(The exhibition was open during the London Open House weekend on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September 2005, by appointment during the week, and opens also on the following weekend, 24th and 25th September 2005. From 12:00 - 18:00)
1936 AND ALL THAT
Pullman Court is a rather extraordinary building. With its presence to the street partially scrambled by mature trees, the sheer scale of this High-Modernist block of flats does not immediately become apparent. It rises incrementally: three to five to seven stories. This highly considered massing of the design builds up and away from the unceasing messy energy of Streatham Hill, not attempting to compete with the generosity of scale of the head of what was the Great Trunk Road South, which further down dwarfs even the cinemas and large public buildings that line it. And yet it is the sheer scale on which this modernist complex of flats was realised that impresses - one only starkly apparent in old photos such as that used on the invite to NINETEENTHIRTYSIX - an image that elicits astonishment when revealed to be of a still extant block of flats in Streatham: it is assumed to be an archival one of some Czech or German ur-bauhaus scheme. This astonishment is compounded on discovery that its architect is not even the stereotypical ex-pat Czech or German en route between mittel-europa and middle america or the MIT, but the English architect Frederick Gibberd.
Gibberd, who would later design Harlow New Town, is an example of practitioner as both theorist and pragmatist, a rare combination today and one which resulted in work that exhibits both passion and modesty. Pullman Court fulfills a simple concrete aim - a review of the design at the time praised its no-nonsense provision of 'economic shelter and complete living equipment for single people and married couples, with or without one child.' But the design is also an embodiment of Gibberd's belief in what he would later describe as 'The material progress made in England during the first third of the twentieth century (that) has exceeded all that was attained in past centuries from the Norman Conquest until the Victorian era...Gas and electricity have made possible the clean town, the science of acoustics the silent one, and modern architecture the efficient and beautiful one.' It is interesting how alien both statements appear today: simple pragmatism and seeming charmingly naive, if archaically patronising, confidence, both out of synch with a world in which aspirational lifestyle spin only serves to paper over the relative absence of any concrete aspirations to provide for a future, better life.
But there are perhaps some signs now that utopia is no longer quite such a dirty word again. Long after the tides of optimism in the Modernist project retreated after its perceived failure and the subsequent disillusionment which crowded on in, the counter-swells of cynicism, reaction and irony in reaction to its tenets have at last themselves begun to ebb. There seems to be a new thirst for the combined qualities of the pragmatic and platonic which underly schemes such as Pullman Court with its aspirations to provide at least a provisional utopia. This idea of a perfection of living space of course always remains as a subtext to every architect's design, however unacknowledged. But it was Modernism that was the last movement to be unapologetically and immanently involved in this idea, in the construction of this elusive 'idyll of inhabitation', as Alison and Peter Smithson termed it. However despite all the architectural schemes of recent years which exhibit sub-modernist tropes, it seems often to have been artists rather than architects, the latter still wary perhaps of making the same mistakes again, who have more fully, even systematically, engaged in their practice, with the nascent qualities and ideas that underpinned Modernism.
The project NINETEENTHIRTYSIX for which artists, Lothar Götz, Ian Kiaer and Polonca Lovšin (with Tomaž Tomažin), have been invited to place or situate work in, and in response to, one of the flats at Pullman Court, can perhaps be seen as a significant cultural marker of the situation now: of this renewed engagement and dialogue with Modernism, architecture and ideas of utopia, with which each of these artist's practices can be seen in different ways to resonate. But it is in the project's provision of the forum of the actual architecture of this block as a site for work, that has elicited such interesting responses from the artists involved.
In what he describes as 'small experiments and workings' based on the plans of the flats themselves and of ideas contained in Gibberd's writings, the work that Ian Kiaer has made here is reflective of his practice in general. This has often referenced philosophy, landscape and architecture, with the work physically manifesting often as meditative-collages which allude to specific ideas and structures - such as those of the Austrian architect and theorist Frederick Kiesler. The resulting fragile assemblages - commonly utilizing found materials - have an almost 'make-do and mend' quality. They form tentative fragmentary utopias, referenced and suggestive of textual narratives and journeys that cue off the space in which they are situated - and their position within that space. Here the work is placed on the window sill, which Kiaer describes as 'a wonderful space to show work. It isn't a plinth, yet works as one, more casually and informally. It is an interior place yet is always open to the world. It always holds small, slight objects that need closer inspection yet the transition of scale that takes place, when one looks up and becomes conscious of the exterior of the building, its height and position in the complex, provides a very interesting dynamic - both intimate and monumental.' This positioning provides a literal and metaphorical filter between inside and outside - a perceptual if not actual threshold - holding an interesting Janus-like quality, between the past and future - reflecting the ambiguous perception of Modernist blocks such as Pullman Court: encapsulating an idea of the Modern - whilst already historic, yet still imbued with a sense of a possible positive future that informed the design. This is a future that we are in theory inhabiting now, yet one that today lacks any sense or appetite for this future. In this context Kiaer comments: 'Somehow, models that are left to gather dust on a window sill seem an appropriate response to the building.'
