Towering ambitions, brutalist truths

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Catherine Yass, High Wire, Glasgow

Most seductively of all, in the aforementioned photographs of Glasgow's Red Road by Catherine Yass, the highwire strung across three blocks takes on the appearance of a silver thread, its delicate horizontality emphasising the towers' perfect spatial interrelation (left).

Pierre Huyghe's video work Les Grands Ensembles (2001), steers the idea of mutually dependent architectural form towards unexpected conclusions.

The 'grands ensembles' of the title, two isolated tower blocks typical of '70s French housing projects, are glimpsed through a veil of swirling mist - a mise en scène which, again, carries distinct overtones of the pictorial sublime.

As darkness descends, windows begin to illuminate to the accompaniment of a buzzing, electronic soundtrack reminiscent of '70s synth experimentation. As lights turn on and off in quick succession, the verisimilitude of the spectacle becomes increasingly questionable: windows blaze in one tower, for example, while its neighbour remains in darkness. The sequence rapidly takes on the appearance of what Huyghe terms "(a) dialogue in a strange Morse code given by the light of their respective windows, a blinking existence."

pierre huyghe
Image © Pierre Huyghe

By investing his towers with a bizarre semblance of communion, Huyghe underlines the integrity of their formal architectural relationship, a twinning / self-reflexivity which is also hinted at in the work's title ('ensemble' in French not only specifies a group but, used as an adverb, translates 'together', or 'at the same time'.)

Yet there is also something intensely alienating about the codified display. Contrary to our initial expectations the towers seem devoid of residents, the flickering light-show an unfathomable, mechanised routine. And this, in fact, is entirely the case: the scene we witness is nothing more than a computer-controlled model shrouded in dry ice.

The impersonal, untranslatable communication undertaken by the towers parallels what Huyghe sees as the ultimate failure of the high-rise: "These subsidised public projects ended up being an architectural and social failure." And although he is careful to further define them as "... a corruption of Le Corbusier's social and architectural Modernist theory" in later works, such as Streamside Day, Hughye implicitly casts doubt on the theory itself by emphasising the organic and ludic basis of cohesive community.


Inner spaces

The legacies of institutionalised urbanisation are tackled in different ways by Polish artists Paulina Oslowska and Monika Sosnowska.

Poland's capital, Warsaw, experienced extensive World War II damage and rapid, post-war industrial growth that tempted large numbers of migrant workers to the city.

With housing urgently required, the dominant architectural model consisted of Soviet-style tower blocks constructed of unadorned Plattenbau concrete slabs. Official buildings were generally built in the unyielding version of the International Style depicted in Nicolas Grospierre's photographs (previous page).

Monika Sosnowska

Monika Sosnowska's installations reflect the highly institutionalised architectural landscape she experienced while growing up in the former People's Republic of Poland: "... things that I remember, things that I have found in reality".

Often concerned with interior rather than exterior space, Sosnowska's installations are designed to be physically experienced, a participation that disconcerts or disorientates in order to mimic the oppressive environments to which she refers (above left).

Untitled (2003), for example, consists of an L-shaped corridor that narrows uncomfortably when traversed. The walls are painted a drab green, with several inaccessible doors set into their length.

Sosnowska has produced many variations of these labyrinthine structures - notably the winding, gloss-white corridors and strip lighting that invaded the entire Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (Loop, 2007, below left). An unexpectedly striking aspect of her installations, however, is their tersely angular beauty.

Monika Sosnowska, 'Loop'

Sosnowka's protest lies not with modernist form itself, but its unsympathetic application - an architectural alignment unfit for purpose. While her works function elegantly as constructivist arrangements of sculptural plane and shadow, their failure emerges in terms of human interaction.

Monika Sosnowska
Images © Monika Sosnowska

This is a point she seemed to reiterate with her 2007 Venice Biennale contribution, a vast steel frame forcibly twisted and crumpled into its exhibition space (left). And in a planned project for the 2009 Frieze art fair, a scale model of Warsaw's colossal Soviet-era Palace of Culture and Science was conceived as a disruptive presence smashed into the venue roof (the piece was ultimately withdrawn due to concerns over its appearance).

The shortcomings of imposed 'perfection' of architectural form is a common enough trope among former Eastern Bloc artists, although few afford it Sosnowska's psychological resonance. Yet during the '50s and '60s Warsaw became, in one sense, a city of vibrant colour and contrast - a facet of its history explored in works by Paulina Oslowska.


Brutalist truths: the modernist high rise in contemporary art: continued >

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