The Guise of Architecture

This text is based on a gallery talk entitled Monika Sosnowska and Brutalist Architecture given by Marcelyn Gow and Florencia Pita at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles on Sept 16, 2017.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View008

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View034

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Marcelyn Gow: Entering the exhibition of Monika Sosnowska’s work at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, one crosses a threshold into the gallery. The threshold is a compound space, at once the conventional doorway into the gallery, but simultaneously the small room that contains a piece entitled Relief. This anteroom is off-axis with the exhibition visitor’s trajectory, situated to the left. Access to the exhibition is constituted by a threshold comprised of many doorways, the two conventional doorways into each of the galleries but also a number of other ‘doorways’ to which Relief alludes. Relief is comprised of ten door handles that are cast into a massive block of concrete. Each of these door handles conjures in the imagination yet another door, yet another threshold. The portal through which the ten door handles that comprise Relief should afford entry is supplanted by the presence of the concrete slab. The rotational movement that the form of the door handle implies is arrested. The objects that we encounter in this exhibition are not models, they are not prototypes, and they are not real in a functional sense. Rather, these things are guises or semblances of what we consider them to be or what they have been named. The disposition of the pieces in the gallery speaks to very careful inversions of their functions. Objects that would normally provide stability are transformed into things that need to be stabilized. The work calls into question our ideas about stability, permanence, and reality; about the relative physical stasis of things and of architecture. 

Peter Eisenman, in his text “Architecture and the Problem of the Rhetorical Figure,” poses the difference between the functional job of architecture and the other roles of architecture, pertaining to the creation of worldviews and multiple, possible realities. He contends that,

What defines architecture is the continuous dislocation of dwelling, to dislocate, in other words, what it in fact locates. In order to reinvent the site whether it be a city or a house, the idea of site must be freed from its traditional places, histories, and systems of meanings.1 

Sosnowska’s work engages possible realities through the suggestion of diverse histories, questions of where these architectural elements and fragments may have come from, and the new histories they evoke and spaces that they create once they are brought into a different context. The apparent uselessness of these elements and the way in which their normal functions are swerved turns them into guises of architecture. Things that should adhere to architectural convention take on new roles in their current configurations. 

We are presented with a sectional view of the door handles. They are locked into fixed positions, never to be turned. Fossilized within time, these objects prompt us to question the identity of the buildings to which they might belong and the sites from which they may have been extracted. These absent buildings, presumably the architecture of post-war socialist modernism, are inert; like the cast or the relief, their promise of social reform rendered obsolete. The ordered and regulated qualities of Eastern European modernism are, in Sosnowska’s work, rendered dysfunctional.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View037

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

In Relief, geometric order is exchanged for qualities inherent to rustication. Rustication can be understood in opposition to the refinement of the classical orders. The somewhat brutalist qualities of Sosnowska’s work such as the exposed structure and the roughness of the material, provide a counterpoint to the geometric rder and clear proportional logic of the classical orders. In The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries Robin Evans argues that, 

Rusticated masonry was a conceit, representing the crude roughness of unworked stone in various ways, as if the aspiration to rise above the ground had not quite suceeded. It had always encouraged the grotesque and irregular. It always remained, more or less uncivilized, at the other extremity of classicism.2

Relief can also be understood as a type of plan ‘drawing’ rotated ninety degrees, as if a series of vertical L-shaped steel colums have been cast into a floor slab and severed at their bases. These remnants constitute a fossilized set of architectural elements. They can no longer be identified as a door handle or a floor slab, instead they fuse into a new entity. Turning from the doors that lead nowhere evoked by Relief, we encounter Stairs and Handrail.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View102

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View097

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Florencia Pita: Every one of the pieces in the exhibition refers to an element that is somewhat recognizable, an element that belongs not only to architecture but also to the world of construction. Monika Sosnowska builds these entities as they are intended to function, a stair is constructed as a stair, a handrail is a handrail. They undergo a process of formation and subsequent transformation. The works Stairs and Handrail fundamentally alter the functionality of the elements to which they refer. 

