‘Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky…” Pete Seeger
Little Boxes written by Malvina Reynolds and made famous by the excellent Pete Seeger, is a fantastic nursery rhyme like protest song that rails against the then invasion of suburbia and the endless building of faceless, identical housing. Identifying these accommodations as little boxes is a simple metaphor for the song, but sums up the simplistic way we look to draw or build a house when we are young (or to save money and time when we are a building firm). In October on a birthday trip to Glasgow, we were lucky enough to see an exhibition where making buildings is not just making a simple box but is a painstaking study of form, space and time.
The exhibition was Nathan Coley’s ‘The Lamp of Sacrifice’. Originally carried out in Birmingham and then Edinburgh, Coley built scale models of every place of worship that appeared in that area’s Yellow Pages. The Edinburgh version included surrounding areas down to the borders and totalled 286 structures. The buildings have no decoration but distinctly take the forms of churches, mosques, synagogues and other meeting spaces. The Title comes from a John Ruskin quote ‘It is not the church we want, but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration: not the gift, but the giving’. Coley seems to make this the focus of the work, letting visitors think about who inhabits each building but also about the sacrifice that has been made to create the buildings themselves. In fact in the original Birmingham show, Coley created the buildings as part of the exhibition allowing people to see the time it took to create each structure. In Edinburgh/Glasgow shows the buildings were already prepared.
A friend had seen the show in Edinburgh, and sent a message saying I would love this. The attached picture showing the buildings looked great but also very small. So much so, that when I went excitedly to the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, I was expecting a tabletop full of miniature models. On entering the Gallery space, I was first taken aback by the vastness of the project, the sheer floor space covered by the not so small structures and the amount of time it must have taken to create so many buildings. The buildings themselves were so unique with enough architectural detail to vaguely identify the role of the building without any of the small detail being required. I loved the way that they were scattered on the floor, with very different buildings being placed together creating city scapes and street views that complement and clash in equal measure.
The building structure was very clever and added to the anonymity of the buildings. The use and choice of card helped with this. The natural brown was not tarnished with any other colours or markings, other than the faint pencil marks of the construction which gave each model a sort of decoration. The thickness and the corrugated edge of the card gave each structure a permanency within the exhibition, giving the impression that all buildings were built from the same materials, no matter what it stood for. This anonymity worked so well, as there was no guide to the buildings. I only recognised one, the unmistakable spire of St. Michael’s Parish Church in Linlithgow, which we regularly pass on the train when visiting family.
We had two sessions at the exhibition and it was interesting to see how the natural light from the skylights played with the buildings and how shadows slowly shifted across the city. This added to the overwhelming sense of calm, peacefulness and awe of this stunning project. Its not often I go to one of these events, and say ‘I wish I had thought of this’, and for one moment I thought this is the madcap type of thing I would do, but I know in my heart I would not have had the commitment and sacrifice to do this. So hat off to Nathan, for this amazing achievement.
I do love places of worship for their architecture and their calmness but most of all when they are multi use area’s giving space and providing services for the wider community outside the confines of specific faiths or beliefs. I had a small dabble with religion in my 20’s when I joined a Methodist church, and for a few years it became a serious part of my life. I sang some great hymns, met some fab people and for a little while, I thought I felt something otherworldly. I even became a fairly rubbish Sunday school teacher. Going to church changed my life, not in a religious way but I found something in that building that gave my life meaning and purpose. I was long term unemployed and desperate to occupy my time, so I volunteered in the churches youth project making toasties for homeless people. I didn’t know at the time that this was one of the best youth projects in the North East and I didn’t realise how obsessed I would become about the work and eventually that this would become my career. Unfortunately as my understanding of youth and community increased, my beliefs evolved and my faith faded. I especially couldn’t balance the excellent work taking place on a daily basis in the building and the ethos, beliefs and practice of organised religion on a Sunday. It forms an important part of many peoples lives but it wasn’t for me and I had to leave. For the record, I think I still have faith of some kind, I am not sure what it is but I do know, it is definitely not in the form of an organisation. Maybe what was more important for me now is the building (or the box) and it’s place within a community
Many posts ago (Boxes 8) I talked about putting boxes together to form recognisable building features. I described the process to create towers. After creating a few of these, I went for something a little more recognisable again, a doorway. It wasn’t till years later that I realised why it was recognisable. It looked a lot like the churches portico which I had walked through for years.
The main structure of the doorway is a large C shaped box, which is essentially a 10x12x6cm box with a 10x8x2cm chunk taken out of it. The design of the actual box is so complicated, so heres a vague artists impression of what the template looked like. As always this required careful measuring, cutting and scoring of the box. The added difficulty with this build was there was a number of complex attachments which needed to be in place before the main construction of the box continued.
The doorway itself is a cut out rectangle of 5 x 6 cm on the most innermost face of the main box. Behind this is attached a multiple pieced attachment. Starting with an inward attachment (5 x 6 x 1 cm) constructed in the same card creating an inner step and on its main face a rectangle was cut measuring 3.5 x 4 cm. Inside of this is another inward attachment in cream card (3.5 x 4 x 0.5 cm) and this forms the door itself. On its main face 4 rectangles are cut out for the panels (1 x 1.5 cm), a line is made with a thin strip of black card to divide the doors and two wooden beads are used as handles. Behind this four final inward attachment in dark brown card (1 x 1.5 x 0.5), creating the impression of recessed panels. This element was created as one piece and then attached to the main boxes panel prior to assembly. Above the main door, a pediment was created with a triangle cut out of the main face, and a outward attachment created using the measurements of the element cut out. Once attached the triangular pediment stands proud by 0.5cm. Its base is 5cm with sloping sides of 3 cm.
The pillars were also a challenge. 4 square holes (1.5 x 1.5) were cut into what would be the inner ceiling and floor faces. Four Pedestals were created of the same measurement but a depth of 1 cm. A small circle is cut into each of the attachments main faces and these were attached to the box. As construction started to carefully take place of the C element of the box, a couple of rolled up pieces of dark brown card were threaded through the pedestals to form columns and inadvertently giving the structure a lot of strength.
The final piecing together was laborious but worthwhile. Only afterwards, I stopped calling it a doorway and started calling it the Temple (like I had with the towers which afterwards became churches). In total (over 8 years) I created 2 temples and 4 churches. Only a mere 280 structures behind the Lamp of Sacrifice exhibition.
So once again, well done Nathan Coley for this achievement and stunning exhibition. If you get the chance to see any of its versions, it is highly recommended
Recommended Reading : Nathan Coley “There Will Be No Miracles Here”