Cult architect John Hejduk’s work revived at the Royal Academy

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John Hejduk was what became known as a paper architect. It’s true that the American realised a few buildings, but his real influence was exerted through his strange sketches of enigmatic forms, evocative fragments of industrial architecture and sinister, dreamlike pieces of concentration camp towers appearing side-by-side with Ferris wheels and beach huts. One of these uncanny structures has appeared in one of the free public spaces of the Royal Academy in London as the “London Masque”, not on paper but fully present in dark materials and deep shadow.

It is intriguing to see Hejduk, who died in 2000, back, if not exactly in vogue, then at least as a cult figure. A tower of a man (6ft 4in) who spoke slowly, deliberately, poetically and at length, Hejduk was a proponent of architecture as a vehicle for conveying meaning. It was an idea that fell out of fashion a little (partly thanks to the obsession with the emergence of digital design and partly due to a spurious idea of a non-objective, non-referential and purely abstract architecture), but which now appears to be edging back into view.

Hejduk’s ‘Widow’s House’ drawing from ‘Lancaster/Hanover Masque’ (1980-82) © Estate of John Hejduk

In working mostly through drawing and teaching, Hejduk was able to indulge in these eccentric, highly personal forms, which created a kind of bestiary of vaguely familiar things. Just as the poppier Postmodernists reassessed the commercial architecture of Las Vegas, drive-in diners and strip malls, Hejduk took half-remembered forms from industrial architecture, grain silos, vernacular houses, fairgrounds and kitsch nightmares and laid them out as stories. The buildings became characters in an incomplete narrative. We, the audience, are left with a line-up of unlikely buildings which somehow form the backdrop to a mysterious plot.

On the wall, here at the Academy, is a full-size facsimile of one of Hejduk’s casts of characters from his book The Lancaster/Hanover Masque (1980-82), a collection of architectural memories and monsters. One of these figures, the “Widow’s House”, depicts the dark structure recreated here. An elevated shed with a steep, covered access way, like a Midwestern grain conveyor or cement works, it appears as a black box on legs with oddly punky hair.

Its name refers to the traditional New England form of the “widow’s walk”, a kind of belvedere on the roof of seafarers’ houses from which the captain’s wife could watch for her husband’s return or, after his disappearance, look longingly out to the merciless sea. In the book Hejduk published about this drawing, he imagines how the odd forms on the roof are made by the “Trombone-Maker, a craftsman of refined detail”.

The show includes responses to Hejduk’s work by students from the Royal College of Art © David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

These whimsical worlds he created tip occasionally into Flann O’Brien-style surrealism, Italo Calvino-folksiness and at other times into melancholy, touching on the presence of the Holocaust, the sadness of the travelling showman and the collapse of the collective consciousness.

It is a lot to cram into a drawing, let along a single installation. But it is all there, strange and haunting. The room is leavened by the responses to Hejduk’s work by students from the Royal College of Art which line the gallery. Their variety and richness highlight how Hejduk’s provocations worked to spark ideas in his own pedagogy. He was a hugely influential teacher, notably at New York’s Cooper Union from 1964 until 2000, an incredible time span.

He profoundly influenced students from Daniel Libeskind to Liz Diller, each of whom metabolised something of his blend of the sinister and the ordinary into their own work, and he was a fierce promoter of freedom of thought and speech in education. The public nature of the space at the Royal Academy has meant original artefacts cannot be displayed; the drawings are all facsimiles. This is a great shame as the works have a particular, sketchy, gothic quality to them.

Hejduk was also an advocate for the poetic in architecture, for a dark kind of meta-fantasia, doing for design what David Lynch did in film or what Calvino did in storytelling. He called it “building worlds” and it can be closer to dramaturgy than design. But, as this affecting structure suggests, he remains hauntingly relevant in an era increasingly preoccupied with exactly what should be remembered and how it should be memorialised. Or destroyed.

To May 2023, royalacademy.org.uk

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