There is an inherent torquing motion in this work. The quality of torque characterizes Baroque sculptures and architecture. It suggests the transfiguration of inert matter into animate substance. The precise torque that these objects embody has been meticulously designed by the artist. There is no damage or destruction involved in the making of these forms. There is simply an intent to render these pieces in a state where they no longer function. These objects have been carefully transformed and redesigned through the mechanism of torque.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View180

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View195

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: What appears to be a torqued, or more aptly, buckled piece of black steel, is draped on the floor of the gallery. The object reveals itself to be comprised out of a long narrow piece of steel (the stair stringer) that is in turn attached to twenty or so steel plates (stair treads). The title of the work forces an association with an object that should, but refuses to, conform to the reality of what we are looking at. The normal function of a stair, what we expect it to accommodate or to see it do, has been seemingly wrest from the physical object that is present in the space. The usual conduit to vertical circulation has failed structurally, yielding to some immense pressure. The clean finish of the black powder coat belies the violence to which the piece appears to have been subjected through its forcible removal from the building where it was once in the service of vertical circulation. The treads, which should hold the weight of human occupants now act as the sculptural supports for the stringer that normally would have stabilized them. Stairs refers to itself while contradicting it ‘stairness.’ The identity of each part within the larger whole is confounded. Usually one progresses upward through the stair but here any form of ascent is irrevocably thwarted. We can only circulate around the stair, it creates a completely different space within the gallery. Stairs transmutes into something that appears to have the consistency of a liquid. Everything we assume that steel should do is undermined and transformed.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View197

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View174

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View167

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View179

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: Handrail inscribes a lazy, scrawled horizon line along the length of the gallery. It beckons the viewer to take a walk along the perimeter wall of the gallery although its contorted form precludes the possibility of doing so. It is at once an object and an inscription, literally steel drawn through space. Remarkably, the handrail assumes its stable and horizontal position once again at the far end of the gallery. There it turns the corner of the wall, marking the threshold of the doorway to the adjacent gallery and restoring its identity as a railing. Seen from that vantage point, it becomes possible to erase the impression of instability and to imagine the fiction that beyond the wall the handrail is again normative. The convolution and malleability of this handrail transform it from something that guides and stabilizes bodies in space to a destabilizing element that makes us question our position in the space.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View206

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

FP: Handrail is a double-sided element both in terms of its literal fabrication and in terms of how it disrupts our perception. The underside of the handrail is comprised of a steel plate that torques and folds. The top of the handrail is coated in red PVC plastic. The undulations of the handrail reveal what is typically unseen because the railing is usually ninety centimeters from the floor or the stair landing. Handrail continuously reverses the top and bottom of the object, through its calculated folding. The materiality and the textures of these pieces play a major role in how we read them. Most of the steel elements in this work, such as the stair or the lower part of the handrail, are painted black to produce the effect of a linear extraction of their lines and silhouettes. This clearly registers how the geometry is transforming. Not only are the overall lines legible, but also the specific moments where the torquing happens or where the folds occur. These moments have all been choreographed.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View052

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: The small room adjacent to the space containing Stairs and Handrail, contains a piece entitled Untitled. The name, or lack thereof, captures the ambivalent status of this object and reinforces its ability to undermine our attempts to establish its identity. The name Untitled prohibits a clear identification with an architectural element, unlike the other pieces in the exhibition whose titles refer directly to architectural elements. Although the compound whole can’t be categorized as a single architectural element, its constituents, the steel reinforcing elements (commonly referred to as rebar in the construction industry) as well as L-shaped and C-channel steel members, can be categorized as structural components. These different types of structural elements relate to various structural systems and occupy different locations within the structure. They are normally relegated to the role of stiffening concrete, structuring a floor slab or carrying vertical loads. Here these different elements and the structural logics to which they are attached find a common locus in the cast concrete base. To compound the reading further, the concrete takes on the identity of the architectural footing. Here, what would function as an architectural foundation to stabilize the building has instead been excavated to meet the floor slab in an apparent state of disequilibrium.

The concrete and steel Untitled combines the linearity of Mies Van der Rohe’s steel frame elements, which Sosnowska refers to in some of her other work such as the piece Façade, with the sinuous quality of Art Nouveau cast iron, referencing the silhouettes of plants. The structural logics of these elements have become radically transformed by their buckling and bending almost to the point of breaking or failure. The striking aspect of this piece is the coalescence of two very different kinds of architectural language, a new admixture that incorporates the abstraction of modernism with the referential qualities inherent to the Art Nouveau sensibility.

