Mineral hydration is a process in which water interacts with a mineral’s crystalline structure. This chemical reaction often occurs during metasomatism, a transformation of igneous or metamorphic rock by hydrothermal fluids. Mineral hydration can either destroy or create: it is a common weathering process that accelerates mineral decomposition, but also a means of developing new crystalline lattice structures. A mineral that readily forms such structures via hydration is copper sulfate (CuSO4), which is visible as a bright blue crystalline layer known as chalcanthite (or “copper flower”) in oxidizing copper deposits.
London-based artist Roger Hiorns became captivated by copper sulfate’s ability to precipitate within a chemical solution, because for him it represented nature determining its own aesthetic outcomes. He experimented with the material in works such as Copper Sulphate Chartres & Copper Sulphate Notre-Dame (1996) and Before the Rain (2003), in both cases growing a new skin of blue crystals on models of Gothic structures. Inspired by the architectural implications of the process, Hiorns set out to create a full-scale, inhabitable environment.
In 2008, the artist secured an empty apartment in Southwark, London and ordered two shipping containers of copper sulfate. After sealing the exterior of the flat, he filled the entire space with the blue powder and 75,000 liters of water. Hiorns allowed the mineral bath to sit for about a month, checking it daily for signs of positive growth. Draining the solution revealed a glimmering blue space encrusted with layers of triclinic crystals of copper sulfate pentahydrate (CuSO4·5H2O)—the physical outgrowth of the hydration reaction. Reminiscent of an ice cave mixed with an Yves Klein blue painting, Seizure is the result of a natural process applied at an immersive scale in uncontaminated form—as opposed to the relatively small, variegated manifestation commonly seen in nature.
When the Southwark flats were threatened with demolition in 2011, Seizure was relocated intact to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, sheltered by a new enclosure designed by architect Adam Khan. Unfortunately, Seizure will not retain its electric blue color in perpetuity, as a reverse process will eventually transform the crystals back to copper sulfate—a fitting end for an environment constructed by nature.
The story continues in Hypernatural, which explores architecture’s new relationship with nature.