Towering ambitions, brutalist truths

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Paulina Oslowska
Paulina Oslowska: abandoned neon,
Nowy Swiat street, Warsaw.

Despite - or perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of - the otherwise dreary homogeneity of Warsaw's post-war 'bloks', the state-owned company Reklama produced a huge number of animated neon signs, a bizarre approximation of western advertising intended to add sophistication to the capital.

Thousands of these neon displays were erected throughout the city, and Paulina Oslowska's 2006 work 48h 2 mins celebrates their existence by listing nearly 2,600 - each a now-defunct remnant of Poland's socialist past (the title refers to the combined duration of time provided by each light's animated sequence).

One sign in particular, created in 1961 to advertise a sports shop in Warsaw's Soviet-style Constitution Square, quickly became a local landmark. Depicting a girl springing towards a basketball hoop, the ball she throws rises and falls as a succession of bright neon circles.

Despite its former popularity, in the years following political transformation the sign was neglected and looked set to be dismantled. Olowska set about saving it, a process which took three years of negotiation. In order to raise money for its restoration, she sold her own paintings, a performative action dubbed Painting Exchange Neon.

Today the sign again illuminates the square, a nostalgic repurposing of Warsaw's recent past and reminder of the fast-changing cityscape it was built to embellish.


The view from within

Whatever criteria planning committees, casual observers, artists or posterity may use to judge the tower block, they were designed to be lived in and the viewpoint of residents is therefore key to their appraisal.

Or is it? One artist to reject this stance is Cyprien Gaillard, for whom the question of functionality is irrelevant: "When I'm in Glasgow, out at a bar or whatever, people often ask why I like these buildings so much. They say they were horrible to live in. I'm not saying that people should continue living in them, I'm just saying that we should keep a few of these modernist buildings empty, like classical ruins, like Scottish castles."

Other artists, however, are keenly interested in the ways in which such architecture impacts on its occupants' lives.

Monika Sosnowska, as we've seen, addresses such concerns, but from a viewpoint in which the modernist interior fails as an inhabitable structure. Despite widespread belief in this schism between form and function, some of those most closely involved do not share this conception at all.

Le Corbusier and modernist architecture in art

Martha Rosler's 1993 video work How Do We Know What Home Looks Like? was shot in a French housing project largely designed by Le Corbusier, although only completed in the late 1960s after his death.

The mayor of the town in which the complex is located - Firminy-Vert, in south central France - was a great friend of the architect, and instrumental in securing its development. Years later, however, it was decided that the buildings should be destroyed.

An opening sequence of interior shots is followed by interviews with occupants. The president of the tenants' association describes the intense struggle to save the building, affectionately known by residents as 'Le Corbu'.

With part of the complex already boarded up, the decision to demolish has been taken without consultation, the assumption being that the unité is a failure which residents will happily leave.

Rosler's video provides a space within a filmed space for unofficial views; a simple but crucial documenting of opposing factions in the debate on the modernist social vision. And in fact, since the making of Rosler's video, much of the site has been repaired, and works left unfinished at Le Corbusier's death, such as a local church, completed.

Emily Richardson, Block
Images © Emily Richardson

Block (2005), a 12-minute film by UK artist Emily Richardson, provides an ostensibly more detached account of a '60s London high-rise by piecing together various (mainly still) shots of its exterior and interior.

The camera shifts rythmically from the impersonality of common spaces to the intimacy of individual flats, yet its dependence on a format reminiscent of CCTV evokes awkward connotations of surveillance while concealing as much as it reveals.


Windows © Olga Chernysheva

Russian artist Olga Chernysheva opts to train her lens on the windows of a Moscow tower block in order to capture impromptu moments in its residents' lives (Windows, 2008, left). Despite the dour uniformity of the building on which she focuses, the behaviour of those inside is predictably unpredictable, a simple though effective meditation on the endearing banality of everyday life.


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

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