Towering ambitions, Brutalist truths

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Brutalist architecture and contemporary art
Robin Hood Gardens Estate,
East London.

UK artist Gail Pickering's Brutalist Premolition is a more complex, densely layered amalgam of performed fictions.

Set in the Robin Hood Gardens Estate, one of London's largest post-war social housing developments (left), the site is regarded as a key example of Brutalist architecture, although having recently failed to secure listed status, looks set for demolition.

Pickering's film, shot inside one of the estate's flats, shows its resident family directing professional actors from the popular British soap opera 'Eastenders' to play themselves. As well as indirectly revealing the minutiae of their lives, the negotiation between individual reality and role subtly mirrors the intended purpose of the building itself.

Its architects, Alison and Peter Smithson, were particularly concerned with designing spaces that would act as a stage for the communal interaction they envisaged unfolding within. A principal role of the architect, they felt, was to "build(s) for, and towards, the cohesion and convenience of the collective structure to which (their designs) belong".

To this end, their signature, much-emulated 'streets in the sky' reverse Le Courbusier's 'rue interieur' by incorporating widened exterior walkways into their social housing projects - a formulaic mediation which, just as in Pickering's video/installation, is meant to give way to spontaneity and negotiation.

Gail Pickering

This emphasis on a (paradoxically) predetermined structure of possibility is echoed in Pickering's work, in which two factions meet to create a hybrid reality; a fusion of 'true' community (the flat's residents) with a scripted, well-rehearsed assumption of how such communities perform (the soap opera actors). Just as Pickering's video and accompanying performance arguably lapse into repetition and ennui, the optimistic suppositions regarding the Robin Hood Estate also failed to materialise.


High-rise international

For all its increasing ubiquity, the high-rise continues to resonate in vastly different ways. Few contemporary icons are as multivalent or contextually sensitive in their signification; words used to describe what is, essentially, the same thing - high-rise; skyscraper; towerblock - carry a perplexing weight of individual nuance. The tower block is, simultaneously, redolent of power, prestige, progress, domination, degradation, wealth and, since 9/11, terrorist war in roughly equal measure. Perhaps that's one reason why it continues to fascinate.

As we've seen, in Europe an overwhelmingly negative reading stems at least in part from associations with poorly managed social housing, draconian state intervention and failed experimentation. As a predominantly post-war addition to traditionally low-rise urban topographies, the high-rise was regarded with suspicion from inception. Ironically, this situation is beginning to change as private development increasingly adopts the high-rise as a luxury model.

In the US, of course, the early adoption of high-rise architecture results in less powerfully polarised readings. And while American art has consistently been drawn to the built environment, for many years its principal focus seems to have been the small town or suburb; the mall, the parking lot or freeway, that tower turned on its side. It could almost be argued that Warhol's 196? Empire State Building was the last great contemporary paen to American high-rise, albeit very different in tone from...

It's certainly true that many Americans associate large, multi-storey towers in brutalist style with public housing, and that such projects retain a long-rooted reputation as concentrations of crime and deprivation. For this reason, many have already disappeared.

Modernist architecture in art
The Pruitt-Igoe estate, St Louis

America was one of the first countries to effectively declare the modernist housing model unworkable with the famous demolition in 1972 of the massive Pruitt-Igoe development (detail, left). Built in St Louis in 1956, and razed to the ground less than twenty years later, the destruction of its thirty-three eleven-storey buildings marked a turning point regarding the perceived efficacy of the Le Corbusian model, not only in the States, but internationally (dubbed by architectural historian Charles Jenks "the day modern architecture died", Pruitt-Igoe has also been referenced by Cyprien Gaillard as an act of "state vandalism").

Similar developments continued to be flattened: in the 1990s in particular, many US cities began to systematically demolish their remaining modernist projects, with Chicago alone leveling 79 in total.

Their demise does not appear to have been mourned.

heather Rowe: Modernist architecture in art
Image © Heather Rowe

Yet one American artist whose practice evokes some of the issues considered here is New York-based Heather Rowe.

