Modern architecture, with its infinite permutations of the unadorned box and corresponding open space, has been largely dead for decades. It's been so long, in fact, that the architectural critiques of Modernism, whether as eclectic bits of colored kitsch or strident, clashing hypercomplexities, may themselves be a bit tired. Perhaps the contents of my lava lamp could become a model for the new architecture. I've got just the modeling software for it.
The often-unsatisfying churn of novel formal approaches that Modern architecture left in its wake helps to explain why Rachel Whiteread's sculptures of interior architectural spaces continue to elicit such fascination. She seems to attack some specifically Modernist tenets -- the willful erasure of history and the appeal of open space. In doing so, though, she indicts a much broader spectrum of academic and commodified building.
Whiteread began her career by making plaster and resin casts of spaces under and around furniture; she rose to greater international prominence in the 1990s by expanding these works to the scale of rooms and entire houses. She embraced the oft-cited but insufficiently realized tenet of ancient Taoist philosopher Lao Tse, who asserted that the crucial element of architecture was not the walls, but the enclosed space. Of course, there is a playfully paradoxical nature to making these spaces into solid forms.
Whiteread's 1990 piece Ghost is a cast of an East London living room similar to the one in which she grew up. It's a cube, not a void. The fireplace protrudes, rather than receding. The humble volume becomes a prominent mass, its modest nicks and scratches of time reversed into abrasive contemporary texture.
The 1993 work House, at 193 Grove Road, in East London, was a stacked agglomeration of such rooms, as if the original house had been swiftly ripped away like a magician's tablecloth, leaving its shuddering, unsupported contents behind. Its location in an empty space -- one that had suffered from an Urban Renewal-style evisceration of a traditional neighborhood -- only underscored the sense of absence and loss. How, these works ask, do you make the delicate and ethereal sense of human habitation and memory into a more palpable force in the face of the ravages of mass culture and commercial real estate?
In the Carnegie Museum's Hall of Sculpture, the question takes the form of "Untitled (Domestic)," from 2002. The piece, which the museum recently co-purchased with the Albright-Knox Museum, in Buffalo, is a cast staircase from an 18th-century London townhouse. A number of Whiteread's pieces have been on display at the Carnegie in the past, but this is the first of the large-scale plaster works to arrive here.
The concept of the sculpted void is clear enough, but its nuances and implications are stunningly rich. The volume of the stairway, like the architectural equivalent of a photographic negative, is both a familiar reflection and a hauntingly strange specter of its opposite. And like Kandinsky, who discovered the newly abstract beauty in one of his landscape paintings when it was turned on its side, we revel in the odd orientation of the piece. Which way is up? What do you make of the thing that is both reversed and turned on its side? The revelation that the smooth, angular whiteness is beautiful regardless of its source is both delightful and cautionary: Don't get so seduced by the beauty of these things that you lose track of the source, the human origins. Isn't that how we got in trouble with Modernism in the first place?
Whiteread lectures at 6 p.m. Tue., Nov. 6, in the Carnegie Lecture Hall. Now there's a space, with its semicircular volume and tiered theater seating, that would make a great Whiteread sculpture, undoubtedly turned upside-down for a distinct stepped top. You should get there early, though, because while she will undoubtedly fill the Lecture Hall, it will be with people rather than plaster.