In the late 1970s a group of people living in the borough of Hackney in East London began building a structure on a derelict lot in their neighborhood and continued building until this January. The story of the project’s origins are shrouded in mystery. What is known is that because the residents couldn’t decide on what they wanted to build, they made three rules. The first was that not only would they build without any plan or blueprint, they would not discuss the direction of the project at all. Second, when they were on the building site, no one was allowed to speak. Third, the building would never be completed in that anyone at any point could decide to take it in a new direction. So the structure was built for thirty years until last autumn when the council sold the land to a developer who tore it down in January.
The structure is occasionally the subject, occasionally the inspiration for an ongoing project, The Rest is Silence, by the London-based artist Emanuel Almborg. Almborg began by photographing the structure in the months prior to its destruction and has been compiling an archive of sorts of its history. His project is soon set to culminate in Sweden, but he is being as coy as to what this will entail as the anonymous builders of the structure in Hackney.
When did you first come across the structure?
I’ve lived in Dalston and Stoke Newington for the past few years and I used to pass the structure on my bicycle every once in a while. I had stopped and taken photographs one night but I didn’t know what it really was though until I read about it in an unusual article in the Hackney Gazette riding on the 149 bus one day.
I’ve lived in East London for several years and have never heard anyone even mention this. Why do you think it has remained outside of the London art world for so long?
Not many people know about it. It is unusual how little attention this project has received, particularly when someone like Banksy was receiving so much attention. You’d at least have expected it to have been covered by Iain Sinclair on have entered the annals of Hackney mythology together with the Mole Man or whatever. Why this is I couldn’t really say. I suppose there are people in France who have never heard of Postman Cheval’s Palais Idéal, and urban planners and sociologists in the States who have never seen The Wire. At the same time I don’t want to give the impression that no one knew about the structure. Many people in the neighborhood used it as a playground or even enjoyed it as an artwork, perhaps without knowing the full story behind it.
Is the ongoing process of gentrification that’s taking place in Hackney at the moment relevant to the project?
The latest wave of gentrification is largely responsible for the structure being torn down. There are of course models from the past of residents taking over a piece of derelict land and turning into a proper park, People’s Park in Berkley, California being perhaps the most well known example, but it often takes a degree of political mobilization and organization that was probably beyond the residents at the time. That being said, a project like this could also be incorporated into the gentrification process – “luxury flats with a direct view of outsider art” – but it would at the very least prevent the space from becoming condos or a Tesco or whatever.
Is the location of the structure important to you at all or would it be equally interesting anywhere?
The project would inevitably be different if it was realized on an island in Stockholm’s archipelago instead of a densely populated and incredibly diverse, urban area like Hackney, but I don’t know if I would consider it less interesting. On a very basic level, what I find inspiring about the project is that a group of people, largely strangers, came together to continually build this structure without a blueprint or objective goal. The space it creates is inevitable heterotopic, to borrow a concept from Foucault. It is a counter-site, a place freed from the rationality of the market and any kind of instrumentality, a pure means without a predetermined or predictable end.
What are your main concerns in this project?
I think part of my initial fascination with the structure was the fact that I knew so little about it. Like I said, it’s the kind of thing you would expect to have been photographed and written about endlessly, and that it remained obscure for so long is extraordinary. My intention was never to do an exposé on the construction or to decipher the participants’ motivations. I’m not just documenting the structure: its history, creation, and demolition. I wanted to capture the mystery that always cloaked the structure for me: its stillness and its silence. I have never seen anyone actually working at the site so at times the structure has felt like an ancient ruin left by a distant civilization.
Why do you think they made the rule about silence? Was it just to prevent squabbling or was their rationale more profound?
When I mention the project to people it is usually the silence that people are most curious about: usually the extent to which this rule was enforced and what the exceptions might be. Could they use sign language or make gestures to each other? What if someone hammered their finger, could they scream? Didn’t they inevitably discuss it with fellow builders if they ran into each other on the bus or at the pub? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. The idea of working in silence seems to connote a kind of asceticism (vows of silence, etc.), but I’m not sure how much it was simply a practical question in the project’s early days.
Do you see the project as a social experiment or a sculpture or both?
It is certainly a social experiment in that it is, as far as I know, a completely novel method of constructing something collectively. Occasionally I see it as sculpture and sometimes more as architecture (in that it could be used as a jungle gym, or as a shelter), if that is a meaningful distinction. Of course since the architects/sculptures/carpenters decided not to speak about it (at least as far as I know), their intentions, or what they’ve accomplished and how they feel about it, it is difficult to say what exactly the results of this experiment have been.
Why do you think it was built?
I wouldn’t want to speculate. A large number of people took part in its construction over decades and I’m sure their motivations varied considerably. The participants’ agreement not to speak about the project prevented any kind of consensus from emerging and I don’t feel as though it’s my place to impose a justification or a rationale for the project. This is perhaps something for the viewer to ponder.