Crystal-encrusted apartment

 2008 09 Rog460
London artist Roger Hiorns covered every square inch of an abandoned apartment with blue copper phosphate crystals. Called "Seizure," it looks like a magical cave from some fantasy novel. From Shape And Colour:
After reinforcing the walls and ceiling and covering them in plastic sheeting, 80,000 litres of a copper sulphate solution was poured in from a hole in the ceiling. After a few weeks the temperature of the solution fell and the crystals began to grow. The remaining liquid was pumped back out and sent for special chemical recycling.
Roger Hiorns's crystal apartment (Thanks, Kirsten Anderson!)


  1. From the link:

    “If you’re in London, “Seizure” is open to the public until November 3, at Artangel at Harper Road.”

    Bugger – I would’ve loved to have seen that.

  2. I can see this on a future episode of ‘House’.

    “But this sort of copper poisoning couldn’t possibly be environmental! You’d have to cover every single square inch of your apartment in copper crystals to absorb that much copper!”

  3. Definitely sounds environmentally friendly…

    And costly…

    Who are these backers that go, you know that sounds pretty kick ass, here’s 80,000 liters of copper sulphate?

  4. Why do all the “artists,” live in apartments! It’s going to take forever for the landlord to scrap that stuff off. Next time, buy a house when you want to get creative ;-)

    1. buy a house when you want to get creative

      I lived in a rental house in San Francisco. I did so much wall painting that it looked like a Pompeiian villa after twelve years. The landlord loved it. When I moved, the new tenants were thrilled to live in a place that didn’t look like every other rental on the planet.

  5. I’ve been doing this but at a smaller scale. I’ve got several copper sulphate crystals that I have grown scattered around the house as decorations. They look cool and are interesting talking points. Very easy to grow, and copper sulphate is cheap.

    They are only 5-10cm or so large, but that’s quite easy to get.

    Copper sulphate is very toxic to fish and mould, but apart from that is fairly safe to handle. Don’t eat it, and don’t handle with wet hands and then have a sandwich, but even if you do it probably won’t do any harm. Look up the MSDS on it if interested.

  6. “fairly safe to handle”?

    Um, we are talking about BLUE VITRIOL here aren’t we?

    I got a microscopic flake of that stuff in my eye once (from blue crystals growing on a copper-plated lead-acid battery terminal) and after all the screaming and the running and the flushing with water and the crying and the cursing was all done, I understood why “vitriolic” is synonymous with “hurtful” and why bitchy syphilis-crazed absinthe-drinkers from de Maupassant stories were always trying to throw it into each others’ faces.

    Am I off track here? I’m not a chemist, but cross-referencing the article with wikipedia sure makes it sound like the solution was 80,000 liters of blue vitriol, which is a lot of caustic poison.. I wonder what the molarity was…


  7. About, oh… 35 years ago my brother Jeff drank copper sulphate solution that I was using for electroplating. He immediately threw up and was taken to the hospital. Today he’s a 39 year old Materials Scientist. I’m sure the poisoning itself had no effect on his academic and professional career but he says all of the mad scientist-y experiments I always had going on did inspire him.

  8. I remember making this stuff in my high school chem lab. Combine two clear liquids and it turns blue! Leave it overnight and it grows funky blue crystals! I can’t remember what, exactly, that was supposed to teach us, but it was certainly fun.

  9. Yes, I still love you all but I can only type with one hand until I extricate myself from under this immense heap of backlogged work.
    I’ll be back…

  10. So, is it copper sulphate or is it copper phosphate? [awaits some smart alec to tell him it’s the same thing.]

  11. Kleinzeit, It’s the same thing.

    No, i’m kidding, it isn’t.

    Back of envelope explanation: The copper sulfate was poured in. A reaction proceed with some other unmentioned compound (X-phosphate) in which the lower energy copper phosphate was formed (via an exothermic reaction, releasing the difference in energy state as heat).

    As the room full of solution cooled, the copper phosphate crystals were formed on every available imperfect surface, and afterwards the remaining solution (now X-sulfate) was removed and recycled.

