The empty tower block stands as a symbol of a paradigm failure in UK social policy: the Dystopia and ultimate waste of castle-in-the-air housing projects which were scrapped and abandoned. They are all the more poignant a choice for imaging, given that tower blocks were originally meant to be a dream (Utopian) solution to the issue of ‘decent’ housing.
Concurrently, and in contemporary art terms, this series evinces something of ‘the uncanny’: that Freud-coined sensation whereby one feels, oddly enough, as if somebody had just left the room. In other words, that universal experience of recognising things as having been touched by the human hand in some way (in this case designed, built, ‘lived-in’) … yet, paradoxically, sensing the distinct lack of any human presence (or the failure of human effort).
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (Photographer)
Text drawn from Amber Catalogue, 1987:
Byker was suffering from extensive neglect when Sirkka arrived, its decline mirrored by the slow dismantling of engineering works and shipyards. Entranced by the directness of the people, by the ability to survive harsh conditions and sweeping changes with dignity and humour, she set about recording in words and images the place and its people.
All in all Sirkka spent over a decade documenting Byker as it fell under the redeveloper’s hammer. The planner’s dream, the people’s nightmare. Like much of the redevelopments of the sixties and seventies it was the destruction not only of homes but of working class culture and close relationships which were never re-established in the schemes that replaced the so-called slums. At the end of the carnage part of the spirit of the place had gone and less than one fifth of the original inhabitants remained.
Note: As she embarked on her seminal documentation of Byker, Sirkka became aware of the plans to demolish it for the wholesale redevelopment that was to include the Byker Wall. She photographed the community over a twelve year period, the celebrated, resulting body of work touring the world. Beyond the influence it has had on documentary practice, the work has been used widely by architects and town planners among others. The work was developed as a book, first published by Jonathan Cape in 1983, then by Bloodaxe in 1985, reprinted in association with Amberside in 1988. As with all Sirkka’s long-term projects, the work was also developed by Amber as a film (1983). Both book and video are available from the Amber website.
Robert Simpson who runs the City Space blog. ‘The purpose of thecityspace is to provide a resource for those interested in architecture. It features a weekly post on Mondays relating to the field of architecture, some of my personal work and the MYCITY project which is an ongoing design of a model city.’ http://thecityspace.blogspot.com
The Haygate Estate, London – Simon Carruthers
Ibrox, Glasgow – Richard Chivers
Parkhill Flats, Sheffield – Alex Currie
The Boot Estate, Norris Green, Liverpool – Oliver Perrott
Peter Marshall. http://re-photo.co.uk
Peter Marshall has written an interesting review of our Degeneration project. He also has a lot of interesting stuff on his Blog, I was particularly interested in his recent visit to the Excalibur Estate in Catford to look at Prefab Houses built post World War 2.
Although I wasn’t able to see the show ‘Degeneration‘ by the collective Human Endeavour which is upstairs at the Bellis Gallery, 8-9 Kings Road, South Lanes, Brighton until Friday 14th Nov (Wed-Sat 10-30-18.30, Sun 11.30-16.30) I did meet briefly with one of the photographers, Alex Currie, who has kindly sent me four of his images:
Edinburgh, Alex Currie
Glasgow, Alex Currie
Salford Garages, Alex Currie
Salford, Alex Currie
These are pictures taken with great deal of respect for the subject and with care using the movements of a 4×5″ camera. Together with the other work I’ve seen on this project they well reflect the objective of the project, stated to be
to take a critical look at the state of housing and regeneration in the 21st century, and the implications and complex nuances this may have on some of the poorest in society,reliant upon social housing.
As they make clear, much of what they are recording has not occurred by chance and cannot be blamed on the architects and builders, but is the result of deliberate policies.
After several decades of neglect, consecutive governments have overseen the gradual disappearance of social housing, due to ‘Right To Buy’ and a lack of new housing stock built, arguably fuelling the necessity to own rather than let that has instigated the artificial inflation of the housing market. This opens up many questions as to why this was allowed to happen, has fuelled the rise in homelessness and poverty and left the majority of people living in social housing trapped in so called ’sink estates’.
There are indeed examples where blocks similar to many of those shown in this project have been sold to private companies and refurbished to become luxury flats. But for councils and social housing associations the alternative of demolition (sometimes also creating a little local spectacle through the use of explosives) attracts, perhaps because of the financial incentives available, or simply because over the past 40 or 50 years we have become increasingly a throwaway society. Or perhaps sometimes because of the profits that others can make.
The house I live in was built around 1880, condemned in the 1950s and still (with minor alterations and occasional maintenance) performing its original function reasonably adequately. It wasn’t well built, didn’t use the best of materials, but the design was basically sound. The prefabs I photographed a few days ago, made in 1945 were only meant to last 5-10 years, but some are still in reasonable condition, and their owners and tenants happy to remain living in them. So it is a very good question why so much of the building around the 1960s are now considered only fit for demolition (although some of those I knew erected in Hulme in the mid 60s were in a terrible state within months of completion.)
The answers lie not among the planners and the architects but in the politics of the era (and perhaps things have not changed much.) I’m currently reading a book by a friend of mine, Franklin Medhurst, ‘A Quiet Catastrophe: The Teeside Job‘ (ISBN: 978-0-9566550-0-40 in which he tells the story behind his dismisal as Director of the Teeside Survey and Plan in 1967, largely because of his insistence that pollution be taken into account in the location of housing in the plan. The two men who fired him were Hugh Wilson, responsible for Cumbernauld, recently voted by its residents the “second crappiest town in Britain” and Lewis Womersley, responsible for the Park Hill terraces in Sheffield that feature on Currie’s site as the first picture in his project, Redundant Ideals. Its also worth looking at the other two projects on his site, which include one ‘Nonscape‘ which turns out to be black and white images of central Croydon.
This is a very different view of the place than on my own website where I have a set taken a few years earlier in 1991 along the then recently opened tram line. Looking at the two I think his work looks to be older, and not just because it was taken in black and white rather than in colour. Unusually my Croydon Tramlink was taken on medium format (and I also took some panoramas that have have yet, 9 years later, to be added to the site) but after that I reverted to using 35mm with a shift lens.
Finally, one thought that I left Brighton with, from the theatre opposite the station:
‘The true mystery of the world is the visible not the invisable’ Patrick Keiller. Robinson in Space.
Robinson in Space (d. Patrick Keiller, 1996) begins with Robinson’s unseen narrator quoting the 1960s French radical Situationist Raoul Vaneigem demanding that “a bridge between imagination and reality must be built.” It ends with Robinson’s disappearance and the narrator declaring that “I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his Utopia.” In between is the search for that Utopia in the industrial landscape of England, and an attempt to bridge the gap between two worlds.
Whilst in the Bellis Gallery today invigilating our show Degeneration, I got chatting to a really interesting lady who told me about a project called Shrinking Cities.
Cities are shrinking all over the world! /// Shrinking cities are a cultural challenge to us. In theShrinking Cities project, architects, academics and artists investigate recent developments in Detroit, Ivanovo, Manchester / Liverpool and Halle / Leipzig – and make suggestions.
Shrinking cities is a project (2002-2008) of the Federal Cultural Foundation, under the direction of Philipp Oswalt (Berlin) in co-operation with the Leipzig Gallery of Contemporary Art, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and the magazine archplus.