Kiaer's work, sitting lightly on the architecture, appears in interesting contrast to that of Lothar Götz. His work merges with the actual materiality of the building: bands of colour applied directly to the wall surface, distributed throughout the flat - directly manipulating the immediate experience of the spaces. In fact this work is less site-specific than it at first appears. It is the re-installation of a pre-existant but 'peripatetic' painting, that has been sited previously in a white-cube gallery, a church and another flat. Originally
'designed' in relation to the Gasworks Gallery, the painting consists of 1.7m
wide bands of colour, each of specific length, and thus each of a particular square metreage of coverage, that is reconfigured in each manifestation. As Götz describes it, the work exists not so much as 'a wallpainting in the flat as the flat is a canvas on which the work is realized'. Whilst this CV of the painting, of an independent former life, provides a further reading of the work beyond that of the immediate experience of it, it is the latter that is key. As Götz has described it, these spatial 'colour-pieces' are concerned with bringing back colour as a 'structural element' into architecture - informed by Bauhaus colour theories - challenging the ubiquitous use, and reading, of colour in domestic space, over the last few decades as automatically denoting, or assigned to, the function of of a room.
The video 'Action' by Polonca Lovšin is an existing work: the record of a kind of guerrilla listing of key buildings from the 20th Century architectural heritage of Slovenia, a project initiated by a group of architects in her home-country. This is a heritage that includes some quite extraordinary early-modernist schemes, in particular villas and apartment blocks, and significant works by the important 20th Century architect Jože Plečnik, which at present enjoy no recognition, let alone protection, from the state. Indeed they are at present at even greater risk than previously, no longer solely from neglect, but from relatively unregulated new economic development, since Slovenia's accession to the EU. This work throws an interesting perspective on the situation in England, where despite the perception of a long-standing antipathy to 'Modern Architecture', schemes such as Pullman Court are protected. But as the title of the work makes clear, whilst Lovšin's practice explicitly draws on modernist achitecture as a resource, a referencing that perhaps reflects her architectural training, in fact the focus of her work is on the social rather than the architectural aspect of such an 'Action'. It is concerned with how personal and private action rather than public works or that of collective policy, ultimately animates, informs - and forms - the cultural history and fabric of society.
The other work that Lovšin is showing, with Tomaž Tomažin, exhibits a slightly more lyrical take on this idea. It is a site-specific piece, coming out of the short residency at Pullman Court that Lovšin and Tomažin completed earlier in the year. This consists of video stills of the swimming-pool at the flats. This key programmatic element of the original design, was a focus for the social life of the whole complex, one that epitomized 'modern life' (it would have been unthinkable a quarter century earlier). These images represent the pool both in its present disused state and reanimated to its original use - restoring one of Gibberd's original aspirations for the life of the block, and for the lives of the residents: of spatial occupation and animation, and private social interaction. Whilst this work has a nostalgic edge, it only serves to underline the continued validity - and continuity of basic human social needs - that are still recognizable today and that underpin the design of all good architecture such as Pullman Court - intimately concerned with human action rather than material construction.
What is notable in the work produced by all the artists in this project, is the delicacy of sensibility that situates it in and engages with the architecture, its history, physical space and structure but remains autonomous from it. In a situation in which it would be all too easy to over-egg references to or lazily stereotype the idea of 'Modernism' - as crudely 'Brave New World' or whatever - these works let the architecture speak for itself whilst whilst cueing powerfully off it - not as a relic but as a live space.
And whatever the evident loss of vision or long-term reduction to basic service contracts and minimal maintenence that have over the years contributed to the present physical condition of the block, NINETEENTHIRTYSIX as a project serves to put into perspective, question and re-invest in both the actual physical inhabitation and the social interaction that underline the original intentions for the design of Pullman Court, and above all, its occupation by its residents today.