In her work, the raw materials of construction such as concrete, glass and timber delineate notional dwelling spaces (left). Often interspersed with fragmentary remnants of former 'occupation' - wallpaper, carpet, shattered mirror - Rowe's installations are disorientating renditions of built environment and human presence: "lost homes, destroyed places; how that fits into someone's memory."

While her work is intentionally open-ended, Rowe's concern with architectural space and its literal and metaphysical construction is clear. Sources of inspiration include her personal experience of "living inside a concrete metropolis", as well as a deep appreciation for the architecture of Bruno Taut and Paul Rudolph. Rudolph's most famous work is the Yale Art and Architecture Building in Brutalist style; Bruno Taut's pioneering work on Berlin's social housing estates in the 1920s contributed enormously to the assimilation of the International Style.


Upwardly mobile: China's surging cities

Seung Woo Back, Korean photography
Image © Seung Woo Back

Meanwhile, today's development of the high-rise is primarily focused in the Middle and Far East.

The high-rise has long formed part of the urban landscape of Asian cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul (South Korean artist Seung Woo Back wittily juxtaposes a theme park's reproductions of 'world attractions' with the dense conurbation on its peripheries (left), but China, in particular, has seen its major cities expand at phenomenal rates.

Shanghai, above all, is in a state of almost constant transformation, with 10,000 new towerblocks constructed in 25 years, a figure that is constantly growing.

With the metamorphosis of Chinese cities paralleled by rapid changes in social, cultural and political traditions, it's little wonder that the symbol of the skyscraper has become familiar currency among Chinese contemporary artists.

Yang Zhenzhong, Chinese contemporary art
Image © Yang Zhenzhong

Yang Zhenzhong's short video Light and Easy (left)seems, as the title suggests, to make light of Shanghai's rapid urban development. The artist is shown with the Pudong financial district in the background, and appears to easily balance the city's emblematic TV tower on his fingertip. Nevertheless, his upside down position hints at the topsy-turvy nature of the newly emerging city and even that his apparent equinamity is over-stated.

Yang Yongliang, Chinese contemporary art
Image © Yang Yongliang

Various versions of reality merge in Yang Yongliang's Phantom Landscapes. Combining the traditional Chinese painting in which he was trained with modern cityscapes, delicately delineated cranes, construction sites and clustered towers emerge from cloud-wreathed mountains.

While tradition appears to meet progress in harmonious fusion, Yongliang's forcible pairing of elements could equally conceal a scathing commentary on the idealisation of modernity. And indeed, many of the doubts raised by Westerners with regard to the towerblock are also voiced by Chinese artists.

Jia Youguang
Image © Jia Youguang

The photographs in Beijing-based Jia Youguang's Skin of the City series, (2005, left) are not dissimilar to Nicolas Grospierre's Eastern European exteriors. Youguang likewise emphasises their homogeneity, raising the question as to how the construction of buildings so alike must impact on the minds and imaginations of those contained within.

Ironically, too, the concern with the destruction of the modernist edifice evidenced by various western artists becomes, for the Chinese, an almost inverse concern as ancient neighbourhoods are cleared to make way for new towers.

Su Chang's mixed-media installation Ruins, 2008, includes a perfect scale reproduction of a traditional Shanghai building demolished, like many others, to make way for the new city. Shu Haolun's film Nostalgia, 2006 is an elegy to the rapidly disappearing Longtang and Shikumen structures of old, while the young artist duo Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu) compile a book of snapshots extensively documenting the demolition of their neighbourhood in preparation for the 2010 Expo.

Utopia; dystopia; or something more complex still?

Shi Guorui's enormous panorama of Shanghai (below) captures both the old colonial area of the Bund on one side of the Huanpujiamg River, and the financial might of Pudong on the other. Created by turning a skyscraper into a camera - or, more specifically, by temporarily converting a conference room at the top of a high-rise hotel into a giant camera obscura - Guorui's reversed negative image presents a city of towers for which the easy duality of black and white simply doesn't exist.

Shi Guorui, Shanghai
Image © Shi Guorui
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