The fantastical world of John Hejduk and the ‘Widow’s House’

Published 18 March 2022

An ambitious architectural installation is coming to the RA. Here, Kester Rattenbury sheds light on American architect John Hejduk and his visionary constructions.

  • From the Spring 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Kester Rattenbury is Professor of Architecture at the University of Westminster. Her books include The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect (Lund Humphries).

    Walking between the RA’s Burlington House and Burlington Gardens buildings, you will encounter a looming, ambiguous presence. Something like a grain store, a watchtower, a Japanese animated character. Too big for the space, almost pushing against the neat, well-lit ceiling of the McAulay Gallery; fierce, deadpan, maybe even comic. This is a roughly half-scale version of Widow’s House one of a troupe of 400 character buildings designed by the American architect John Hejduk. They featured in what he called ‘Masques’, a series of imaginary architectural performances which he devised and published in beautiful books. Some were built – often by others – around the world during his lifetime and after his death.

    Hejduk is one of those seminal figures in architecture, obscure to outsiders, but hugely influential. He is known less for his buildings (though they are notable) than for his imaginary constructions, and a broad form of educational culture which he pioneered. To those who knew him, he was a compelling, much-loved man – a towering six-foot-four New Yorker – who worked with the spirit of things, with meaning, resonance, darkness. More than simply a designer of buildings, he was the author of a world of imagination, which opened into painting, poetry, novels, particularly powerfully critical ones, by Kafka, Flaubert, Hardy (Hejduk also authored many books of poetry). And the appraisals of his work by his cast of international followers do the same, so that their own essays on Hejduk’s work read like tiny speculative novels in themselves. Hejduk opens a door into the interlocking realms of other people’s imagination. Trying to introduce his work is like trying to introduce a deep, unchartable forest, where it’s unclear what’s real and what’s imagined – or which is more powerful.

    His work is a type of subversive, submerged force, which percolates, through publication and through teaching, into the wider architectural and imaginative culture (for 25 years Hejduk was Dean at the prestigious Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York). Other architects have adopted his works as teaching and construction exercises (in this spirit, senior tutor Steve Jensen and students from the Royal College of Art, under the guidance of the Royal Academy’s Head of Architecture Vicky Richardson, contributed to the RA installation). The photographer Hélène Binet captured many of his constructions, some of which were shown in her recent show at the RA.

  • Hélène Binet, John Hejduk, The Riga Project: Object/Subject, Philadelphia, United States

    Hélène Binet, John Hejduk, The Riga Project: Object/Subject, Philadelphia, United States, 1987.

    Hand-printed black-and-white silver-gelatin print. 29 x 29 cm. © Hélène Binet.

  • Hejduk’s ‘Masques’ take their name from 16th- and 17th-century court performances, with their extravagant costumes and complex stage design with painting, sound and moving sets (Inigo Jones was a notable designer) and often without predetermined narratives. In labelling his own works as those elaborate, arcane, elusive enterprises, you can see Hejduk making a glorious statement of defiance against a sometimes banal, sometimes barbarous idea of reality – and a critique of how architecture itself works.

    The Royal Academy installation comes from Hejduk’s Lancaster/Hanover Masque, drawn between 1980 and 1982 and published in 1992 by the Canadian Center for Architecture as a beautiful illustrated book with foldout pages. It is something between a shooting script for an improvised film – where the actors’ interpretations may change things radically – and say, the Georgian landscape architect Humphry Repton’s ‘Red Books’, where proposals were also artworks in themselves. Like Hejduk’s other ‘Masque’ books, it acts as an interactive catalogue for staged possibilities, inviting the reader to imagine, or even build, the works for themselves.

    The setting that Hejduk gives for the Lancaster/Hanover Masque is a fictional one – ‘an isolated farming community’. The book then presents a catalogue of intense, cartoonlike drawings and paintings, interspersed with cryptic, sometimes darkly comic instructions. There is a cast list of 68 named ‘Subjects’ (characters), as well as associated ‘Objects’ (buildings, vehicles, or more mysterious props), with fragments of instruction, information or commentary. The names are suggestive: The Summer Visitor, The Weather Man, The Reddleman, The Keeper of Scare-Crows, The Suicide. Each Subject has one allocated Object with some directions about how one might use the other, and how we might read and connect them.