  12. @1 “Bugger – I would’ve loved to have seen that.”

    Extended until 30 November 2008
    151 – 189 Harper Road, London SE1

  13. Strange that JG Ballard should be mentioned just a few items down. This is right up his crystal world alley.

  14. It’s going to take forever for the landlord to scrap that stuff off.

    Well, the article did say he covered the walls in plastic first….

    This is pretty cool. Bizarre as all get-out, but cool.

  15. When I was a kid, my favorite book was “The Silver Crown” by Robert C. O’Brien. It featured a cave covered in crystals like this…

  16. “It’s OK Ross! Just tell us where you are and we’ll follow you there!”

    I’m at the intersection of Nose and Grindstone, getting schooled in frustration through technology.
    Be back soon, though. Cheers.

  17. How toxic is copper?

    Copper is pretty toxic in large amounts. There is a disease called Wilson’s disease caused by abnormal copper metabolism. The copper builds up in the nerves and liver causing liver problems and schizophrenia like symptoms….like a delusion that you have to cover your entire apartment in copper for instance (just kidding).

    One thing I wonder about is how artists get the funding to do stuff like this. I mean it’s not like somone is going to buy a copper covered apartment to hang on their wall. I doubt many people would want to live in it. How would you sell it? Would you? Does he make his investment back by charging admission? Do people just donate to buy the apartment and materials? How does stuff like this work?

    I’m not saying that art should be about turning a profit but many pieces like this (and other “temporary” art) seem pricey to do and it would be hard to get your investment back.

  18. @Renwick: I’m not saying that art should be about turning a profit but many pieces like this (and other “temporary” art) seem pricey to do and it would be hard to get your investment back.

    No problem. After they get done selling tickets for the installation, they can go in with respirators and break it all apart and sell the bits (larger ones no doubt mounted on signed display stands) to collectors for a nifty profit.

  19. That’s funny… I blogged about this yesterday myself. It was featured in the most recent Elle Decor UK.

  20. Renwick:

    As per funding… I read that it was commissioned by an art foundation. I looked up the details:

    Roger Hiorns’ SEIZURE is commissioned by Artangel and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, in association with Channel 4. The work was selected through the Jerwood/Artangel Open, a commissioning initiative for the arts, which was launched in the summer of 2006 in association with Channel 4 and Arts Council England.

  21. I don’t think those are copper phosphate crystals. The bright blue color matches copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate. In the photos at Icon, you can see bags marked “sulfato di rame” (copper sulfate). My guess is that they made 80 kL of hot, saturated copper sulfate solution and pumped it into the room. As the solution slowly cooled, the solubility of the copper sulfate decreased and the hydrate crystals grew on the cooler walls.

  22. MSDS for Copper Sulfate

    Swallowing Toxic orally in accordance with FHSLA regulations. Acute oral LD50 (male rats) = 472 mg/kg.
    Skin Non-toxic. Skin irritation index is zero in accordance with FHSLA regulations.
    Eyes Corrosive in accordance with FHSLA regulations. Eye irritation score: 24 hours = 41.67; 48 hours = corrosive
    Inhalation Inhalation of dust may cause irritation to the upper respiration tract.
    Carcinogenicity None as per NTP, OSHA, and IARC.

  23. #14, Charlie:

    ‘Vitriolic’ is more to do with vitriol itself, which is sulphuric acid. The reason copper sulphate was called blue vitriol is because it can be produced by reacting copper with sulphuric acid.

    Sulphuric acid in the eyes would be even more painful.

    I agree with previous posters that the crystals look like copper sulphate, rather than phosphate; copper phosphate is green, not blue.

    Not only is copper sulphate only mildly poisonous (compared to, for example, lead paint), it tastes pretty nasty (sorry, #16). It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to eat enough of it to do themselves any real harm.

  24. I saw this a few weeks ago and thought it was amazing how much effort went into it (the 2 rooms were completely sealed and liquid copper sulphate was poured in from the floor above and left to cool for a few weeks)I guess my only criticism was that there was a missed opportunity to really make use of the effect by adding furniture or a dinner place setting in the room for example (both rooms were empty except for a bath in one room) it would have been interesting to see the effect of the crystals on the different surfaces ie a crystal glass on the table. I guess this might have conflicted with the meaning of the piece though.

    a few things:
    @#6 and #8: the small group of two storey apartments are about to be demolished.

