interview with alex chinneck on take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
all images courtesy of alex chinneck




on october 2nd, 2014, british artist alex chinneck will suspend reality with his latest architectural intervention, installed at london’s covent garden. ‘take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’ sees a section of the market building seemingly levitate over the piazza, providing the illusion that a 40-foot-long edifice has simply broken from its stone base and floated into the air.


the installation requires a team of over 50 professionals comprising consultants, tradesman, engineering and construction in its structural craft, paint and build. as chinneck prepares for the upcoming reveal of his monumental work, he spoke to designboom about the project’s cultural and historical references, themes of architectural manipulation and what it takes to pull off a large-scale intervention in one of the world’s busiest cities. 

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
the installation is modeled on the original architecture of the 184-year old market building




DB: can you tell us a bit about the idea behind your latest installation, ‘take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’?


AC: the sculpture is located on the eastern side of covent garden piazza in london. we have manufactured a 1:1 replica of a stone building also contained within the square but created the illusion that the top half of this building has torn from its base and floated into the air. no ties, tethers or supports will be visible to the public, who will be free to walk beneath the 12 meter wide by 10 meter high levitating structure. the project combines art, architecture, theatre, construction, engineering and magic, taking a very complex path to a surreal but hopefully spectacular moment.


DB: where did you draw reference from for this project?


AC: I drew my reference from the place in which the artwork will stand. the work is born from and belonging to covent garden piazza and so the visual and material decisions have always been made with the districts architectural language, theatrical heritage and broad visitor demographic in mind. I have allowed the context to define the concept so the outcome harmoniously intertwines with the surroundings despite its significant size. this philosophy underpins my approach to public art.

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
architectural details mimic the scale and materials of the surrounding architecture in london




DB: what is the significance of the title?


AC: given their scale and complexity, my projects demand thorough planning, administration and logistical management. the title is one of my last places for abstraction so I indulge in the opportunity. the thunder and lightning comes from the two separated sections of the building — they are forever together but always apart. I also liked how the silhouette of the cracked architecture shared the aesthetic of a lightning bolt. the narrative of the installation has a cataclysmic feel and thunder and lightning typically accompany such a theatrical scenario. I incorporated the saying ‘steal my thunder’ as I like to include common expressions in my titles to lend them a pleasing familiarity. the hovering section suggests as though it is floating away but the dense stone base feels extremely grounded, hence the request take one but leave the other.

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
a 1:1 replica of a stone building is to be contained within the square




DB: what about the manipulation of architecture interests you most?


AC: art has the capacity and license to re-imagine, re-present and reinvigorate the world around us and so architecture is a brilliant canvas for creative exploration and distortion because it surrounds and contains us. I like how creative practise can make the everyday world feel momentarily extraordinary and by theatrically manipulating familiar architectural scenarios this is what I try and hope to do.


DB: how does that motivate you to intersect your artistic practice with the built environment?


AC: I’m in a period where I like to operate in the public realm. I like the size and breadth of audience it offers. my sculptures use the materials, processes and scale of the built environment and so it makes sense that I integrate them into that arena.

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
a team of over 50 professionals work on the sculpture’s structural craft, paint and build




DB: your works often toy with the perception of space and structure, and invite the audience into a sort of alternate architectural reality. how do you want to viewer to feel when they experience your installations? is their reaction the responsibility of public art, in your opinion?


AC: the work I produce is complex in process but novel in nature and so the outcomes look to physically astound but playfully engage the public. I distort and defy reality because there’s something optimistic about challenging our perception of impossible, even if it’s just for a moment. I therefore hope to astound, amuse and uplift anyone that encounters my work.

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
material decisions have been made to relate to the district’s existing architectural language




DB: how much goes into making a large-scale installation like ‘take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’?


AC: my determination to realize these projects dominates every moment of my life but I find great pleasure in progress and creation. at present, I’m also constructing a full-size house made from 7500 wax bricks that will melt over 30 days. I certainly no longer have a social life but it’s a simple sacrifice.


DB: what kind of production, modeling and construction team does it require?


AC: my ideas are always beyond my means and capacity to realize them. I therefore play the role of a project manager and collaborate with a spectrum of companies, consultants and specialists. the production team for this project includes structural engineers (smith & wallwork engineers), architectural consultants (united projects), planning consultants, steelworkers (severfield rowen), carpenters (scott fleary productions), carvers (cordek), scenic artists (richard nutbourne scenic studio), 3D modelers and 5-axis robots. the number of people involved in this project has been vast and comfortably beyond 100 contributors. without the experience, expertise and enthusiasm of these parties this project would be unquestionably unachievable.

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
the familiar architecture of the historic site is reimagined in an alternate structural reality




DB: if you could conjure up a scenario of the most ideal site to work with, which specific building/structure/landmark would that be?


AC: I’m currently developing a windmill that has seemingly fallen from its base so that one of its sails has become fixed into the ground. the sails will no longer turn but instead the entire building will rotate. my ideal site place is wherever this works best. 

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
craftsman work with a host of tools in the project’s craft and completion

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
alex chinneck during construction

alex chinneck interview take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder
artist’s impression of ‘take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’