Made to Measure
Let’s begin with a photograph: in it, blonde-haired young boy smiles from behind a pyramid house of cards. Logic says it can’t have been standing that way for long; even at a remove of miles and decades, I want to keep my breath drawn, lest the slightest exhalation topple the magnificent construction. The boy is Knut Henrik Henriksen and the shot was taken his family’s cabin in the mountains outside Lillehammer, Norway. The photograph looks like it could have been taken yesterday: there is something timeless and mass-folk about the blue and white Delftware high on a shelf in the background, the pine furniture and wooden panelling. Wood has always been – and remains – the primary construction material for homes across much of Scandinavia. Both houses in this scene – the one of cards and the one of planks – tell us something about the way that Henriksen’s artistic work takes shape: formal certainty proceeds from a deeply personal connection to materials; the geometric from the anecdotal.
One of Henriksen’s first exhibitions, at the Akershus Kunstnersenter in 1999, included a curved wall of Norwegian pine, which barricaded the space, forcing out against the right angles of the gallery and restricting visitors’ movement. On the one hand throwing into relief, by means of round pegs and square holes, the gallery’s architecture, the piece was also intended as a kind of portrait of the artist’s father. The elder Henriksen – his son’s guide on many early forays into the world of construction – had helped with the installation of the show. (We might speculate that there was something of his hand in the towering pyramid of cards in our photograph.) In this light, the obstructive, somewhat overbearing structure also doubles as the curved arm of a fatherly embrace.
Henriksen used the same generically Nordic material for his dramatic installation Architectural Doubts at Hamburger Bahnhof in 2004. Part of ‘Berlin Nord’, a group exhibition of Scandinavian artists, Architectural Doubtswas a wall of wood that filled the gallery entrance hall mapping, in tongue-and-groove panels of pale pine, the enclosing contours of the space. Hamburger Bahnhof, as its name suggests, was built in the mid-1800s as the terminus of the Berlin–Hamburg railway line. The last train pulled out in 1884 and for several decades the building housed a museum of transport and construction – so popular with Berliners in the first decades of the twentieth century that two additional wings were added. Architectural Doubts traced precisely the fault line at which these extension wings meet the original neo-classical building to produce a Janus-faced sculpture: an angular pitched roof on one side; a gentler, curved vault flanked by two smaller squares on the other.
This act of bisecting flattened the building into a cross-section, accentuating the joints to trace its evolution from one form to another, one function to another, in a way similar to that outlined by the architectural theorists Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver in their canonical postmodernist text Adhocism(1972). Jencks and Silver emphasized the improvised nature by which buildings develop: out of necessity and according to function. Adhocism is construction at its most intuitive. Though the stately Hamburger Bahnhof is hardly DIY, the unresolved seam showcased by Architectural Doubts – where neoclassical order has been momentarily foregone in the service of straightforward functionality – forms a blemish or a scar in the fabric of the building. Accentuated by the springy impermanence of the dividing pine, this beautiful idiosyncrasy makes the overbearing space, with its blue-chip permanent collection, somehow less intimidating. The doubt of the work’s title might express a mistrust of following any system (or any ideology) too rigidly. Walls should be flexible enough to be moved, or even torn down, when necessary; architecture evolves, lest all buildings become museums.
Wood itself seems too alive, too transiently organic to aspire to house things in perpetuity. It is permeable in a way that stone is not. Henriksen recounts having been told by one blind visitor to Hamburger Bahnhof that, though he was unable to see the sculpture, when pressed close against it he could feel the vibrations of visitors on the other side. It gave him a portrait of the room in a different sense – in terms of the people in it. The British modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth used to say that when carving her right hand was her ‘motor’, whereas the left could ‘hear’ imperfections in the stone: the drive of mechanization was guided by an intuitive, animistic communication with materials. The wooden plane of Architectural Doubtswas like the left hand, feeling its way between the cold iron struts of a shrine to industry.
The extent to which the constructed and abstract is derived from the natural or immanent is something Henriksen’s work probes again and again. He is interested in man as the measure of things – particularly in relation to architecture’s use of human scale as a unit of construction – and the point at which this intuitive extrapolation fails. The idea of the human body as the basis for architectural geometries dates back at least to the Roman theorist Vitruvius, writing in time of the emperor Augustus (around 15 BCE). As immortalized centuries later by Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man(c. 1490) is the idealized male body from which all ratios – including that of the sacred cut, which squares the circle – can be drawn: the harmonious logic of the cosmos incarnate. In the 1940s, an angular, clunkier, oddly robotic-looking version of Vitruvian Man with one wrench-like hand raised began to appear in diagrams setting out Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ system. (Vitruvian visions appear periodically in Henriksen’s work – in an early, untitled drawing on the floor of the artist’s Berlin studio, for instance, or, earlier this year, re-imagined in the form of faux wooden beams for a show at the Kunstverein Arnsberg.) Determined by the Golden Ratio, Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor Man’ defined a set of proportions that could be scaled up or down to provide the ‘appropriate’ dimensions for designing everything ‘from the spoon to the city’. (This was how the architect and Domuseditor Ernesto Rogers expressed the totalising ambition of modernist design in an editorial in 1952.)
