The lights are on but there's no one home

April 1, 2005

'The work seems to capture the collective of office work on a monumental scale'

The recognition of genius is seldom instant. And, admittedly, those behind the astonishing piece of conceptual art recently erected in the heart of Victoria in London have made no explicit declaration of intent to alert the casual viewer as to its nature.

Yet, given the unsurpassed scale and ambition of what is, in my opinion, a masterpiece, it seems tragic that thousands of people can walk past the 110m glass cliff that is Belgrave House each day without a second glance.

It has been some weeks since this structure was completed and I remain aghast at its audacity. While it looks for all the world like another high-quality office development, to the expert eye it is clear that it is nothing less than a Mount Rushmore of our times, where penpushers rather than presidents are celebrated for their power and influence.

And here's the genius - every empty floor of the installation is starkly illuminated at night to expose the absence of the penpushers, highlighting their inherent anonymity by their very lack of presence.

Squires and Partners - the creative team behind Belgrave House - describe it simply as a "steel-framed building clad in a mix of Portland stone, limestone and glass, with the street elevation clearly expressing the structural grid", leaving the critic to reveal the meaning suspended within that conceptual frame.

When they tell us only of "organising the facade as a series of 9m bays" to "break down its scale and create a strong rhythm", it is for the scholar to give voice to that music composed for clattering word processor, chiming telephone and bubbling water cooler.

But look up at the virginal white floors that seem to recede into infinity.

They are undivided by any partition wall, unlittered by wastepaper bins, unnoticed by any yellowing memo. This is the clerical Elysium Fields to which so many will ultimately be transferred. They will enter through the highest revolving doors in Europe to be greeted by the attendants who presently protect only the emptiness that surrounds them.

Is it a coincidence that this installation goes on display so soon after the Government announced the imminent expulsion of tens of thousands of civil service office workers from the capital, many of whom work in the streets that surround Belgrave House? Its creators, typically, do not say.

They tell us nothing of their purpose.

But the work seems to capture the collective identity of office work on a monumental scale, pulling us into unwitting participation as our gaze strides the yawning sculptural tableau.

Where Absalon's cells confine, Belgrave House sets us free. Its 32,000m² are, by some measures, 8,000 times better than the 4m² of Tracey Emin's Ev eryone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 . And its enclosure of space is the very negative of Rachel Whiteread's House , famously cast from an East End terraced home.

Of course, Whiteread has yet to reveal how she will fill the Tate Modern's cavernous turbine hall this autumn. Could her next work be called Office , moulded from the space within Belgrave House?

Yet without a single word to suggest that Belgrave House really is art, those who created it must rely on the viewer's wit to understand what it is really all about.

Raif Loopl, Thomas Chatterton professor of interpretation, Institute of Dialectical Interpretation Through Sculpture, London.

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