FP: A close inspection of this piece reveals different types of material finish. The rebar has a rustic quality, due to the pattern of grooves that are incised into it to enable it to adhere in the curing concrete, whereas the other steel members have a smooth finish. Each of the parts that compose this work has been combined in a strange way that conflates its normal role within building construction. Another aspect of this industrial Art Nouveau is the multiple readings it provokes, ranging from the industrial quality of exposed structure to the refined precision of the crimps and folds. The crimps on the I-beams are perfectly defined. The fundamental idea of a calculated I-beam within a structure is that it will never torque; it will never bend. The I-beam is designed to carry loads, but it will never deform. In her work, Monika Sosnowska stages an inherently difficult process of transformation that goes completely against the nature of the material.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View066

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: Frieze, located vis a vis Untitled, questions the relationship between decoration and structure. It conjures the presence of architectural elements that are absent and suggests a fictional history. Frieze is situated on the wall at a height that corresponds to the location of the classical Greek temple frieze. This fact, coupled with the name Frieze, enables it to be read as such. Searching for the absent portico, the viewer instead confronts a blank wall. The ceremonious quality of the classical temple is exchanged for the brutalist attributes of steel and concrete.

The protruding steel members take on the role of triglyphs in the classical Doric entablature; their erstwhile role as supports for a roof is compromised. The modernist eschewal of ornament to which this piece alludes is updated to a contemporary predilection for unruliness. Stability (Vitruvian firmitas) is conveyed through the geometric order that characterizes the Doric frieze. Here, solidity is exchanged for forms that have an apparent plasticity; proportion slides into an aqueous array of parts-to-whole where the frieze appears to be fluid, projecting uncertainty and disorder. The challenge posed by the negligence of this frieze to the precision of the classical frieze and the implications this has on literal and apparent stability has historical resonance within architecture. In The Projective Cast Evans points out the conventional demand for both actual and apparent stability in architecture in his discussion of an eighteenth century treatise on stereotomy.3 Conventionally, Evans argues, architecture should not only be stable and perform accordingly, but it should also look as if it is stable. Sosnowska’s work reflects on fundamental architectural principles by not appearing as if it should conform to these expectations. The naming of the pieces is provocative because it creates a mental image and expectation, but then we realize that we are encountering something else.

FP: The parallels to actual scale are very important in Sosnowska’s work. Frieze is installed in the gallery in a way that produces conflicting possible origins for the piece. It initially appears as if it may be something that was already present in the building. The wall of the gallery impedes passage and makes us see this frieze in a very different way. The frieze is placed at a height that looks as if there may have been a second level in the space that was later demolished, a smaller room within a two-story building. This creates the impression that a floor slab is missing and the structure inside of the concrete has been exposed during its removal. We are left with the remnants of that fictional structure that suggest the presence of an invisible floor.

From afar, the piece appears to be something that may have come out of a demolition site. Sosnowska is not working with found objects or readymade objects. These works are not produced by taking existing elements from a construction site and creating a new object, rather the work is focused on the meticulous construction of the elements and their subsequent transformation. Each one of these structural elements is folded in a different direction. Each one of them could be traced and retraced and redrawn and then new folds would be produced that are fantastic. The directionality of each piece changes according to the folding and compression process referring again to the multi-directionality inherent to baroque sculpture, suggesting the coincidence of multiple forms within one entity.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View135

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View144

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View160

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: Façade, located at the far end of the gallery, is also meticulously fabricated in terms of its geometry and structure. It has been produced as if it were intended to be used in the construction of a building. This precise fabrication is subjected to pressures, the literal physical pressures of machinery that begins to contort, fold and transform it. This process alludes to other kinds of pressures, the pressures to which individuals or cities have been subjected for instance. One may consider, what pressures have caused this normative, conventional element to transform in such a way. 

