justifies the project on the grounds that the V&A has a primary responsibility to collect “design objects”, a duty which some people find “very difficult to reconcile with the social side of [that] object”. Nevertheless she hopes that the acquisition of Robin Hood Gardens will “encourage people to ask questions and have conversations about that”. Suh’s film should also reveal just how deeply human lives are entwined in the fabric of the building.
And what of the decision to display a fragment of the east London estate in Venice, a city where the lack of affordable housing for residents contributes powerfully to their dwindling numbers (from 175,000 in the postwar era to fewer than 55,000 today)? Jane da Mosto, executive director of non profit advocacy organisation We are Here Venice (co-founded by muf’s Liza Fior), says, “We sincerely hope that the presence of this ‘fragment’ will serve not only as a stimulant for local debate but also trigger constructive action by the city and public agencies responsible for the housing shortage. Recent research has revealed that there could be as many as a 1,000 potential homes locked and empty around the city.”