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The pleasure of ruins


The writings, Minimalist sculptures and earthwork art of Robert Smithson (1938-73) have been of persistent interest to architects, engineers, artists, cultural historians, and even psychoanalysts. This latest retrospective, now in Oslo, includes many reminders of Smithson's architectural concerns, as does the recent edition of his writings (California University Press, £19.95).

In his essays 'Entropy and the New Monuments' and 'Ultramoderne', and sculptures such as Plunge and Gyrostasis, Smithson engages with contemporary architecture - particularly the work of Philip Johnson, which he valued for somewhat unusual reasons. Just as Mannerism had followed the High Renaissance, a new Mannerism had appeared on the decline of High Modernism. Johnson wasn't Post-Modern, he was a Mannerist, and, like his antique counterparts, he was enjoying the entropic collapse of Modernism's (humanist) idealism.

The 'glass boxes' then springing up all over Smithson's native new york didn't evoke a stately grandeur or a High-Tech optimism, but a mannered B-movie buffoonery and an emptying of the self which he found more profound and worthwhile. Smithson loved their science-fiction look, their mirrored falsity, and their anti-functionality. He particularly disliked Modernist architecture for its idealist belief in the perfection of form and function.

In his Spiral Mirror, 'Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site' and 'Aerial Art', Smithson acted as artist-consultant to a major firm of architects by working on proposals for the Dallas/Fort Worth airport terminals. Though his contribution probably served his own ends more than the architect's, he still managed to be thought-provoking. First he played the ironic Minimalist poet peering down the boreholes on the site to recount the geological epic which lay below. He told illustrated stories of the violence embedded in the earth's crust and delighted in the sight of urban landscapes after earthquake or volcano. He loved the time-frame and battle of architecture versus the land, especially when the land won.

For Smithson, architecture was a dialectic between mind and matter, and the airport a split between a vast container and a distant speck on the landscape. Not surprisingly, his experiences in these offices led directly to his invention of earthwork art. His model for a spiral sculpture near the airport runway is very effectively installed in the Oslo exhibition.

In Hotel Palenque, 'Mirror Travels in the Yucatan' and Partially Buried Woodshed, many architects find works which are the equal of the more familiar Spiral Jetty. In 1969 Smithson was invited to give a recorded slide-lecture to architecture students on his recent trip to the Mayan ruins of Mexico, yet spoke instead about the dilapidated hotel in which he had stayed. With tongue in cheek, he gave a well-illustrated tour of a ramshackle building that was simultaneously rising and collapsing.

Smithson had already taken his work firmly in the direction of architectural collapse in his Partially Buried Woodshed, where a building was covered with dirt until it cracked under the weight. In Hotel Palenque he lingered over the old hotel as it was reclaimed by the jungle or dismantled into bricks for the new hotel. This lecture powerfully evokes the close imbrication between material process and mental process, thanks in part to Smithson's comparison of physical entropy with the Freudian concept of the death drive. His tour includes a new swimming pool that was so jagged and dysfunctional that it ended up looking like a burial pit; new floors that extended without reason only to be demolished without reason; and unfinished guest rooms that rose into ceremonial tombs. A Mexican dive becomes a jungle-clad monument to the victory of matter over architecture.

The impact of this work often stems from its frank recognition of the desires and pleasures inherent in building and ruination. The moral seems to be this: the death drive in architecture manifests itself as a pleasure, which cannot and should not be repressed. Therefore, neither Philip Johnson nor Mayan architects were wrong to raise temples to the death drive, to entropy, or to a loss of self.

The Oslo exhibition is notable for its intense survey of Smithson's early work, including his highly expressionist paintings from the late 1950s and Pop-inspired pieces from the early 1960s. It provides a rare opportunity to see his 30-minute film Spiral Jetty, a poetic record of the construction of his famous earthwork, while the late drawings of land reclamation projects give some idea of what Smithson would have done, had he not died in an aeroplane crash in 1973.

Finally, the exhibition also features a number of reconstructions of Smithson works, including a replication of his lost Enantiomorphic Chambers, and an outdoor recreation of the three-tonne Map of Broken Clear Glass. This large pile of glass sits quite ironically at the foot of one of Oslo's few glass buildings, like a sharp reminder of the future.

Tim Martin is a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading

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