The limitations of this vision should be clear enough, not least in so far as it implies that anyone who is not male, able-bodied and six-feet-tall is an inferior class of citizen. (With his broad shoulders, triangular torso and arm extending skywards, Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man could be taken for the silhouette of a cartoon super hero. I half-expect him to be wearing a cape.) In 1946, the Swiss architect visited Albert Einstein in Princeton to present his new, intricate system of calculations. Famously, the normally unflappable Le Corbusier fluffed his explanation. Nevertheless, the great physicist generously responded: ‘It’s a scale of proportions that makes the bad difficult and the good easy.’ Le Corbusier was thrilled – he included the quotation in his text Le Modulorin 1948 and again in a second volume, Modulor 2, seven years later.
For a show at Standard (Oslo) in 2006 that took its title from Einstein’s remarks, Henriksen lowered the gallery ceiling to Le Corbusier’s ideal height of 226 cm – the height of a six-foot man with one arm raised above his head – using square Styrofoam panels purchased from a DIY store in Berlin. On the one hand, Henriksen’s gesture only affirmed the white cube as a volume or container whose character is determined by what is exhibited therein. A gallery is a space, like a theatre set, in which false walls and ceilings, and a changing floor plan, are quite conventional, even expected. A gallery is allowed to imitate sculpture in a way that a house never should. On the other hand, by introducing nothing into the space bar the false ceiling, the show effectively produced its visitors as objects on display. The most casual observer would note that some heads were closer to the Styrofoam than others: in the space under the drop ceiling, fantasies of standardization break down.
When Einstein spoke about ‘the good’, I wonder whether he had in mind the Platonic equation of ‘good’ with ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, or even the qualities of being ‘sturdy’, ‘useful’ and ‘beautiful’ that Vitruvius claimed to be the three fundamentals of architecture. Certainly Styrofoam, with its cheap, takeaway-kebab-box squeak, is not a beautiful material in any conventional sense. Even in the form of the packing peanuts that, as a child, I used to like to throw over me as though they were snowflakes, the material’s pure whiteness is false, petrochemical. Henriksen has spoken of the ‘embarrassing intimacy’ of certain materials he uses. Banal or clichéd, these are either tackily ersatz – the false timber lengths that the artist used in Arnsberg, for example – or too earnest and somehow guileless, as with the pale pine of Architectural Doubtsand the stereotype of rugged Northern simplicity it conjures.
After he arrived in Berlin in 1997, Henriksen discovered that the German equivalent of Nordic tongue-and-groove panels is rauhfaser, the woodchip wallpaper found in houses across the country. Developed in the 1860s by Hugo Erfurt, the pharmacist grandson of a Wuppertal paper merchant who was trying to create a synthetic form of suede, this woodchip wallpaper took off in the 1920s as arts-and-crafts fussiness gave way to modernism’s clean lines and block-colour aesthetic. Initially used initially in shop window dressing, rauhfasercan be painted over in any colour desired, with the added benefit that its irregular lumpy grain conceals any small cracks or irregularities in the surface beneath. It is also – as anyone who had spent an unfortunate weekend trying to strip it from a back room ceiling will attest – immensely durable.
For all its awkward ugliness, woodchip wallpaper is true to the founding principles of modernist design expressed by Adolf Loos at the turn of the twentieth century. In ‘The Principle of Cladding’, originally published in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Pressein 1898, Loos described the fundamental importance of wall covering: this is ‘the oldest architectural detail’, evolved from the animal skins, and later textiles, with which early humans sought to shelter themselves. As is typical with Loos, this observation leads to a dictate: cladding must never be confused with the material it covers (wood should not be painted the colour of wood, stucco must not take the form of brickwork etc.). Rauhfaser, despite its semi-organic, rice-pudding-like coagulations, doesn’t look quite like anything else on this planet. It’s a garbled form of wood, which not only doesn’t look like the surfaces beneath, but doesn’t look like what it actually is, either.
