John Hejduk’s gothic optimism
In her exhibition, London Masque, Royal Academy Head of Architecture and Heinz Curator Vicky Richardson has displayed architect John Hejduk’s work alongside drawings and student models. Writer and architect Eddie Blake paid a visit to see how Hejduk’s modernist, sculptural and conceptual ideas translate into a gallery setting, and what they speak to today.

So much writing by architects is either self-promotional spin, or thin provocation. Even this article perhaps? But nothing written by John Hejduk ever gives that impression - the content of his writing (chaos, voids, suicide, widows) is a bad fit for self-promotion, the delivery almost always ambivalent, and the provocation is deep and complex.

Ambivalence is hard. It’s not easy to be absolutely both sides of any discussion, but perhaps for John Hejduk it came naturally. This exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy combines writing, drawing, and a new installation – it is both menacing and benevolent. The installation looms, industrial like a grain silo, while also appearing inviting and humane. It’s the latest work of his to be resurrected from his archive, an act of displaying parts of his posthumous body of work following his death in 2000.

As you walk through the Academy, up the stairs towards the McAulay Gallery, you see the installation’s punk-klaxon horns scraping the ceiling, and as the rest of the installation rises into view, you’re confronted with a military pillbox slot. The curator, Vicky Richardson, has centered the work on the stair, creating the imposing reveal. This gothic mute is named Widow’s House. The sculpture appears in the Academy as part of the show London Masque, a reimagining of small elements of the Lancaster/Hanover Masque (1980-82), itself part of a larger series of Masques. They take their name from the masque, a form of immersive entertainment, which combined architecture, drama, and music across the 16th and 17th centuries. ‘Widow’s House’ is an elevated shed, with a steep covered ramp, like a cement works conveyor, all in dark, dark grey.

Its name is a reference to the Widow’s Walk, a type of room built on top of New England seafarers’ homes as a space for wives—or expectant widows—to watch the sea for their husband’s return. In the book Hejduk published about this drawing, he imagines how the punk-klaxon horns on the roof are made by the “Trombone-Maker, a craftsman of refined detail”. There are sixty-eight named ‘subjects’ or characters in the Masque, as well as their associated ‘objects’. Although it’s tempting to unpick the strands, this art isn’t a code for you to crack, and on closer inspection sometimes all you find is more questions, with meanings crumbling into dust if you grip them too tightly. Hejduk hasn’t left a set of clues to solve, but rather embedded meanings which reward contemplation.

The Masques are an act of world building, they mark outlines and set down thematic strands for others to draw together and develop. They can be re-read and developed by audience/participators - like an intergenerational ‘choose your own adventure’. They contain inscrutable sketches of enigmatic forms, evoking industrial fragments and sinister, dreamlike pieces of watch towers appearing side-by-side with beast-like forms and beach huts. The Masques borrow architectural types, and juggle with them, sometimes inverting meaning. The whimsical worlds have some of Studio Ghibli, or Italo Calvino, but they also descend into infinite depths of melancholy, perhaps acknowledging the presence of the Holocaust so felt by his generation from all backgrounds by focusing on the dark impulses in us all, most notably in his piece “Victims”.

His drawings often considered architectural themes through a dark lens – his most famous, the New England Masque (1981), inspired by Stephen King's The Shining, charted alienation within a marriage. A previous piece of Hedjuk’s Masques, entitled House of the Suicide andHouse of the Mother of the Suicide, was originally built in Atlanta in 1990, then Prague in 1991. It honours Jan Palach, the Czech dissident who self-immolated against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In a twist of fate—one which both artists might have enjoyed—Francis Bacon is exhibited nearby in the Academy. Both men blur boundaries of man and animal. Man becomes more beastlike, perhaps undermining the high-minded rationalism of the modernist generation’s thinking about man’s affinity with machines, like Le Corbusier’s claim that “a houses is a machine for living in”. Beast also becomes more manlike, positioning an animal’s mind alongside human’s as a generous act, enlarging the scope of empathy through humanising animals while acknowledging our own bestiality.

Hejduk is known more for his drawings than his buildings, which are nonetheless remarkable. His drawn works often have an intensity which approximate the effect of his realised buildings but also stand on their own as completed thoughts. This quality can also be seen in his very different, but equally powerful Diamond Series, begun in 1962 and which used a kind of zero degree axonometric. He was an architect, but also mentor, collaborator, and teacher. As an educator, he was an intense promoter of freedom of thought and speech, creating original architectural pedagogy. Sometimes it seems his very self was the fertile soil others grew ideas in.

His first book, published in 1969, embarked him upon a career as artist-theorist, teaching an architecture loaded with emotional context, and proponent of architecture as vehicle for conveying meaning. Perhaps the ambivalence at the core of Hejduk’s work starts with the tension between being an architect (whose discipline must constantly project into the future, with a tendency for optimism) and something more like a writer or poet, having a deeply reflective personality with an interest on the psyche.

In Hejduk's direct, but also poetic words, from is inaugural speech at Cooper Union:

"I believe in the social contract therefore I teach. I believe that the University is one of the last places that protects and preserves freedom, therefore teaching is also a socio/political act, among other things. I believe in books and the written word, therefore I fabricate works with the hope that they will be recorded in books. I am pragmatic and believe in keeping records. I believe to record is to bear witness. The book I wrote, ‘Victims’, is to bear witness and to remember. I believe in the density of the sparse. I believe in place and the spirit of place."

