High-rise buildings have inspired many different creative minds, from artists and fashion designers to writers and photographers. Some were drawn by their height and strength, others by the materials employed to build them, while a few developed an interest for the deeper social issues linked with these living spaces.
London-based artists and photographers Helena Crabtree and Flavia Dent were fascinated by all these issues and started developing their passion by taking pictures of three main areas, Broadwater Farm Estate, Alexandra Road Estate and Thamesmead. As time passed their images developed into a proper photography project - "Concrete Farms" - that, curated by them and featuring some of their pictures, will be on display this weekend in London.
Both Crabtree and Dent have a peculiar way of looking at these space: in their pictures Corbusian slab buildings, complex high-rise units and megastructures are indeed deconstructed into modernist abstract paintings. Stark images celebrate the concrete core of these structures; openings offer the chance to draw in the space rectangles of light, while staircases introduce instead the theme of verticality. As the buildings are reduced to abstract elements, the photographers transform them from aggressive and oppressive-looking structures into rigorously elegant spaces, evoking Le Corbusier's modernist principles of functionalism and cleanliness, creating modernist formal compositions and proving that high-rises can turn into fascinatingly austere sets to envision the collective future of the local communities.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Helena Crabtree: I'm an artist living and working in Hackney. I studied Fine Art painting at City and Guilds of London Art School, south London. It's a little gem of a place that has all the quirks of an old school art college, but with heaps of self-respect and brilliant people steering you in the right direction.
Flavia Dent: I moved back to London last October. After a 5-month stint in a windowless warehouse, I moved into an old school in Tottenham, on Broadwater Farm Estate. It's a Guardianship - I pay to squat. I studied History of Art and French (I am French) at Warwick University. I am a photographer, waitress for money, and review art shows as part of an extended project called “In Conversations” which is made up of overheard conversations and sound pieces and that will soon feature artworks inspired by the experience of a particular show.
When did you first develop this passion for the aesthetics of concrete?
Helena Crabtree: I have a strong grounding in formal abstraction and for a long time I've been taking pictures of architecture in particular openings, windows or gaps with strong light contrasts. This really became my starting point for all my work two years ago after a trip around Europe, where I came back with a small body of photographs that I loved. From there on, I think my work has filtered closer and closer to modernist architecture, until you feel like all you're looking at is concrete. It is in a sense more abstract to photograph with vast planes of flat, cold, greyness. It is also less specific in some cases and I enjoy that quality. The results are then more open and atmospheric instead of documenting a specific building.
Flavia Dent: I'm interested in fundamentals. Photographing concrete structures allows me to really focus on form and composition. It's a great way to concentrate on the shapes, contrasting light and shade buildings create, ever changing as the day progresses. Working in black and white enhances these basic elements. I think J.G. Ballard in High-Rise is pretty accurate when he writes “the high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself - (...) the architects who had designed the complex could not have foreseen the drama of confrontation each morning between these concrete slabs and the rising sun”.
Why did you mainly concentrate on the buildings in these three London-based areas?
Helena Crabtree: As a painter, Modernist theories have always interested me and the deeper you delve into being an artist, the closer they feel to home. As the three sights were based on Modernist ideas and, in a way homages to people such as Le Corbusier, it seemed fitting to visit and photograph them. Strangely we both studied modern architecture at school, I'm not sure how Flavia felt about it, but I didn't connect with it that much, though information resurfaced with a second look.
Flavia Dent: It all started in the maze that is the car park of Broadwater Farm Estate after I moved there at the beginning of the year. I had been to Alexandra Road Estate once before. I've always been drawn to its street-mosphere. Alexandra's jutting balconies create great shadows, Thamesmead also looks like building blocks (now being taken apart), so there were interesting forms to photograph.
How long have you been researching this project and do you consider it as a work-in-progress rather than a one-off exhibition?
Helena Crabtree: The pieces we are showing are finished works, but it feels like the beginning of something bigger. We have been thinking about it for about 6 months and having a deadline or interim point gave us extra momentum. I worry we are only skimming the surface at this point, I certainly want to continue the project.
