A House to Watch the Sunset | Not Vital

At the start of Stanley Kubrick’s film, '2001: A Space Odyssey', a group of apes discover a huge, black monolith – basically, a giant domino – in the middle of the desert. The apes don’t understand it; nor do we, the viewers; and nor do the astronauts of the future, later in the film, who study this alien object from out of the blue. 

Swiss artist, Not Vital, has created a series of site specific structures, titled ‘House to Watch the Sunset’, which have the feel of Kubrick’s monolith. All around the world – from the desert city of Agadez to the Brazilian Amazon, the Swiss Mountains, the Mongolian Steppes, and a Venetian church – Not Vital’s extraordinary structures have been popping up, each made from materials that reflect their surroundings: red clay for the desert, wood for the Amazon, rough concrete on the mountains, and glistening aluminium in the church. 

Not Vital, House to Watch the Sunset, 2005, Mud, straw and dung, 13 m (H), Aladab, Niger, Photo: Not Vital Studio.

These structures – 13 metre-high buildings, layered across 3 storeys and accessed via an external staircase – may have the bizarre quality of Kubrick’s monolith, but the unsettling undertone has been stripped away. Instead, these structures are about the pure joy of reaching new heights to watch the setting of the sun. Far from alien, Not Vital's buildings are all about what it means to be human.

Not Vital, House to Watch the Sunset, 2021, Aluminum, 13 m (H), Photo: Eric Gregory Powell.

On the one hand, these structures look ancient – like Babylonian ziggurats or Medieval fortifications, complete with towers and ramparts. There’s even something organic about them, as if they’ve sprung up out of their natural surroundings.

Not Vital, House to Watch the Sunset, 2018, Concrete, 13 m (H), Tarasp, Switzerland, Photo: Eric Gregory Powell.

Yet, at the same time, these buildings seem impossibly futuristic – imagine stumbling across one in the middle of nowhere. You might need someone to pinch you, to be sure you weren’t dreaming.

Not Vital, Chapel, 2016, Concrete, 7.3 x 16 x 13 x m, Bataan, Philippines, Photo: Eric Gregory Powell.

Imagine stumbling across one in the middle of nowhere. You might need someone to pinch you, to be sure you weren’t dreaming.

That’s because Not Vital’s work seamlessly straddles art and architecture – these are buildings, in a sense, but they’re also not, strictly speaking. Because, first and foremost, they’re works of art – installations for the viewer to engage with, out in the open. They’re a reminder that art can be functional; and that architecture isn’t always basically useable – and that, when the two meet in the middle, the result can be breathtaking. 

Not Vital, Makaranta, 2003, Mud, straw and dung, 6.5m (H), Agadez, Niger, Photo: Not Vital Studio.

Words by Mae Losasso

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