For his 2011 solo exhibition with Hollybush Gardens in London, Henriksen tacked one end of a roll of rauhfaserto the top of the gallery wall and unfurled it like a pennant before pouring charcoal dust down the surface. Drifts of black accumulated in the pits and pocks of the paper before gathering, like the great swell of an avalanche, on the floor, where it curved and flattened. Dead, cremated wood – like the scattered remnants of a funeral pyre – traced the forms buried in the texture of the rauhfaser itself. There is something gently ritualistic about the gesture: it says something about life cycles and material impermanence and contingency. (The roll of wallpaper that remained coiled on the floor is almost a small maquette-homage to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, which, on a more grandiose scale, is also concerned with material simplicity and entropic processes.) Henriksen has repeated this work on a number of occasions but the result is never the same twice. The dust is not fixed and its form is at the whim of every passing exhale. All that is certain here is the pull of gravity and the gradual descent into darkness.
This ‘embarrassing intimacy’ of materials might also be related to them being too close to home, too domestic: they are witnesses to the private minutiae of daily life and shelter our most intimate thoughts. ‘The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace,’ wrote Gaston Bachelard in the first chapter of The Poetics of Space(1958), which is subtitled ‘The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut.’ The hut is a kind of originary measure of habitable scale and of the physical possibilities of construction. Henriksen has a theory that Constantin Brâncuși’s stacked rhomboidal sculptures derive from the carved wooden gateposts and timber frames of traditional houses in the mountains of Romania, the country in which he grew up. If the size of the beams in such architecture was determined by the weight that a man could lift, Brâncuși’s totemic Endless Column(1938), with its suggestion of the infinitely repeatable, might represent modernism’s move away from the romantic individual and towards the abstracted archetype. It’s worth remembering, too, that the only building that Le Corbusier ever made for himself was a simple wooden cabanonby the sea at Cap d’Ail. A present from the architect to his wife, sketched – legend has it – in 45 minutes as 1950 turned into 1951, the cabin measures 14 square metres and the walls are 226 cm high: it’s an almost-fundamental unit of Modulor architecture. The most basic would be a sort of cell, the tightest the body can be enclosed without being smothered entirely; even Le Corbusier seems to have doubted the practicality of this ultimate reduction.
The intimacy of the hut perhaps defines an idealized relation between human and built forms that Henriksen’s work seems to address even when its direct architectural references are dramatically scaled up. Between 2012 and 2013, the artist produced a body of work for a two-part exhibition with Bergen Kunsthall comprising geometric forms extrapolated from the rectilinear façade of Bergen’s city hall. A grey slab of Norwegian municipal modernism, rising like a tombstone over a park in the centre of the town, the building was designed by Erling Viksjø in 1953. It is clad in naturbetong(or natural concrete), the architect’s signature sandblasted pebbledash concrete finish: another of Henriksen’s awkwardly common materials, used in Norwegian civic architecture from bus shelters to government buildings. Like rauhfaser and pine paneling, naturbetong is both aesthetically and ideologically unfashionable: uncomfortably permanent as compared to the egalitarian modernist idealism that inspired it, which has long since ceded way – even in Norway – to the drives of advanced capitalism (and its towering glass-and-steel shrines).
For the first of his exhibitions in Bergen, Henriksen mapped the city hall cut-out forms onto the Kunsthall building itself; the second installed totemic versions, cast in naturbetong, in the dead space below the city hall, which is raised on Le Corbusier-inspired pilotis. The sculptures people the empty plaza, designed to be ‘open’ but in practice unused: a visualization of the oft-criticized disconnect between modernism’s democratizing aims and the real hopes and needs of the demosit intended to serve. Modulor in height, these sculptures are concrete men, impossible men. They are about lack, or absence: mute, immobile forms – like Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1923), to which they give a conscious nod – which are the shadows of lived gestures.
As Bachelard suggests, we carry the spaces that we have inhabited with us; they remain imprinted in our unconscious. Hence, in Henriksen’s work, the holiday places of childhood resurface as sculptural principles. Since 2011, the artist has been experimenting with a concrete way of carrying space through time: using coloured tape and measuring sticks he maps the dimensions of a room, with each mark on the stick corresponding to a different length. The work Sticks to Measure a Volume to be Rebuilt Somewhere Else, 2010, uses a bundle of wood as a kind of collapsed architectural diagram that can then be transported, theoretically allowing a three-dimensional space to be reconstructed elsewhere. Of course, someone needs to know the colour code: without this the lengths are meaningless. I think of Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages(1913) – three one-metres lengths of string dropped to the floor and then marked onto three one-metre planks of wood and three one-metre glass slides, the whole thing packing away into a wooden carrying case. A metre could be many different things for Duchamp, just as the width of a room is something more than its metric length for Henriksen.
In his early experiments with the technique, Henriksen was using the sticks as an extension of his arms, in order to measure the heights of ceilings without needing to climb a ladder. The whole system of calculation is therefore contingent upon one specific body rather than a generalized abstraction. It is a measuring system based on imprecise individuals, filled with doubt. And the person who taught it to him: his father.
Amy Sherlock is Reviews Editor at Frieze and a writer based in London.