Not a single human being populates the paintings and sculpture in BRUTAL, the latest offering from Saul Hay Gallery in Manchester.
And yet this new and exhilarating exhibition features the work of five artists who each offer a unique perspective on how Brutalist architecture has shaped not only our towns and cities, but also our lives.
In absenting people from these works, the artists are left to explore a type of built environment that is so familiar to many of us, including affordable housing, civic buildings, shopping centres and office blocks. It’s a post-war solution and a social support system made of concrete and dreams. These buildings were created by architects in awe of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. They furthered his vision by creating the good, the bad and the ugly.
Ian Hay, director of Saul Hay Gallery, has curated the exhibition based on the interests of three artists he represents. He explains that, while it lasted, the good offered an exciting new alternative for people living in slum housing, a shiny bright future and a new chapter in Britain’s welfare state. This was once a proudly justifiable term for principles of care for everyone, especially those who were less well off. They were also the foundations for the National Health Service (NHS).
In hindsight, many of these buildings were too high and inhospitable. But it wasn’t simply the shortcuts and the cheap building materials that undermined the national project, it was also the town planners.
At the heart of Le Corbusier’s vision was community. His first modernist residential housing design, Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, is one of Brutalist’s most influential buildings. It included social housing, shops and amenities built simpatico, meaning that Le Corbusier took a holistic approach to place-making.
By erasing the most crucial human element of Le Corbusier’s ideas, many British town and city councils sought quick and cheap solutions to their social housing issues, and constructed these buildings on the edge of vast concrete wastelands. Precincts, plazas, centres and ways became disconnected open spaces, corridors and subways, which in turn sprung up around the road-building programme of flyovers, motorways and bypasses.
In 1999, photographer Martin Parr published a collection of promotional postcard images of such public places in a far from reverential book called Boring Postcards, published by Phaidon. More than 20 years later, it’s interesting to see how the five selected artists featured in BRUTAL view these precincts of pragmatic architecture.
Artist Mandy Payne has produced a visual record of the estates near her home in Sheffield alongside other places she visits, including London’s South Bank and the north west’s Salford City. She uses spray paint and oil paint on concrete and marble. With a weighty matter-of-factness, Payne’s subjects are full frontal, celebratory in their mundanity and abstractedness. And restraint in the architectural grids and frames and overwhelming greyness is upset by containers of colour. Perhaps these are momentary lapses of humanity in sombre urban scenes.
The exhibition also houses sculptures by William Braithwaite, a sculptor living and working in Sheffield. Here we’re presented with solid concrete-cast tower blocks, which are cut to form negative spaces with stairs running up and down the block. We can see beneath them, as though we were climbing or descending flight after flight. It is reminiscent of a Hitchcock film poster or an M.C. Escher painting. The staircase is heavy, dogmatic and devastating in its suggestion of a life lived in a high-rise flat, yet it also holds an appreciation of the formal aesthetics of Brutalist architecture.
Meanwhile, Jen Orpin captures brutalism in miniature. Motorway bridges, subways and the underneath of the Mancunian Way are enormous subjects to be held in such a small space and yet, when we look, we find that we are too are tiny. Instead, we are drawn in and away into a vanishing point at the end of the road, under the bridge and through a tunnel. Orpin explains that lockdown has altered her experience of these spaces. Fewer cars and people have given wildlife cause to enter some of these forbidding places. Often, there’s a suggestion that nature can soften man-made structures and provide disruption and discomfort. Maybe in recognition of this, Orpin surprises us with a few larger paintings where two-thirds of the canvas is natural landscape.
And then we have Dan Broughton’s paintings which are a joyous intervention to this exhibition. Hung on the wall like building fascias, his smooth wooden panels depict light criss-crossing a cityscape. This is intersections of buildings and sunlight hitting flat planes of colour, which travel through tightly controlled abstract compositions that appear to glow.
Emma Bennett’s 1950s department store abstracts provide a refreshing palette change. An optimistic wall of acrylic paintings depicting flat stripes in acid yellow, hot pink and purple incite a retail high. The escalators are like a stairway to heaven in these sharp-edged and keenly observed patterns of consumer confidence.
This exhibition asks us to consciously and critically reflect on the habitats where we live and work and how they shape the fabric of our society. Some good examples of these concrete buildings are now being rescued or repurposed, and most of the bad ones have been demolished. Appreciation for this modernist period has grown and lessons have been learned regarding its poverty of implementation. However, as cities, including Manchester, continue to grow apace, it would appear that the socialist principles embedded within this architectural movement have been erased.
BRUTAL allows us the time to reflect on the impact of architecture, and to think about how towns and cities are put together. Town planning may have caught up with some of the principles of modernism, and most architecture has vision. Unfortunately, this lags behind profit as far as people and community are concerned.
Main images: 66 Ripped the heart out by Mandy Payne
BRUTAL is on at the Saul Hay Gallery in Manchester until June 6, 2021. For more information, visit the website.