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Masterclass: Design for Crime

In the framework of the exhibition The Crime Was Almost Perfect, an exhibition linking art and the aesthetics of crime, Witte de With presents a Master Class with Alexandra Midal.

Join us for this Master Class which investigates the crossroads between design and crime. By exploring the figure of the murderer as a designer of the extreme, and how banal objects can be turned into murder weapons, we will take on the role of the detective, our aliases for the occasion, in which we will wrap thoughts and speculations. During the Master Class participants attempt to go through examination, as well as the deadlocks and breakthroughs, and reconnect with the etymology common between the investigator and historian all that “being a critic means that one is ready to become a criminal, or at least that one is ready to actively look at crime.” (1)

A few years ago, scanning the library of one of my teachers, I came across the book Serial Killers by Mark Seltzer, and after flipping through a few pages about the infamous Winchester House, I discovered quite by surprise a place much less known, a ‘castle’ built by H.H. Holmes in Chicago in 1886. Holmes was neither architect nor designer, but the plans for the building showed a surprising capacity to divert the most banal of spaces and objects into something more than functional. Selzer explained that it was at the intersection of two streets; a former waste ground left vacant by the great fire that ravaged Chicago in 1871. Holmes had built an imposing house that his neighbors nicknamed ‘the castle’.

Each of the floors had around 36 rooms and the ground floor included a drugstore, a restaurant, and even a jewelry store… an effort on his part to show how he had indeed attained all the respectability that he had hoped for. Behind the labyrinth of odds and ends and everything in between, narrow passages, staircases, doors and secret rooms, hidden passageways and trap doors, a windowless room that can be emptied of air, or even a soundproof feature -ingenious devices, a project which unveiled the morbidity of a person whose name has long been replaced by the first serial killer of the United States.

This ‘castle’ that H. H. Holmes finished in 1893 was built with the unique idea for the execution of criminal acts and was essential because it was full of devices: ovens, hatches and other ‘machines’ allowing the comfortable and discreet performance of murder. In contrast to the buildings of the time, the distribution of different architectural parts were disorganized spaces, and was primarily based on a proliferation of technological devices to serve deadly objectives.

(1) Jean-Michel Rabaté , Étant donnés : 1.l’art, 2. le crime – La modernité comme scène du crime, Presses du réel, 2010, p. 25

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