‘Career? I have no career! It’s just that I’ve never learnt to say no,’ says Madelon Vriesendorp

 – Skirting around the port of Havana in search of the pre-fab housing blocks shipped from Russia as ballast during the missile crisis and hastily thrown up by the docks, I come across a shop counter piled with two-faced, shocked mud heads, their expressions carved with a pin and punctuated by beady staring eyes. It is Elegua, spirit-messenger of roads. I buy two—one for myself, the other for Madelon Vriesendorp’s collection of exus, a Yoruba-Christian hybrid spirit-form. In her kitchen, she picks hers out with precision. ‘It looks just like a friend,’ she says, without saying whom. She accepts her head with the same kinetic delight she accepted this article: ‘Career? I have no career! It’s just that I’ve never learnt to say no.’

I recognize that resistance to being defined as any one thing, as a logical progression of projects. The ever-tedious question ‘What do you do?’ triggers in me a guttural ‘A—’ as I gauge if it’s worth diving in, or whether ‘—architecture’ will do.

OUTSIDER ART, OUTSIDE ARCHITECTURE

In her living room, one of the ‘bad paintings’ that Maddie and Rem (Koolhaas) collected for Delirious New York hangs in the central spot, barging aside Flagrant Délit, Maddie’s best-known work. I notice that the words ‘bad’, ‘stupid’ and ‘ugly’ are lavished on a number of objects around us with an immense amount of care. 

In the kitchen sits a collection of 70 model chairs, constructed and amassed throughout a lifetime. The smallest of them measures 12.5mm, and the largest 30cm in height. They have just come home from the exhibition in Lina Bo Bardi’s home—where they were installed in the Bo Bardi fireplace—having been plucked from Maddie’s wider collection especially for it.

As we talk, a long yellow chair is taken from the set and placed back into its other place in the collection—under a gift-shop figurine from The Garden of Earthly Delights.  The chair and the figurine appear as a duo in Maddie’s frieze of Dutch, Belgian and French cultural icons that decorated the Thalys fast train buffet car.

I find it liberating that her collection has this kind of fluidity. It affirms my own experience of how different bits of work tie together over time, with changes and disjunctions not making sense until years later. The abridged version of my career goes like this: MVRDV (architecture); Cairo (editorial, research, design); Phaidon Press (editorial, research, architecture); Münster University (literature research on blank space); Timeline.com (app start-up, journalism); The Why Factory (editorial, research, architecture, teaching); Regeneration at a London local authority (commissioning architecture, strategy); UCL (urbanism, teaching); Royal College of Art (architecture, teaching); and Create London (arts, charity, architecture, commissioning, research, outreach, strategy).

In summary, I’m not an ‘architect.’ I find myself nodding forcefully as Maddie summarises her practice as an instinctual involvement with the people around her: ‘Whatever people asked me, I just did it (laughs). This is an old-fashioned way of working. It’s not just doing one thing that you repeat and repeat. A lot of people do that, things get bigger and bigger and they get a reputation. I become smaller.’

#MENEITHER

A few days before we meet, Maddie is awarded the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize for women working in the wider architecture industry, in recognition of her significant contribution to architecture and the built environment.

‘I have to prepare the talk for this prize. I’m going to start a movement of #meneither instead of #metoo, for all those women who have not been recognised for the things they have done.’
‘Like this: “Painting commissioned by the Office”—which didn’t exist yet—“For Rem Koolhaas’ book!” It’s so annoying!’
‘They haven’t even cropped the edges. It’s the same hysterical quest for authenticity, like the way they stripped the colour off Sienna to make it authentic. Now people say “All that stone, lovely,” but it’s not lovely, it’s completely wrong!’

Reinier de Graaf wrote a book lately and my watercolour of the City of the Captive Globe is again credited to Zoe. The mistake was never noticed in the back of the original Delirious New York and every edition was credited wrongly thereafter.’ To illustrate the point, Maddie lays out four editions of Delirious New York, and tracks the use, blurring, then gradual erasure of the Flagrant Délit from its cover, a process of editorial attrition and disregard she has titled The Gradual, Inevitable March Towards Amnesia.

I ask about the origins of Flagrant Délit, before it became part of The Inevitable March series.

‘While we collected postcards I did a series of paintings. It wasn’t really meant for this cover at all. I was just doing my own thing. Then, a man called Baroni put it on the cover of a book he presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He never asked me for permission to use my work. We had sent some pictures to a publisher, and he just gave out my paintings. Then an editor said to Rem, “You’re crazy, everybody was intrigued by the cover at the fair, why don’t you use it?”’

Maddie has added the Baroni cover to her collection, arranged on a drawing board, so that the painting is whole again.

‘…I don’t want the prize acceptance speech to be some sort of enormous lament. Lots of positive stuff came out of it.’ 

IRRESISTIBLE AMBIGUITY

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

OBSESSIVE COLLECTING

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.

END

This piece was originally featured in Legacy. You can purchase a copy .

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