Hejduk had a combination of very American ideals of freedom and fluidity of expression, bound up with an earnest belief in the emancipatory possibilities of high European culture. He moved in groups, but ultimately he’s in a school of one. He was associated with several milieux, starting with the Texas Rangers, a group of young architects who created an innovative school curriculum at the University of Texas School of Architecture. After the entire group was fired, Hejduk moved to New York as Professor of Architecture at the Cooper Union from 1964 to 2000. His arrival transformed architectural practice and critical thought, the university seemed to offer the stability to explore his architectural ideas. The transformation occurred through his collaboration with a series of important architect colleagues, including Eisenman and Scofidio.

The 1972 book Five Architects included Hedjuk into theNew York Five alongside Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Richard Meier, each part of the transition from late- to post-modernism. The New York Five were characterised by the white colour of their architecture and an uncritical stance to heroic modernists like Le Corbusier. Like much else culturally spawned in 1970s New York, the new spatial thinking that stemmed from the gang remain highly influential in contemporary culture.

His architecture evolved dramatically under the influence of high modernists, then later turning towards inscrutable mythology, and the influence of his late-era work is still growing. At its core is the breadth of human emotion, within dark gothic themes of levity, humour, and a post-Freudian psyche.

There was also a literary thread to Hejduk, within which he harboured obscurantist tendencies. In 1996 publication The Idea of the City, while Rem Koolhaas writes polemics about the atrium and Dalibor Vesely explores fragmentation, Hejduk writes a poem – direct, like a still life, obviously written by someone who had been reading Frank O’Hara.

The architectural historian K. Michael Hays described Hejduk's work as a two-way encounter, the objects in his Masques appearing "impossibly, to be aware of us, to address us. And yet we see not the gratifying reflection of ourselves we had hoped for but another thing, looking back at us, watching us, placing us"[1]. This kind of dynamic ambivalence is what makes Hejduk's work more literarythan his peers’, and post-modern in sensibility without becoming architectural Po-Mo.
Hejduk was unlucky – he missed out on that key quality that elevates significant architects to great architects: longevity. He was the first of the gang to die, in 2000 at the age of 70. Maybe death saved him. Hejduk avoided falling into the pomposity of the overblown classical and traditional later stages as contemporaries like Graves did. Perhaps his core concern with the radical potential of drawings also immunised him against that reactionary slide. Hejduk never got caught up in historicism or nostalgia of ideas like new urbanism as they started to coalesce by the likes of Leon Krier and Christopher Alexander. He was too busy synthesising influences as heterodox as Freud, Corbusier, or English folk art.

Hejduk doesn’t have wide name recognition to architectural outsiders, but is hugely influential within the discipline. He profoundly influenced a generation or two of students, including Daniel Libeskind and Liz Diller, who developed his wide oeuvre of different strands;the serious, dark, and everyday. Now, in the 2020’s, his work has a solid cult following among later waves of contemporary architects with postmodernist tendencies. Firms including Baukuh, SmoutAllen, FAT, OFFICE, Kersten Geers, David Van Severen, emerged from a generation of student acolytes across the US and Europe. His rare built work of Kreuzberg Tower and Wings (Berlin, Germany, 1988) is an obvious predecessor to the work of practices such as APPARATA, an emotional—as opposed to material—authenticity. This has made him a guiding light for those trying to separate from ubiquitous current trends of making and natural materials – Trends that focus on craft and the process of how buildings are put together, rather than architecture as a medium for communication.

Maybe Hejduk, in some senses, is inheritor of Ledoux and Boullée, the radical visionary French architects of the late 18th Century. But rather than their grandiose monomaniacal proposals, Hejduk’s utopian visions are heterodox and piece-meal. His work manages to be monumental, without projecting power. There is clearly a parallel between his aesthetic, narrative pluralism, and his collegiate approach to teaching and developing other people’s talents. The fact that his work has lingered, and sporadically been revived, suggests it has deep resonances for contemporary practitioners. The cult is helped by the growing oeuvre of posthumous installations like this one at the Royal Academy, along with his permanent posthumous buildings including Wall House II (Groningen, 2001) and House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide (Prague, monument installed 2016).

In a way his work is a clue to the next move in architecture. In a contemporary world where the animating ideas in architectural production are focused on optimism and material science, sidelining the gothic, sinister, and unnerving - Hejduk asks the emancipatory yet ambivalent: why can’t we have both?

[1] Architecture's desire: reading the late avant-garde by Hays K. Michael 

Eddie Blake is an architect and writer. He teaches at the London School of Architecture and has taught at the Royal College of Art, and the Architectural Association. He has practiced at Studio Weave and Sam Jacob Studio. He writes about architecture in the Guardian, Architectural Review, Vice & Metropolis among other publications.

John Hejduk was a key figure in late 20th century architecture. One of the New York Five and Professor and Dean of the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture in New York, he challenged the boundaries of the discipline by experimenting with poetry, painting, literature and drawing. He devoted  his career to teaching and used the masque structures to prompt questions by his students and encourage them to work together collectively to make buildings. The Widow’s House was built with permission granted by the Estate of John Hejduk.


John Hejduk: London Masque display is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 21 May 2023.
During the display, a series of presentations by students & young people will explore Hejduk’s Lancaster / Hanover Masque and the resulting models, with the theme ‘Building Worlds’ will be shown alongside the Widow’s House.


All photographs: Installation view of the John Hejduk: London Masque display at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (22 March 2022 - 21 May 2023). © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. Permission granted by The Estate of John Hejduk.

publication date
26 April 2022

Royal Academy, Architecture, Eddie Blake, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, GothicCharles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, London Masque, Richard Meier, Model, Modernism, New York Five, Vicky Richardson, Sculpture.


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