- Article by Anthony Burke
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Above: Stockwell Bus Garage. From Lesser Known Architecture, 2013, published by Mass Observation. Photography by Theo Simpson
As a part of the 2013 London Architecture Festival, Lesser Known Architecture; A Celebration of Underappreciated London Buildings – curated by Elias Redstone, photographed by Theo Simpson of massobservation and with graphic design by Ben McLaughlin – recently opened at London’s Design Museum.
As a photographic essay of unique London buildings from the last hundred years, the exhibition aims to promote an eclectic selection of overlooked or under-appreciated buildings – as nominated by eight of the UK’s best known architecture critics. The selected buildings, infrastructures and urban moments have been dusted off and brought back into light, so to speak, as ten quiet architectural monuments that deserve attention for their architectural ambition and impact in shaping the built and cultural fabric of metropolitan London.
Elias Redstone is the engine behind this project. Following close on the heels of his continuing global tour of the Archizines exhibition (recently held in Melbourne and Sydney), Redstone has this time started small: ten single photographs, colour toned, have been hung in the cafe of the museum and arranged in a rough approximation of their geographic relation to each other across the city. The exhibition presents the same photographs on the tank (the large display vitrine) outside the museum’s front door on the Queens Walk along the River Thames, but as compositionally cropped posters. Ben McLaughlin employs the same technique used on bus shelters all around London – employing a translucent print technique that allows for back-lighting at night to create an all hours exhibition, “so the late night partiers get something to think about on their way home,” says Redstone.
Theo Simpson started shooting industrial and leftover architectural fragments as part of massobservation before teaming up with Redstone for Lesser Known Architecture. His photography is tightly framed and full, in most cases, choosing aspects of buildings that isolate their critical significance rather than present them in their entirety. Whether the curvature of a vault or staircase, or the independence of a coachman’s cottage on a street edge, Simpson’s photography celebrates the quotidian aspects of architecture. Using tonal treatments to subtly pull forward his interpretation of the dominant mood of the images, animating the photographs as a collected composition in the gallery, the colours are a mix of retro hues – washed sepias, blues and greens that play against each other to create a quietly nostalgic but lively quality. Like pop for historians and hipsters.
The harder black and white versions that adorn the tank on the Queens Walk are turned into a graphic rather than a photographic representation – designed to sit powerfully in the street as a lantern or billboard, but which are also more familiar and less quixotic than the original prints found inside.
Redstone’s insight is to produce a platform rather than an exhibition. Approaching architecture critics to select the works, Redstone takes both a meta curatorial position (curating the curators), while developing a process that would work well in any city. The projects and their nominating critics are surprising, offering a broad geographical and typological sweep across London. They are Bevin Court nominated by Tom Dyckhoff (BBC Culture Show), Brownfield Estate nominated by Owen Hatherley (The Guardian), Cabmen’s Shelters nominated by Oliver Wainwright (The Guardian), Crystal Palace Subway nominated by Rory Olcayto (The Architects’ Journal), London Underground Arcades nominated by Edwin Heathcote (Financial Times), Mail Rail nominated by Ellie Stathaki (Wallpaper*), Nunhead Cemetery nominated by Hugo MacDonald (Monocle), Occidental Oil Refinery Jetty nominated by Owen Hatherley (The Guardian), Stockwell Bus Garage nominated by Tom Dyckhoff (BBC Culture Show), Welbeck Street Car Park nominated by Sam Jacob (Dezeen / Art Review).
The Mail Rail, an underground mail-only railway system that still exists under London; The Stockwell Bus Garage, an elegant concrete vaulted roof structure over a bus terminus; the modest London Underground Arcades; and the 1km-long Occidental Oil refinery jetty are standout choices, whittled down from the original critics’ selections by Redstone and Simpson based on access and their ability to surprise, which ultimately creates an unexpected and lively conversation.
All the images are invitations into both a grander narrative of architectural innovation and progress, and simultaneously an incredibly local story, “presenting an alternative architectural map of the city”. From disused mail systems to the Goldfinger towers – the name of the architect developer and, it turns out, the impetus behind the naming of the villain of Ian Flemmings’ James Bond novels. The exhibition invites you in and genuinely captures something very London about its architecture past – not the version of the LCC and the Smithsons’ Golden Lane public housing failures, or the hi-tech export of Sir Norman Foster, but the quirky and experimental architecture that is part of the discipline’s local evolution.
The exhibit sits interestingly among two strong trends in architectural curation at the moment: the pop-up, activist exhibition and the curatorial fascination with recovery rather than projection (or historic hip). As a pop-up, the show was put together in less than two months and the installation is simple and unfussy; modest even. Everything about the exhibition announces its accessibility and a kind of “don’t worry, its only architecture” attitude that one can speculate is a reaction to the overwrought forms and renderings of much current practice-based presentation. Lesser Known Architecture offers access and engagement, rather than awe and professional distance from the viewer.
The motivation behind the contemporary fascination with the recovery project, however, is harder to pin down, swimming around in issues of the re-evaluation of architecture’s disciplinary canon – and consequently its boundaries – and positioning architecture among the current urban and city fascinations, while looking for some sense of disciplinary carriage among the dust of its recent history rather than the sedimentation of its deep past.
From modestly scaled beginnings, Redstone has plans for this way of collecting architecture to grow, first across the UK with the next installment of 20 buildings already underway, before growing to other international destinations. This would seem unlikely in most cases, except for the success of Redstone’s most recent exhibition, Archizines. What Redstone does is less create an exhibition, than create a way of gathering architecture that is portable, poetic and powerful, and which in each place it lands, resonates implicitly with the local culture of architecture into which it is inserted.