The Brazilian artist's sculptural interventions at Holborn Library can be read as an architecture in its own right, says architect David Kohn
Holborn Library on Theobald's Road is blessed with an interior that has that rare quality of being public, with a capital "P". The first large-scale, multi-functional library in the UK – with purpose-designed reading room, book-bindery, archive, theatre and aquarium – it was built in a Blitz bomb crater in London during an era when architecture was an instrument of the welfare state, expressing post-war optimism about rebuilding a city and a cultural identity.
The building was designed in 1956 by the Holborn Borough Council Architects' Department, under the leadership of the borough architect Sydney Cook, who is perhaps better known for creating some of the best, and most brutal, post-war public housing in London including Alexandra Road Estate, the Brunswick Centre, Branch Hill and Highgate New Town.
At present, the library is home to an installation by Brazilian artist José Damasceno, commissioned by Artangel. Called Plot, the piece entails nine interventions across the building's five floors that range in scale from small pieces of paper to a 12m-tall mural, with as varied a selection of materials, forms and scales in between as one could hope for.
Individually, each intervention changes the room in which it is found. Mackintosh-clad Letraset dry transfer figures, much loved by architects from the 1960s to 1980s, walk across the suspended ceiling of the main reading room, in view of the pedestrians chasing buses along the road outside, while readers hunch over desks below.
At the top of the building, the extraordinary timber-lined theatre space, which has been mothballed as storage for the past 20 years, has been cleared of rubbish and suspended ceilings to become a near-sacred space, replete with multiple puddle-shaped plinths awaiting a portentous gathering.
Together, the installations form a complex sculptural body that can be read as an architecture in its own right, with a scale, an order, a disposition of parts and a social purpose. This building inside a building is surreal, its figures made of foam and clay, its edges described by delicate traces of neon, wall mural and floor markings. Their placement is finely tuned to maintain a tension across a space that is coexistent with the more familiar walls, balconies, shelves and books of the library proper. The 1960s public building acts as a platform on which to reach Damasceno's parallel world, while conversely his installations re-illuminate the purpose, aesthetic coherence and ambition of its host.
Damasceno studied architecture at Santa Úrsula University in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s before turning is attention to art. He talks frequently of the influence his studies had on his later work, although one could turn this on its head and speculate as to the kind of architecture his art points towards.
Following Damasceno around his Holborn house last week was like being in a whodunit, where he is the narrator and I am the erstwhile hapless detective. As we enter each room, a fragment of a riddle is revealed. Damasceno is bursting with excitement, pointing out details, as the plates of the world he has constructed shift, creating new imaginary landscapes on which to walk out onto. Many stories unfold, not least the artist's great empathy for the once greatest library on earth, all of which awakens one's sensibilities to an extraordinary place within a constantly shifting city.
José Damasceno's PlotJosé Damasceno's Plot can be seen at Holborn Library until 23 November 2014.
David Kohn will discuss José Damasceno's sculptural interventionDavid Kohn will discuss José Damasceno's sculptural intervention into the modernist fabric of Holborn Library at a talk at 6.30pm on Monday, 27 October at the Swedenborg Hall, London WC1A 2TH. Icon readers can avail of a two-for-one ticket offer, which ends on Friday, by clicking here
Images: Will Eckersley