130 kms north west of Barcelona lies the Catalan town of Lleida, which I visited at the end of November. It is a small town with a recorded settlement going back to the Bronze Age. It was invaded and occupied successively by Iberians, Romans, Visgoths, Moors, French and Spanish and served as a key defence point for Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. El Turo, the hill at the centre of the town, since 1200 capped by the Sue Vella Cathedral, is a monumental compendium of this layered history.
I was in Lleida at the end of November, as guest of Fundacio Sorigué, the corporate social responsibility arm of Grupo Sorigué, a leading business group in the construction sector in Spain. Along with John Palmesino, Kees Kaan (Netherlands), Li Xiangning (China) and Zine-Eddine Seffadi (Algeria), I was there to select the winners of a new Spanish International Architecture Award announced by the Consejo Superior de Colegios de Arquitectos de Espana. Despite our recommendations for the awards being almost entirely ignored by the Consejo, and that we saw almost nothing of Lleida, the weekend was an extraordinary experience.
Fundacio Sorigué was created by Julio Sorigué, founder of the company and his wife in 1985. Since 1999, under the directorship of Ana Valles, it has acquired a formidable collection of over 450 contemporary art works, including pieces by Anselm Keifer, Bill Viola, Doris Sacledo, William Kentridge and others. A selection is exhibited in the Fundacio’s museum in down town Lleida, but the Fundacio is in the process of developing an architectural project to house its collection in Grupo Sorigué’s active stone quarry north east of Lleida.
We undertook our selection for the awards and were hosted to a long Spanish lunch in Fundacio Sorigué’s museum in Lleida, surrounded by huge panoramic Wim Wenders photographs of Western Australian, the USA and Israel.
Upstairs were Wenders’ little seen Nov 2011 photographs of the clean-up operation at Ground Zero.
But it was three relatively small photographs by Wenders of the village of Litate near Fukoshima taken after the 2011 nuclear disaster, that had me riveted.
I was reading Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World at the time. The chapter titled ‘What are hyperobjects?’ begins with a quote from Percy Shelley, “The aweful shadow of some unseen power.” It seemed to me standing in front of the Fukoshima photographs that this was what I was in the presence of. Across the photographs, themselves unremarkable images of trees, a building and a road, a gamma ray had traced its path. It had blazed an uninvited aesthetic trace, almost unreal in its luminosity across Wenders’ negatives as his camera’s shutter had opened and closed. I was reduced to tears.
“Like a nightmare that brings news of some real psychic intensity, the shadow of the hyperobject announces the existence of the hyperobject. We find ourselves caught in them. The name of this trap is viscosity” (Timothy Morton).
I experienced a similar sense of the uncanny the following day, when viewing Bill Viola’s work, “Ocean Without a Shore” (2007), screened in a civil war bunker in Grupo Sorigué stone quarry.
In this work, a monochrome woman advances slowly towards us; she passes slowly without pausing through a curtain of water which clings to her body, at the same time passing chromatically from grey to red. Once through the curtain, she pauses and looks for a long time straight ahead before turning back through the thunderous water and disappearing into the grey background.
This reminded me of Neo in The Matrix, when he touches a mirror which seems to melt and coat his flesh. It ceases to be a reflective surface and instead envelops him like a film of oil. In Viola’s work, the curtain of water is similarly viscous, sticking to the woman’s body. She comes through it, but then retreats, retreating back through the curtain into her monochrome world. This kind of viscosity, says Morton, is characteristic of hyperobjects. The more you try to shake them off, the more you realise you can’t; they seriously undermine the notion of ‘away’. In Viola’s “Ocean Without a Shore,” there is no longer an outside; the woman is glued to and cannot escape her phenomenological situation. The same can be said for us all in the time of hyperobjects.
But I am running ahead of myself.
The second day of my weekend in Lleida was spent in Grupo Sorigue’s working stone quarry 20 kms to the north east of Lleida.
We were taken around the complex, which quarries, sorts, stores and transports aggregate for road construction and makes and tests concrete elements such as culverts and kerb stones. The process was not the dramatic gauging out of a hillside I think of when I think of quarry, but rather an immaculate, horizontal scraping off of the halocene.
This is crushed, sorted and piled up into mounds, and transported by conveyor to trucks for delivery to construction sites.
Once an area is exhausted, the earth is resurfaced with topsoil and planted with olive trees, which are then harvested and pressed for oil.
It is within the quarry that the Foundacio is planning to build a new building, known as Planta, not only to house their art collection, but to represent the values of the company. Kees Kaan of Claus en Kaan Architekten (Amsterdam) has been employed to design it. His design, which he presented to us on the site of the new building, reinstates the datum of the hillside prior to quarrying operations and buries a labyrinthine building underneath it.
As part of the weekend, Fundacio Sorigue asked us to participate in a conversation, chaired by Ricardo Devesa, editor at Actar, to discuss challenges facing architecture globally.
It was staged in the Kiefer Pavilion, a building built in the quarry to house three large format works by the German artist.
We sat in a semi-circle surrounded by these works, to discuss architecture.
On Fundacio Sorigué’s web site, I learn that the meeting was organized, somewhat ambitiously I would say, following the model of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM); as a laboratory of ideas, a meeting point for architects to share experiences and debate different approaches to international architecture and adopt a general framework for global action. The Sorigué Foundation, wants to recover the philosophy of these meetings in the Kiefer Pavilion in a series of working sessions, to be shown at the next Venice Architetcure Biennale in 2014.
There seemed to be something quite incredible about this whole situation: enveloped in Anselm Keifer’s enormous paintings of earth, sky and sea; in a building located in a quarry, where halocene deposits were being extracted, crushed and turned into asphalt; reflecting on the anthropocene and architecture as geologic agent; hosted by a wealthy institution fuelled by hydrocarbons, whose art collection, whether consciously or not represented a tuning to hyperobjects – deep time, a world without nature, radiation, global warming and other entities of vast temporal and spatial dimensions that we are going to have to co-exist with for a very long time.