  • John Hejduk, Presentation drawing for the Lancaster/Hanover Masque

    John Hejduk, Presentation drawing for the Lancaster/Hanover Masque, 1980-1982.

    Coloured pencil and graphite on translucent paper. 92.4 x 153.5 cm. John Hejduk fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Permission granted by the Estate of John Hejduk.

  • The farming community is unplaced, but set out in a sort of diagrammatic and symbolic urban grouping. The Objects are anthropomorphic or creature-like, with articulated limbs or spiky haircuts that startlingly embody their narrative. The Scare-Crow House, for example, has a spiky, flame-shaped crown; its keeper sprinkles crucified scarecrows with birdseed and then sets them on fire with a flame thrower when the crows land on them. But they are also cartoon-clear evolutions of architectural types: factories, grainstores, barns, fairgrounds, towers, houses, with their architectural pedigree firmly stated in the texts. (Animal Hospital: “The ramp is based on those of the Chicago stockyards.” The Apartment Houses: “A six-storey walk-up construction based on a 1930s NY economy apartment house… Desirable because of location. It overlooks the Court House, the Prison House, the Church House and the Death House.”)

    The darkness is partly of its time, the mid-1980s when the Holocaust loomed large in architectural discourse. The vast game of Hejduk’s ‘Masques’ expresses both how architecture is made and what it does, both socially and imaginatively, both wonderful and terrible. There is comedy too – the Cross-Over House is a dwelling for someone who argues with himself, consisting of two replica houses facing each other which run on wheels along a track pulled by a pulley system. But generally any comedy is black. The Widow’s House installed at the RA provides a ‘Wailing Room’, with funnels on the roof ‘made by the Trombone Maker’ to release The Widow’s cries. She is the wife of The Accused, and occupies the building throughout her husband’s incarceration, vacating it on his execution for the next potential widow.

  • John Hejduk, Widow's House from Lancaster/Hanover Masque

    John Hejduk, Widow's House from Lancaster/Hanover Masque, 1980-1982.

    Black felt-tip pen on laid paper. 26.7 x 31.6 cm. John Hejduk fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Permission granted by Estate of John Hejduk.

  • The more you read, the darker this world becomes – a labyrinth with death at every turn, whose unexpected and direct connections into other imaginary worlds are themselves unredeemed. It takes time, belief, YouTube videos, conversations with those who knew him, to comprehend the warmth, generosity, intense and generous engagement with the human condition that this extraordinary work gives us.

    Yet behind this is something easier too. The physical works themselves are, simply, enjoyable. The drawings have the power of fairytales – the terrible and the beautiful and pleasurable combined. The built structures, though Transformer-like, seem less malign and more ambiguous, like Studio Ghibli’s beguiling Totoro or Catbus: powerful players which when propitiated, become an ally, have potential for delight. It’s also notable that his buildings seem to generate a benign feeling in unusual ways. (Hejduk said that the one thing architects could do which other people couldn’t was to give places or buildings a spirit.) They have the very same quality as his drawings, which is rarer in architecture than you might think.

    His IBA apartment blocks in Berlin, built in 1987 as part of the city’s reconstruction programme, include one building with a distinct sleepy giant’s face, achieved by window-placement and hooded balcony, making eyes and a nose. Then there’s the Wall House II in Groningen with its articulate unscrambling of modern house components – wall, stair, corridor, room, view – with a fantastic scooped-down window for looking at the view from bed. These buildings suggest an architecture that can put the user in a position of transcendent delight.

    So the installation at the McAulay Gallery is part of an ongoing, larger work of architecture, or perhaps a dramatic architectural performance, where collaborators around the world – typically architects who also teach – are still building and performing his mysterious work for him. Each time they crop up around the world – in London, Berlin, Norway, China – visitors and participants become players in this great architectural masque which Hejduk devised. I warned you this was a deep forest. A rich, dark, labyrinth of the senses and the imagination. Come in and lose yourself.

    John Hejduk London Masque runs from 22 March 2022 – 21 May 2023 in the Ronald and Rita McAulay Gallery, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

      Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door. Why not join the club?