Rachel Whiteread, artist
In 1990, when I was in my late 20s, I made a sculpture called Ghost: a plaster cast of a Victorian living room. Next I thought, “I’d like to build a whole house.” It seemed like a crazy idea. It would cost thousands – and who would fund it? Then James Lingwood came into my studio for a cup of tea. He had just taken over as director of the arts organization Artangel alongside Michael Morris and was in very good spirits. “Is there anything you would like to do?” he asked, so I mentioned the house idea. He immediately said yes.
The one we found, at 193 Grove Road in east London, wasn’t empty: a guy named Sydney Gale lived there with his daughter. He was a wonderful character. Bow Council had been trying to get him out for years, but he didn’t want to be housed in a high-rise. Eventually they found him in another Victorian house I think. He was amused by the idea but interested. He’d been a home improvement fanatic in the 1970s and had spent a lot of time tidying up the house: installing a bar, hanging different wallpaper on each wall, and so on.
Manufacturing wise, House wasn’t a complex idea. The form – the house itself – already existed, so the task was to build a building within this building. We created a new foundation, removed the interior trim, took the roof off, created a metal armature to support the new structure – and then filled the house with concrete. The complex thing was finding the right material to spray onto the walls so the concrete wouldn’t stick when we tried to remove them. It was messy and exhausting – and the whole thing took months. We started in August 1993 and didn’t finish until the end of October. The other difficult thing was making sure there wasn’t a break-in. A poor security guard basically had to live there for months.
House felt autobiographical: I grew up in a very similar house in north London. But it also had this connection to everyone’s lives. It also had a political aspect. We just came out of a recession and there was so much debate about housing and the cost of living. Actually no different than now.
The lease the council gave us was a temporary lease, so I always assumed House would be demolished. Charles Saatchi offered to put it on wheels and take it to his gallery. But I didn’t want that. This was his location and this is where he should stay. However, there was nothing nice about coming down. It was traumatic. But I’ve kept it to myself in the work I’m doing now. And I’m proud that so many people have memories of it.
James Lingwood, co-director, Artangel
We really had to walk around the houses to find House. Rachel had a few parameters: she wanted to do this piece in London because that’s where she grew up. She also wanted it to be north or northeast because that was the part of town she knew best. Then we had to find a house that was slated for demolition. And ideally, we needed a location that was visible from all four sides. Coincidentally, the place we ended up working on was part of a patio, but most of the patio had already been demolished. It was the right thing.
We were lucky with the first people we approached in the council: they were open to the idea. There were also antagonists, but actually that happened everywhere. The house became the lightning rod for all these different currents: housing was a pressing issue then as it is now, and some people immediately asked why we spend all this money turning a house into a sculpture instead of keeping it as a home. Art in public space always makes waves. But we were surprised at how divisive it got: there were press reports, opinion columns, televised debates, everything. The media portrayed it as a battle between locals and artists, but in fact there were differing opinions even on the same street. Some people hated it; others were really touched.
We always thought of House as temporary, but so many people came to see it that we tried to extend the lease. The council initially voted against it. But the vote took place on the same day Rachel was presented with the Turner Prize, November 23, 1993, so there was an outcry. They gave him a little more time, but only until January. Then it worked.
Did I want it to stay? I always felt the whole thing was a memorial to the idea of memory, and memory is elusive. So I figured it would be more resonant if it was transient. It looked so otherworldly – this pale grey, mute figure. Over time it would have attracted graffiti and looked more derelict. And monuments tend to disappear into their surroundings. I’m not sure we would still be talking about it almost 30 years later if it had stayed that way.
That means when I walk past the site, I remember that it’s still there. Technically, that’s it, I suppose: it’s rubble under the grass. But everyone who has seen it has their own image, even some who have not seen it. That’s one of the most beautiful things.