Preserving History with Life-Sized Architectural Prints
March 13, 2012
The built environment renews itself in waves, whether we like it or not. Though some cities have done better than others to preserve traces of the architectural past, in our present economic era, any living or built organism that fails to prove its purpose risks eradication. It’s an uphill battle for architectural preservationists, and more often than not, buildings that capture an outdated zeitgeist are deemed obsolete and replaced.
The Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia, built in 1896, is one such structure. Taking the design of the wheel-and-spoke panopticon pioneered at John Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Holmesburg likewise fell into disuse, and in 1995 it closed its doors and quickly fell into disrepair. How does one preserve a work architecture that faces impending ruin? Artists and art conservationists Patricia Gómez and Maria Jesus González took up the challenge during their artists’ residency at Holmesburg Prison.
Their approach was to use a technique known as strappo, a procedure developed for removing frescoes that involves the application of glues and fabrics onto the walls. Once set, the applied film is peeled away, effectively transferring the flaking paint of the abandoned vaults directly onto massive sheets of canvas. As the artists told Philagrafika, “The wall is ‘marked by accidents—through the passing of time and use—that create the image. These traces and accidents are the signature of time, representing social, historical, and sentimental information that could disappear.”
The technique allows the artist to ‘print’ architectural spaces, creating to-scale images of historic interiors. Despite their inevitable abstraction of the original spaces, the canvases capture some of the building’s pure geometries along with the layered aesthetic details of its long tenure. Gómez and González were careful to specify their unique form of preservation as a branch of printmaking rather than mural removal, viewing the paint itself as a mutable surface “imprinted by time and vital experiences” and, in its final stage, grafted onto a receptive blank surface.
The canvases are currently on view at a show called Doing Time | Depth of Surface at the Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design until March 17.
[Video and images via Philagrafika]