Saturday, 14 May 2016

Concrete jungle boogie.

In London's Bloomsbury stands Bedford Square. A garden square festooned with blue plaques and one of the finest examples of preserved Georgian architecture in the capital.

On the east side of the square sits The Architectural Association School of Architecture. Established in the late Victorian era it runs a programme of lectures and symposia relating to themes considered pertinet to its remit. But I visited specifically to see Modern Forms:A Subjective Atlas of Twentieth-Century Architecture.

A collection of photographs by Nicolas Grospierre covering structures built between 1920 and 1989. The locations are worldwide but the architectural styles he focuses on are skewed very heavily, almost uniquely, on the brutal, concrete end of modern.

The photographs are arranged by form, as opposed to function, which gives this psychogeographical survey the feel of one of Bernd and Hilla Becher's artworks (for which you can read more on my blog about the Barbican photography exhibition, Strange and Familiar)

There are few 'names' present. Those that are include Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer who is best known for his buildings in the planned Brazilian, and capital, city Brasilia. Below we see his Palace of Justice from 1957.

Other big hitters include Charles and Ray Eames (for more on that refer to my previous blog about yet another Barbican show. Eameses) and the Finnish-American Eero Sarinen who, in 1947, designed St Louis's Gateway Arch, below. He died in '61 and the arch wasn't completed until '67. At 192m high it is the tallest arch in the world and its summit is accessed by two flights of stairs or, and this hardly seems plausible, by trams located in the arch's legs.

Elsewhere we're introduced to such weird and wonderful things as Lebanese heliports, Latvian kindergartens, Sri Lankan houses, Russian bus stops, Iranian theatres, Lithuanian ice cream parlours, Texan chapels, and Estonian cinemas. Polish churches keep cropping up. In a section of the show that highlights buildings with triangular features we're shown Wrzosowa's Church of the Body of Christ designed by Stanislaw Kwasniewicz in 1978. It's something of a crucifix heaven.

The triangular trail also takes us, via several other Polish churches, past Chicagoan Googie architecture, a Californian motel, another one of Niemeyer's Brasilia beauties, and reaches its logical conclusion with Henryk Buszko and Aleksander Franta's Rosomak Sanatorium. A scalene surprise in the Polish town of Ustron-Zawodzie built in 1972. Ustron-Zawodzie is a health resort designed to host Silesian miners and actually contains 17 pyramid shaped hotels all built by Buszko and Franta.

This marks a neat leap in the narrative of the exhibition. Fitting in, as it does, with the triangular, pyramidal edifices but also introducing a section on tower blocks. Or skyscrapers if you'd prefer. Unsurprisingly the US starts to feature more here but there's also housing estates in Kaliningrad, the Cite Administrative in Lille, Bratislava's Trade Union House, and the below Residential Tower of St Petersburg. It was nicknamed House on Chicken Legs. Designed by Lenniiproiekt in the mid-80s it was finally completed in 1993. It would've been interesting to hear some testimony from residents about what it's like to actually live there but, like so much in the world of culture and academia, their voices are silenced in favour of dry theory. Shame.

Having said that I did enjoy it. I do like looking at architectural pictures and, as it's unlikely I'll ever get to travel to Madliena or Sventoji, I'll lap this up for now. Triangles led to rectangles led to arches and, inevitably, to spherical constructions. Kiev (a city I have visited) boasts 1971's Institute of Scientific Research and Development, pictured below. The brains behind it, L Novikov and F Nuriyev, seemed to have watched a few UFO movies. How this informs their flying saucer pushes, nicely, against the concept of function over form at all times.

A cute trick the curators have pulled off is that when you reach the end of the show it, curatorially speaking, links up with the start again creating, potentially, an infinite loop. An infinite loop of concrete and brutalism. We end (or don't end, up to you) with some of the harshest of all edifices. The ones that don't seem to have windows but simply blank walls staring us down, asking us to dare to blink.

For some the reason is obvious. It's practical that a nuclear power plant or a cinema shouldn't be letting light in from the outside. It's less obvious why Vanda Baulina's Daugavkrasti Hotel in Jekabpils, Latvia should resemble so strongly a penitentiary building.

Ticking so many boxes is our old friend Stanislaw Kwasniewicz's Silesian Institute (1974). Both ruin porn and brutalism have been fetishised in untold volumes and tomes in recent years and this Le Corbusier inspired 'monstrosity' in Katowice, Poland ticks both boxes. I'll leave you with it. Sweet dreams.

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