When Thomas Hillier was first studying he was engaged in what he described as “quite simple down-the-line architecture,” but by the time his studies were complete he was interested in architecture as a form of spatial narrative. “I began to think about telling the narrative of the people, how they affect the space, and how this story develops not only in the architecture but how it actually creates the architecture.” Hillier realized that beginning a project by creating characters was a way of escaping the restrictions of site and context. “Being the author allows you to play, and now it’s something I try and do all the time.” Evidence of his playing around was on exhibition at RAW Gallery in Winnipeg from March 1 to April 1, 2012.
Hillier’s narrative invention has led him to the story of Mel and Judith, an English couple who begin a new life in Luxor, Egypt where Mel brews bathtub beer and Judith bakes rose bread in her bread garden. Their manor took the form of a cross-cultural lampshade. In The Emperor’s Castle he found another way to give narrative a spatial form, although in this case his point of departure was a woodblock print by Ando Hiroshige, the 19th-century Japanese printmaker. Hiroshige’s print tells the story of a frustrated love affair between a princess and a cow herder. Hillier takes the characters and presents them as pieces in an architectural frame that partakes of the floating world at the same time that it picks up the appearance of modern and contemporary art, including nods to Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass and Lee Bontecou. There is as well, a hint of surrealism in the work. “Architecture is and always has been the invention, representation and manifestation of our dreams and desires,” he writes in his artist’s statement. Not surprisingly, Hillier has a close affinity to Sarah Sze and her dreamlike sculptural installations. “Sze was someone I did look at while I was producing The Emperor’s Castle. I like the fun in her work but there are also these spatial connotations, especially with the staircases she runs up the sides of buildings. They are really lovely pieces, but they make you question what you’re looking at, both as space and as art.”
More and more, Hillier’s architecture is a form of narrative self-portraiture. “My projects begin in architecture but they aren’t about reality. They’re about a story that comes to life–maybe exists or maybe doesn’t.” He views The Emperor’s Castle as more formal and resolved. “But with Mel and Judith I can always continue with kitsch and Britishness. In that regard, Mel and Judy have more play.” Hillier thinks of them as “a simple story come to life, based on my family and where I come from.” He already has plans for the appearance of other characters in the narrative.
He holds the notion that both technological advances and a changing attitude (both within and outside the profession) have meant there is more likelihood that fantastic projects will be at least considered, if not developed. He points to the work of Zaha Hadid, which was once considered radical, and has now become quite conventional. “Getting people’s ideas outside of their heads is a lot easier than it was.”