Artists Exhibitions USA

Sculptural skyscraper built through a legal loophole

Chris Burden’s four-storey "concept house" goes up in Pasadena and could come to New York

Chris Burden's Small Skyscraper (Quasi Legal Skyscraper), 2003, installed at Art Basel

A mini high-rise will go up in Pasadena next week when Chris Burden’s Small Skyscraper (Quasi Legal Skyscraper), 2003, is installed in the courtyard of the shopping and entertainment venue One Colorado. The four-storey, aluminium and plywood structure is a sort of “concept house” that isn’t meant to be inhabitable but plays with the idea of what is a liveable space, says Irene Tsatsos, the director of gallery programmes at the Armory Center for the Arts in Old Town Pasadena, which has organised the work’s display in California. It is due to go on view from 9 August until 11 November.

Burden was inspired to create the work through a loophole he found in the Los Angeles building code. “In 1991, I bought a piece of property [in unincorporated Los Angeles county]. It was absolutely raw, it didn't even have a road to it,” Burden says. “When we were building our house, I asked an architect what was the smallest building you could build without a permit. At the time it was 400 sq. ft, and the building height restriction was 35 feet.” That was the seed for the sculpture, but it wouldn’t get built until nearly ten years later, when the architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch of TK Architecture reached out to a number of artists, including Burden, to realise a series of fantastical design projects.

“When they approached me, I said I already knew what I wanted to do,” Burden says. The result was a lightweight, four-storey tower made of a pre-fab aluminium frame and floors of stacked two-by-four wood planks. “It was their idea to use unistrut tubing as the superstructure of the building.” Burden adds that at first, they considered developing it into an actual habitable structure, with sliding glass doors and a one-man elevator. “But I pulled back from that. I like it as more of a sculpture in the shape of a building,” he says. “It’s in that grey zone; it could be a building, but when Mr Inspector comes knocking you say, ‘Well, that’s not a structure, it’s art.’”

Tsatsos, who has been involved with the sculpture “since its inception”, first exhibited it at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2003 where it had to be installed sideways because of its height. The work was shown in all its towering glory in the Messeplatz at Art Basel in 2004, but this is the first time it has been installed as Burden intended in the US. Funding for the project has come from One Colorado and the National Endowment for the Arts, with support from the City of Pasadena Cultural Affairs Division.

Since it was cheaper to just buy new materials when the work was shown in Switzerland, rather than ship the existing work over, there are now two skyscrapers, Burden reveals. He would like to next show the pair together and there is some talk of bringing them to New York. Burden adds that when installed together, they somewhat resemble the Twin Towers.

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