Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
British sculptor Cornelia Parker draws inspiration from two masterworks for her installation—and apprehension about urban progress.
The roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the choicest venues in the city, because 1) it’s the frickin’ Met, and 2) it offers such spectacular views of New York’s skyline. Cornelia Parker, a British sculptor, recognized it for the opportunity that it is.
“When I was offered to make something for this great spot on the roof, I was very daunted, because the skyline is so amazing,” Parker says in a video on the Met’s website. “So I thought I wanted to put something architectural on the roof, kind of in congress, a domestic house.”
Faced with the intimidating prospect of a major Met commission, Parker chose to lean all the way into intimidation by re-creating the house from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho.
As Parker explains, her thought process unfolded linearly. She thought first to put a red barn on the roof, a potent (and cliched) symbol of Americana. That was too large. She says that she was also thinking about House on the Railroad, a 1925 painting by Edward Hopper. It is said that this painting was the inspiration for the creepy old Victorian that serves as the brooding manse in Pyscho. So following A to B to C, Parker decided to reclaim parts from red barns to re-create the Bates Motel on top of the Met. Just as the house appeared on set, her installation is illusory, with just two completed faces propped up by stilts.
For Hopper’s part, he made his painting after a Victorian house in Haverstraw, near his home of Nyack, in New York. Looking at that painting, it’s plain that Hopper and Hitchcock were inspired by one common fact—not architecture, but rather transportation.
The house in Hopper’s painting is cut off by a railroad. It betrays a certain ambivalence about progress and transformation, juxtaposing two powerful symbols of 19th century America: the Victorian mansion and the railroad. The house is obscured, perhaps even obliterated by the rail. Certainly the painting is not a celebration of America’s rapid urbanization after World War I, rendered as it is in Hopper’s toxic greens and volcanic reds.
Hitchcock’s Psycho also tells a story about the perils of progress. Marion, played by Janet Leigh in the film, flees Phoenix after stealing money from her employer. To evade capture, Marion ditches the highway—then still a new product of the Interstate Highway System—and takes to country roads. These she winds until, exhausted, she seeks refuge at the Bates Motel, a place that has been cut off and left behind by the progress of the Eisenhower administration. When she checks in, she is the first guest that the hotel has had in months.
Perhaps Parker, too, is uncertain about the pace of change and the loss of history. It might be reading too much into the piece to say that she has identified the same theme as Hopper and Hitchcock before her. But looking at Manhattan’s rapidly changing skyline, especially the towers along Billionaire’s Row just south of the park, it is easy to summon the sense of apprehension that change always inspires.