James Lingwood on House
Introduction to the publication House (Phaidon Press Limited 1995)Photograph by Stephen White
It began, an idea without a name, in the quiet of Rachel Whiteread's studio in East London. And it ended several years later, a sculpture called House, demolished in the full glare of the world's media. House always had the potential to be a contentious work of art. But in my first conversations with Rachel Whiteread in the summer of 1991, it was impossible to imagine that it would be quite as exposed, quite as contentious as things turned out; and that its transition from private projection to public phenomenon would be so dramatic and so quick.
House could have been made elsewhere, in a different place, at a different time; perhaps with another cast list and chorus. Indeed, Whiteread and I had looked at several other terraced houses in North and East London through 1992 without success. At one stage, a condemned house in Islington seemed possible, but the right permissions failed to materialize. Another in Hackney was knocked down before we could make a proposal to the owner. Finally, after months of private persuasion and occasional public meetings, the councillors of Bow Neighbourhood voted by a small majority to give a temporary lease on 193 Grove Road, one of the few remaining houses in what had once been a Victorian terrace. After several months' more waiting, Whiteread took possession and the physical making of the work began in August 1993. From that moment, House was of a specific place and a particular time. And it was this configuration of time and place, with its attendant contingencies of local and national politics and the added spice of the 1993 Turner Prize which, as much as the physical appearance of the sculpture, created the meaning of House and determined the course of its short life.
House was completed on October 25 1993. There had deliberately been almost no press until one day before. Slowly at first and then more quickly, interest and comment began to grow in the locality and beyond; in the pages of the national press and on television news. Newspaper leaders and letters, columns and cartoons appeared and multiplied. Visitors grew day by day. On November 23 two decisions were made simultaneously in different parts of London. A group of jurors at the Tate Gallery decided that Whiteread had won the 1993 Turner Prize, and a gathering of Bow Neighbourhood Councillors voted that House should be demolished with immediate effect. It was an incendiary combination.
From that moment, the debate which swirled around House became increasingly adversarial; in the press, on television and, in a more good-humoured way, in front of the sculpture itself. Seasoned campaigners dusted down familiar battle formations from past controversies such as the Tate Gallery's acquisition of Carl Andre's infamous 'bricks'; or, for those few who cared to add an international dimension, the notorious case of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Others invoked the English taste for iconoclasm which had generated campaigns against public sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill earlier in the century. But perhaps the most salient and certainly the most encouraging aspect of the controversy around House was the way in which it exposed the inadequacies of these old charts to describe the complexities and the particular contours of this controversy. Local against national, the art world against the real world, grass roots realities against disconnected dilettantes... Such binary oppositions could neither explain nor contain the multiple shades of opinion and sentiment which House engendered.
There were passionately different responses, of course. But the differences of opinion were always located within any identifiable community or constituency, and not between them. There was no consensus amongst the inhabitants of the block of houses opposite, on the street or in the neighbourhood, nor in the letter pages of local and national newspapers. There was no consensus amongst the local councillors. Even the fateful decision not to grant an extension to House was taken only on the casting vote of the Chairman after the councillors were equally divided. There was no consensus even within the Gale family whom the Council had moved out of the home which eventually became House. House did not seek to manufacture some confectionary consensus, as many public works of art are compelled to do. Indeed it laid bare the limits of language and expectation which afflict the contentious arena of public art.
House was literally rooted to its spot, but the meaning of Whiteread's work was inherently unstable. Unlike the heroic models of triumphal arches and declamatory statues, it was by no means clear what values it sought to promote. It did not seek to predetermine the ways in which people could respond to it. Rather, like notable predecessors of a similarly sombre kind such as Lutyens' Cenotaph in Whitehall, (originally planned as a temporary memorial) or Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., House was both a closed architectural form and an open memorial; at one and the same time hermetic and implacable, but also able to absorb into its body all those individual thoughts, feelings and memories projected onto it.
The way in which opinion swirled around it echoed another way in which House was constantly changing. It was impossible not to view the whole of the sculpture without also seeing a part of its immediate environment. Close to the textures of the cast, the indentations of domestic details invited contemplation of the interior life the house once had. But from further away, the sculpture gradually became implicated in a mute dialogue with the various architectural forms which surrounded it. Across the road, within a hundred yards of each other were three different churches; Baptist, Jehovah's Witness and Church of England. These modest temples of organized religion contrasted tellingly with the image of Home which in Victorian times had displaced God as the main organizing agent of social stability. Looking from north to south, the view was dominated by Canary Wharf, the tallest building in England and symbol of the transformations which had been wrought upon the East End through the 1980s. And, from far away across the expanse of unused park which had until the Second World War been filled with row upon row of terraced housing, House began to appear very small and vulnerable. Towering over it, beyond the section of Grove Road with its churches and refurbished flats, loomed three concrete high-rises, emblems of more recent ideals of social housing which had at one time supplanted the model of the Victorian terrace. It was not possible to separate House from its place, or the place from House.
A little way down Grove Road, only a few hundred yards from the place where House was made, some wooden sculptures are sited in an adjacent stretch of empty parkland. Carved from trees blown down in the Great Storm of 1987, they stand in a forlorn arrangement. All the time I spent in Grove Road meeting with Whiteread, with local councillors and residents, contractors and sponsors, helpers, students and journalists, I never once saw anyone looking at the wooden sculptures. It seems as if, moments after the commemorative plaque had been unveiled, meaning had evaporated from them as quickly as the local dignitaries had drifted from the opening ceremony.
In his observations on the urban environment of the early 20th century, Robert Musil wrote that 'the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument... Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment'. The wooden sculptures had acquired that instant invisibility of which Musil wrote; an invisibility which is the precondition of the vast proportion of contemporary civic art, the prerequisite for their commissioning and their survival. House, always envisaged as temporary, could not aspire to that condition. In time, over decades, it might have become invisible too. But time was the one thing Whiteread's work did not have.
As I write this, a campaign for a new monument - 'The London Memorial' - is being orchestrated by London's evening newspaper, the Evening Standard (who were far from being one of House's most enthusiastic advocates in the autumn of I993). The London Memorial is planned to commemorate the experience of London and its people during the Second World War before it passes beyond living memory; the people who served, those who died, were bombed out or displaced or survived. And, by some strange irony, a particular street in East London was one of the first places put forward - the place where the first flying bomb fell - none other than Grove Road in Bow. I don't suppose that the connection will be made by the Evening Standard - but perhaps their London Memorial has already been and gone.