City of Bits 2 (2016) - Detail

City of Bits 2 (2016) - Detail

Multilayered and multidimensional, the drawings of Oliver Houchell have developed out of his career in architectural theory and practice, and yet they push the very concepts of architectural space and structure into radical and ambiguous territory. Ideas of mapping, civic space and modular construction are translated into dense, meticulous compositions whose technical precision belies their openness of signification. Minimalist concepts of repetition and seriality are brought into dialogue with a conceptualist distillation of the urban world (echoing the practices of artists as diverse as Stephen Willats and Constant). At the same time, Houchell’s drawings are highly personal – at times almost autobiographic – ‘journeys’ through time and the city.

Throughout Houchell’s recent drawings, the grid recurs both as a compositional motif and a conceptual touchstone. The grid is emphatically something to be seen (rather than merely seen through) – a pervasive, autonomous structure spreading across each composition. But it is also a way of seeing – an organising principle, like one of the ‘drawing grids’ depicted by Dürer – that frames the chaotic reality behind it, distilling that reality into compartments or modules. Traversing the surfaces of his works in rectilinear or trapezoid formats, Houchell’s grids are in this way expressions both of ‘surface’ and depth – flat configurations reminiscent of the tesserae of mosaics (a resemblance that is especially vivid in his digitally-processed ‘City of Blocks’ drawings), but also deep structures through which he probes the topographical and anthropological layers of the city.

Houchell’s recent ‘City of Bits’ series, exhibited in Broadway Market in summer 2017, employs the grid as a means of orientating – or perhaps disorientating – urban space. Aerial plans of city centres have been pared down to fine, broken outlines of buildings. These fragmentary outlines intersect with the grids: sections of buildings and thoroughfares seem to latch onto the mathematical superstructure, or to twine around the gridlines like creepers around a trellis. The grids are readymade structures – perfectly-ruled systems of lines adopting orthogonal, polar or isometric patterns; whereas the buildings – hand drawn and built up in layers of transparent film – are flickering and fragmentary. 

In one work, a ‘polar grid’ – a radial structure emanating from a central point – is interthreaded with a minimalist ground-plan of central London. The wriggling, intricate outlines of anonymous buildings intersect with the concentric rings of the grid, so as to appear like quivering lines on a seismograph. The centripetal lines of the grid, converging on a bulls-eye point, seem at ironic odds with the urban ground plan (which has no single centre or origin); and yet Houchell produces an unlikely sense of convergence between the mathematical and manmade structures. In this way, Houchell’s grids work both to codify the urban sprawl – ‘containing’ or ‘meshing’ it within a system – and contrarily, to compound its unruliness: the grid can appear to be blowing the structures of the city apart, fracturing and dispersing them. The grid in this sense underscores the arbitrariness and flux of the city itself – its de-centredness. 

Occasionally, Houchell creates visual ‘pauses’: the circumferences of buildings are emptied of content, becoming vacant shell-like spaces within the visual cacophony of gridlines and outlines. At these moments, the relentless uniformity of the grid (its cool clarity and consistency) are interrupted – broken – by empty space. These visual pauses help to create an almost musical alternation in Houchell’s work – between silent phases and the intricate, ‘syncopated’ elements of grid and map.

Composing his works from palimpsest-style layers, Houchell thus engineers a tension between ‘real life’– London, its buildings, and their strange combination of orderly and arbitrary arrangement – and the ‘unreal’: a sense of the abstract, the non-dimensional, and even the irrational. His works often tilt towards pure abstraction, suggesting an explosion of Constructivist geometry (a meticulously controlled explosion); and yet the real-life referent hovers somewhere between the layered sheets. In a number of works, the empty space carved by the river Thames reminds us of their ‘real’ subject matter. In the subgroup ‘A Course’, the meandering line of the river – bordered by the crenulations of manmade structures – becomes an isolated motif, isolated on a blank sheet. 

Throughout ‘City of Bits’ – and in much of Houchell’s wider practice – there is an enduring and pointed contrast between concrete reality – hard matter – and its opposites, the unresolved and immaterial. The title ‘City of Bits’ aptly encapsulates this dualism, reflecting not only the disjoined architectural structures spreading across the drawings, but the idea of a city smashed into smithereens, robbed of good working order. Lurking within the grids, and beneath the fastidious care of Houchell’s lines, is an impulse towards the anarchic.

Copyright James Cahill 2017