Like Délit and Exodus, the teasing cityscape of Maddie’s cabinets twists our understanding of normality. This perspective of the city, the future city, gives utterance to the approximate, to the unknown and the uncomfortable. It’s a space of ambiguity that is very fertile for design.
The photo above is one of my favourites from my time in Cairo. It is the confused façade of a police station near where I lived. It reminds me of The Why Factory, which I had helped design the year before. Both of these buildings tease the rules of the system without merely breaking them.
What excites me about the police station is the middle storey. It samples the colonial-era villa architecture with some respect, but not too much. It is just as respectful of the crinkly-tin extension above, and its flimsy material only manages to feign formality through the sublimely approximate mimicking of a pediment. Or is it mocking? The informal-looking third storey is also implicit in this ambiguous hybridity—it is an informal build, but formal in use, and is careful to match itself to the official beige below. As Maddie writes in Freaks of Culture, an article published in Bidoun 14 to accompany The World of Madelon Vriesendorp exhibition at the AA, ‘The objects that miss their target most are often the most irresistible.’
This blurred line between the official and unofficial drove the design of The Why Factory tribune. The original brief for the building strictly capped it at two storeys due to fire risk, and asked, simply, for four bland faculty offices with studio space around them. We tweaked the brief by negotiating a little extra height above the fire regulation, for a little room seldom used (housing a photocopier)—to create an immense lecture hall on the outside of the stacked rooms, which places the students, literally, above the tutors: a deliberately ‘pop,’ official accident of the design process.
Together the building I made and the one I found make a pair in my collection; they showcase this ‘irresistible ambiguity.’ They are also tripartite, temple-like and orange.
The celebration of hybrid, weird, ‘low’ culture manifestations forms the heart of both our collections
In Islam, Allah has 99 names or attributes—known as the Most Beautiful Names—that scholars learn by rote. According to Hadith, anyone who memorises them will enter paradise. I spread 99 photos, taken in Cairo, across Maddie’s living room table. They’re a collection of the name of God inscribed into the built environment, the opposite of a scholarly, laboured process of inscription into the mind. In a semi-literate city the promised paradise seems a world away, but, in a popular twist, the one ‘original’ name of Allah appears again and again as decoration, blessing, securing a profane and often inconsequential space. I collected the Name manifest as glue residue, manicured hedge, chip-fat, stick-on stained glass, plaster ventilation bricks, gold bubble writing, neon cable and more: the divine in the wider architecture industry.
The celebration of hybrid, weird, ‘low’ culture manifestations forms the heart of both our collections. The Names may seem to say only one thing—unlike the official scholarly attributes—but they are, if anything, less repetitive, because each is intensively and materially descript. Each Name has a voice. Like the chair of the Hieronymus Bosch figure, each Name can simultaneously belong to a number of sub-collections of the cultures of Cairo.
Together, of course, they make a paradisiacal set. I lay them out on an empty vitrine, originally made to hold Maddie’s collection for her solo retrospective at the AA, and which she rescued after the show, loathe to see anything thrown away. In the spirit of giving each object individual voice, she resisted an initial temptation to install a cityscape inside, because removed from the exhibition she discovered the uncanny beauty of the thick Perspex and the space it holds when empty. ‘There’s one too many to fit on the table—it’s a sign!’
SIGNS AND INTUITION
Before I leave I play The Mind Game, and Maddie ends her reading of my psyche by checking an old book of Chinese horoscopes, to better decipher my placement of the art object, the fish and snake, dangling off the wall by its tail, in her stage set.
D: I was due to be born on April fools,’ but I was characteristically late.
M: You are born in the week of the star! I have an amazing birthdate, 1-2-3-4-5. (12th March 1945… at 6am). I must have told you because I can’t stop telling everybody.
M: Do you have music around you when you work? I have radio or music. There has to be something to distract my mind, something outside of it.
D: I spent a couple of months working on the window grid for the Markthal, hundreds of iterations. That was when I started listening to Radio 4. Now, when I see the Markthal facade, I see spoken word radio.
D: What’s your memory of what your horoscope says?
M: Mine is horrendously exact. It’s so painful.
D: It says you’ve got some great ‘weaknesses’: reckless and foolhardy!
M: Yes, taking unnecessary risks and still surviving. (laughs)
D: And that you’re prone to wanderlust?
M: I like to go to places. I don’t have this thing you do of moving around, but I love to go to the not-so-glamorous places.
M: Visit the Pitt Rivers Museum. You’ll love it, it has everything in it. I don’t like museums that show all the work of just one person; it’s boring and the artist would have probably thought ‘this is not good enough’ about most of it. Better the collection of some crazy collector who sought out certain things: if they’re all different things, not more of the same, then it is interesting.
D: The great thing about collections is that whatever else the collector was doing or making, this was their way of thinking through the world.
M: Exactly, they collected all these things not to have to travel again
(looks back at my arrangement of The Mind Game).
‘…Ahhh: you’re an outsider.’
From Madelon Vriesendorp, that’s a big compliment.
This piece was originally featured in Legacy. You can purchase a copy here.