Sosnowska’s work can also be understood in the context of Brutalism. Reyner Banham’s 1955 text, "The New Brutalism" outlined principles of what he considered to be the contemporary revision of modern architecture of the time. These included a work’s capacity to produce “memorability as an image” through the formal legibility of the plan, the “clear exhibition of structure” and finally, what Banham referred to as “the valuation of material ‘as found’” or the work “being made of what it appears to be made of.”4

FP: In reference to Banham’s first point regarding the image, I think the proximity of Monika Sosnowska’s work to architecture can be traced through photography. Photography and the image are the elements that she uses to enter a new world. Sosnowska’s images of the destruction that late capitalism wrought in Warsaw are reflected in this work. The work has a conflicted relationship to modernism, and to late capitalism. There is a critique, and at the same time an embrace of modernism. The relationship to Brutalism comes from a similar perspective that British architects had in relationship to post-war construction. The abstraction of modernism had, to a certain extent, little relationship to the past or to the everyday. The Brutalist work posed a response to this by engaging the ‘as found’ qualities of the built environment. The new element that comes out of Brutalism is the idea of looking at the everyday. In Sosnowska’s work there is a slow process of transformation, almost as if she takes buildings and converts them into abstractions again.

Counter to the literal rawness of Brutalism, Sosnowska’s rawness is highly choreographed. The structures are flawless and do not clearly index the violent processes of transformation to which they have been subjected. The work establishes a distance from the found objects despite its proximity to them; Sosnowska’s work attempts to uncover new life in them. The Baroque and Brutalism both become relevant in this work. The conflict posed between the exposed material and the fantastic finish resonates constantly with those two moments in history.

This work is both something that is very familiar and also something that is completely unique. It oscillates back and forth between these states. The naming of the pieces also influences how we attach identities to them. If the name Façade was removed, other interpretations of the work might be possible. The name Façade suggests the presence of windows. When you get close to the piece you discover the windows with the handles. Sometimes the windows are open and sometimes they are left closed. Literally this structure was built as a facade and, with a certain brutality, it was folded and crushed into a ball. A brutal force is applied to these constructs that are difficult to deform due to their inherent structural properties. This is accomplished in a very precise and careful manner. The miniature models that Sosnowska makes show the façade in its normative state and also how it should be transformed. In this case the work is close to architecture, although the models are used in a very different way. Façade incorporates a kind of distance. Conventionally, you view the facade, you're never inside of the facade. This piece creates a volume that is not inhabitable. It's a kind of a void. You can only observe the facade by walking around it but never by going inside of this facade.

Sosnoiv Hwla 1706 Md View216

Installation view, ‘Monika Sosnowska’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017, © Monika Sosnowska, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Mario de Lopez

MG: In Sosnowska’s work, many of the pieces are created in order to appear as if they have been extracted from Brutalist works of architecture. These objects are not ‘as found’ but they allude to that quality. The work does not act as a literal index, as in an Assemblage work where pre-exisiting items are used to make the sculpture. These works are completely fabricated, so there's a certain moment at which these things defamiliarize in a very effective way. This also relates to a point that Peter Eisenman makes regarding the “rhetorical figure” where he talks about the “fictional quality of reality” and the “real quality of fiction,”

This repressed text is a fiction which recognizes its own fictive condition. In its way, it begins to acknowledge the fictional quality of reality and the real quality of fiction. Culture, history, and ultimately architecture are not fixed or merely additive, but are a continual process of reiteration and simultaneous dislocation which at every moment modifies the previous instant of meaning and structure.5 

So, we are left questions of what is the actual? What is the fictional? What stories do these objects reveal? What histories can we begin to project onto these objects? The profound acts of dislocation produced in the work of Monika Sosnowska invite us to reflect on the guise of architecture.

Special thanks to: Monika Sosnowska and Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, Stacen Berg - Senior Director, Russell Salmon – Events Manager, Elizabeth Portanova - Communications Manager

  1. Peter Eisenman, “Architecture and the Problem of the Rhetorical Figure,” in Re:Working Eisenman (London: Academy Editions, 1993), 54-57.

  2. Robin Evans, "Drawn Stone," in The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 179-239.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Reyner Banham, “The New Brutalism,” The Architectural Review, 118, 708 (December 1955): 354-61.

  5. Eisenman, 57.