    @#10: I don’t think it would be particularly poisonous (thanks #38!) but they do hand out gloves and rubber boots before entering

    @#33 it was free to enter the installation

  25. I’ve been to this twice now, as it’s almost on my way home. It’s very pretty, and quite calming too. You go into a side room first to change into rubber boots and gloves for protection. It’s free, and in the evenings fairly quiet — perfect for taking photos!

    To those wondering about how he got the property and how its owner feels or will manaage to sell it etc: it’s in a block of low-rise social housing scheduled for demolition early next year. Not sure if the demolition workers will need to take extra precautions, but other than that, no problem :)

  26. I visited this thing at the beginning of october… I have nothing to add on a scientific level, but they gave you a pair of rubber wellies and some gloves to wear, if that’s an indication of how dangerous the organizers think it is. I waited forever for size 12 (13 in the US) boots.

    @sonipitts, @renwick: it was free to enter! How wonderful arts funding can be. It’s a shame that so much potential funds are being poured into a whirling vortex of money and incompetence to the east of london called ‘the olympic zone’…

    The site itself was incredible to stand in. It was basically one large room with a small bathroom (complete with crystal-encrusted bath), not as big as i’d hoped, but still an eerie and impressive space that no-one wanted to leave (hence the wait for the boots).

    As I’d guessed it would be at the time, flickr is all over this one.

    It’s v. pretty and v. boingboing, so i’d recommend anyone in london get there in the next 2 weeks!

  27. Here in Korea, this is a common thing. You can go to the opulent and cheap “Jimjilbang” public baths (around $7 to soak, steam, and spend the night), and when you come out from your very innocently nude public baths, there are about a dozen rooms a lot like the one pictured.

    They are sauna rooms, with every square inch of wall covered in crystals, making beautiful patterns. I recognized rose quartz in a couple rooms, it is so wonderful to be surrounded in every way by its healing energy. Each room has different crystals, most of which I don’t recognize. Even the floors are beds of loose crystals. It’s unimaginably wonderful.

    Here’s some shots: Mostly it is the common lounge (where 100 strangers sleep on the floor in a very friendly manner), but in between these rose quartz mosiacs are the doors to the saunas. It was hard to shoot the actual crystal cave rooms with my 1MP cell phone camera, so those pictures are terrible. Sorry. Don’t ask why it’s Egyptian themed, I really don’t know!

    This place is my idea of heaven :)

  28. I bet the people that live below him were pissed. I wonder how much it would cost to replicate this, this could be an awesome prank on a roommate, haha.

  29. Looking at other pics of the site, it looks as though the block is unoccupied and may be scheduled for demolition. Obviously it’s a ground floor apt with concrete floors, because 80 tonnes of liquid would be a bit of a killer upstairs…
    The practicalities are fascinating… How much shoring up of the walls was needed? How were window and door spaces handled?
    what of the floor?

    It is undoubtedly beautiful.
    Like living inside a geode.
    Sad that I live a bit too far away, and have no other great desire to visit London.

  30. Ironically, he then discovered his toilet was backing up because the sewer line was clogged with root growth.

  31. isn’t there some sort of hyper-saturated liquid spray-on technique that would work? Does it have to be a tank?

  32. @Takuan
    -You could probably use a liquid spray, but would get much much smaller crystallization. It would be impressive to do an entire apartment, but less so. It would also probably take longer, as you’d have to wait for an area to “dry” before moving on to the next. You’d also need extra chemicals to help congeal the liquid (maybe simple gelatin) so it doesn’t run down the wall before crystallization.

    By saturating the entire apartment, the crystals were left to grow to their large size.

  33. Secret Life of Plants:

    I loved The Silver Crown! It was one of my favorites, too. I got my sister to read it, but I haven’t had an easy time finding anyone else who has heard of it.

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