Sculptures like Towers – the artwork of Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916 – 2017) - 7 Architects in Practice

Choucair's sculptures had been gathering dust in her apartment in Beirut for many decades before they were finally displayed in an exhibition at Tate Modern in 2013. One hundred and sixty artworks were packed up and shipped to London, where they were carefully reassembled for the exhibition. The show afforded Choucair the international recognition she deserves, not only as an artist, sculptor and writer, but as an architect too.

Choucair began her training as an artist by studying with landscape painters in Lebanon. She then moved to Paris for three years, where she worked in Léger's studio and surrounded herself with members of the Atelier d'Art Abstrait. She developed an interest in Modernist architecture, and visited Corbusier's Unité d'habitation while it was under construction, photographing the repetitive concrete structure and colourful interiors.

Indeed Choucair's early paintings took on Modernist themes, combining these with her in depth knowledge of Arabic visual language. The works considered the repetition and movement of lines and curves, while balancing forms and colours in controlled, energetic compositions. However her explorations of these ideas did not stop at painting, and it is her experiments in sculpture which speak directly of her architectural sensibility.

This preoccupation with modularity and repetition became integral to Choucair's sculptural works. Infinite Structure is a stacked tower of tufa stone blocks, which are punctuated by rectangular or circular holes. These are arranged in unique compositions, balancing similarity with difference, and repetition with deviation from the standard. The sculpture rises to 2.5 meters tall when arranged vertically, with each piece reading as if an apartment in a tower block. While the architecture is repeated floor by floor, the life inside the tower is different at every level.

Choucair's Poems series developed this idea. These sculptures can be stacked and restacked into new configurations. As the artist herself explained, each part of the sculpture is like a stanza of Arabic poetry, in that it may stand alone or interlock with others to be read as a whole.

The assembled sculptures are deliberately ambiguous in terms of scale. They can be seen both as abstract art pieces, and model prototypes for large-scale high-rise blocks. Sculpture with a Thousand Pieces is perhaps most recognisable as a high-rise tower, with the horizontal banding of what may be floor slabs, and the vertical repetition of brise soleil across the facade. And yet Choucair adopted this model as a lamp at her apartment, with a bulb hung in the centre of the structure. What could be a tower becomes a piece of domestic furniture.

Whether Choucair's sculptures are intended as architectural prototypes, or as abstract compositions, they speak of an interior life, disrupting the module and creating art that, like architecture, is always in the making. Art, Choucair once said, should be a living, architectural reality.

Alex Butterworth - 6a Architects

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