Flavia Dent: It's definitely a work-in-progress, although, as Helena states, the works on display are finished pieces. We are hoping to get more people involved. It's been in the developing process for a few months, but this exhibition is a stepping-stone. You've got to create your own opportunities.
Will the project have an impact on the community in Broadwater Farm Estate?
Helena Crabtree: I don't know if I have as strong a position as Flavia to comment on this, considering she lives next to it, but I would like to see the residents thinking about the space in a different way. There is a lot of unused space that could be used for other things. I still find pleasure in finding beauty in places that are deemed otherwise and I would really like to know residents' opinions on their space.
Flavia Dent: At this stage, it won't impact them directly. The project needs to grow concrete legs. I would like it to reach the stage where it proves to the public these aren't threatening no-go areas, but actually areas full of culture that should be embraced and the buildings have interesting architectural and social histories. Getting the community involved in some way or another is the next stage to this project, which has yet to be developed.
In some of these pictures the architectural elements form quite beautiful geometrical shapes with the light and the sky, how did you develop these shoots? Did you go around these places scouting for locations for a long time?
Helena Crabtree: We generally carry our cameras around quite a lot with us in case we see something we like, but we went with the intention to photograph on every visit. Our styles have developed over time and certain view points crop up throughout our works, but it's not that conscious.
Flavia Dent: Day trips. Packed breakfasts or lunches respectively. We had to work relatively quickly. Chasing the sun. Thamesmead was more of an adventure, a 40 mile round trip, it felt like we'd cycled miles out of London.
Do you have a favourite building/spot and therefore a favourite picture?
Helena Crabtree: That is a tricky question as there are too many! One of my favorite photographs I have ever taken was in my old flat. I used to sleep with my curtains open a little and I lived on a busy road. The car lights passing by used to project the most amazing green moving shadows on my wall, I found it mesmerizing. I was sad I never filmed it but the photograph that I have, which is incredibly abstract, takes me back to that place.
Flavia Dent: Northolt seems to glow at night on BWFE. I like cycling past at night and seeing the lit stairway silhouetted on Martlesham with that plastic bag that floats out of the top floor window on Martlesham, and has done for months. There was also one on the back of Alexandra Road Estate. I like these 'live-in' details. It may all look the same, cars are parked in bays, yellow lines lead you around, but Rochford's a favorite. Barely any cars means coloured bonnets and dead headlamps don't break the lines.
The more I look at the shapes in some of your pictures, the more I think about the silhouette and cut of garments created by some modern designers: what do you think draws people working in the visual arts to brutalism? Its stark and solemn beauty?
Helena Crabtree: I think people want simplicity in their lives. Especially living in London, everything can get complicated, those kinds of aesthetics make me feel calmer.
Flavia Dent: It's essentially a blank canvas, you can play around with it and manipulate it, especially when using photography, but its history adds a certain charm to it - The Fall from Grace of Brutal Beauty.
Do you have a favourite architect?
Helena Crabtree: I really like Thomas Heatherwick's ethos towards architecture, but aesthetically Mies van der Rohe's.
Flavia Dent: Le Corbusier, although perhaps an obvious choice, is a favourite and Broadwater Farm's design was inspired by him. I like things that are functional. Denys Lasdun's national theatre, the Hayward Galllery and The Barbican are buildings I return to over and over again to photograph. I like the fact that the Barbican towers were built in bomb craters - the foundations would not have been deep enough without them.
What's the immediate future of this exhibition after this weekend?
Helena Crabtree: We will keep going on research days to different places. It's great to be taking photographs together, we both see different things, so even though we may be taking pictures of the same things we see them from different angles. We have been talking about taking it closer to the community, perhaps having an afternoon where we install work in the car park of Broadwater Farm to engage people more directly. There are lots of options!
"Concrete Farms", 3 Overbury Road, London, N15 6RH, UK, Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th June 2015.
All images in this post courtesy Helena Crabtree and Flavia Dent.
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