Since it started emerging at the turn of the 20th century, architectural photography affected the practice of architecture and its representation. A perfect medium for professionals, it can be considered also as a vehicle for the public to receive information about the built world. Digital photography has given a new impulse to this discipline, offering the chance to overcome technical boundaries and explore new possibilities in the representation of buildings and structures, as London-based artists and photographers Helena Crabtree and Flavia Dent prove.
When we first met them in June Crabtree and Dent were busy with their first project, "Concrete Farms", the result of their personal passion for taking modernist pictures with a geometrically brutalist twist of three main areas - Broadwater Farm Estate, Alexandra Road Estate and Thamesmead.
Crabtree and Dent are back now with a new project entitled "Life After Achitecture - A Promise A Week". The event focuses on the north-east London Woodberry Down council estate and the regeneration process by Berkeley Homes that will mean that, in the next fifteen years, council/former council homes will be demolished and replaced with new flats destined to social housing and low-paid public servants, or sold on the open market to private investors.
Yet their work is not just a subtle debate about regeneration and gentrification: Crabtree and Dent chronicle the beauty of the council estate in a modernist key and through images that could be filed under the "community conscious photography" label and that point to the stories of the residents hidden behind anonymous walls and staircases. There is indeed also a social commentary in their images that are often accompanied by Dent's texts and writings.
The next step? As focused as they are on their architectural images and on the social issues involved in them, Crabtree and Dent may not have realised that their corners, windows and interplays of light and shadows and juxtapositions of shiny and matte textures play pretty well with modern fashion, so expect their images to appear on many moodboards in the next fashion season.
The last time we spoke you were busy with your "Concrete Farms" project. Can you tell us more about your architectural journey from that exhibition to this one?
Helena Crabtree: When "Concrete Farms" came down we still had a long list of locations to go to, but that got put on hold when we were kindly invited to do this exhibition by Haringey Arts and The Redmond Community Centre (where the exhibition is held). This is a first for us and we feel we are always open to these opportunities and very grateful when they come along. Originally the show was going to be linked to The New River's festival and we were to focus on the reservoir photographically but, as always, the architecture drew us in.
Flavia Dent: It moved relatively quickly with representatives of Haringey Arts and Berkeley Homes coming forward with a new project proposal, which would coincide with the opening of the East Reservoir and the Hidden River Festival. The proposed project was to document the Reservoirs as well as their surrounding architecture, although they very kindly gave us free rein and the theme was only a suggestion. Something rare when it comes to commissions and something that - as artists - we appreciated a lot. We were happy to explore the theme, and at the same time the freedom they gave us enabled us to make this project our own and pushed us in a direction and to a location we would perhaps not have gone to otherwise.
You're both fascinated by the story of the Woodberry Down Estate and the regeneration process by Berkeley Homes, can you introduce them briefly to our readers?
Helena Crabtree: I have certainly felt that the deeper we delve into this project the more we have uncovered. At first glance you see the shiny new high-rises dominating the sky and you think 'OK, this can't be a bad thing'. But then you instantly realise there is something uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of the blocks being literally torn down alongside the new construction. Currently there is a real mish-mash of architecture at Woodberry Down (soon to be called Woodberry Park); there is the new, the old and the in-between. This has a huge effect on the community, which I feel is the biggest blow here. Berkeley Homes are in 'partnership' with Hackney to regenerate the area building affordable housing and expensive commercial properties, yet I feel that, although it is supposed to be a partnership, the power has been shifted hugely into the hands of Berkeley who are filling their pockets. They have obviously rebuilt the properties overlooking the reservoir first because they will make the most money leaving other parts in desperate need of repairs but Hackney Council won't repair because they are eventually due to be demolished. It is a complicated issue, but it has left some people in very difficult situations. This article is worth a read if you want to have some background information about this story.
Flavia Dent: Berkeley Homes is a private builder, which is in a public-private partnership with Hackney Council. Partnerships like this have come together due to unprecedented cuts, which have left town halls up and down the country less cash to maintain their existing housing stock - giving councils little choice but to turn to such investors as Berkeley Homes. These public-private partnerships are relatively new. Woodberry Down estate surrounds two large man-made reservoirs, which are somewhat a well-kept secret. Seven Sisters Road traverses the estate, on the left hand side brown brickwork characteristic of post-war social housing, and on the right old grey Soviet style council blocks, the tops of which resemble cruise ships with large cornices acting as balconies on the top few floors. Its first tenants moved in in the summer of 1948 and the estate symbolised a fresh start for those lucky enough to get a flat there. It has since gone through numerous attempts of regeneration, and this particular programme by Berkeley Homes is just adding to the never-ending cycle.
Your previous exhibition had a more abstract - almost brutalist I would say - title. "Life After Architecture - A Promise A Week" seems instead to be more optimistic, pointing us towards the inclusion of human beings in architecture. Can you tell us more about the main inspirations, ideas and thoughts behind the exhibition?
Helena Crabtree: I think the thing with Woodberry Down is that you cannot separate the people from the architecture. I also feel that at the end of the day architecture is mostly made for function for people to live, work and be in and if it cannot function to fit the purpose the architecture doesn't work. I do feel we have been more involved with the story here compared to "Concrete Farms" but on the flip side our work still shows the aesthetics of the formal architecture, which is what drew us in, in the first place. Which brings up a question for me that I thought about when we first started photographing estates about the difference between observing the architecture as an outsider and actually living there, this is still inconclusive for me.
Flavia Dent: The quote "A Promise A Week" was printed on posters in the '90s by the council and was a means of bringing the community together as well as being part of an agenda to improve the area. Both the estate and its inhabitants needed attention by this point, and this was the council's way of promising the change - presumably on a weekly basis. "Life After Architecture" on the other hand symbolises my dislike towards the new builds, which I find less aesthetically pleasing. What is interesting is that the majority of my works for this show are taken of the said new builds on Woodberry Down Estate. Perhaps it was an unconscious decision to challenge myself and see the good in something I don't appreciate as much. Helena and I wanted to expose both the old and the new builds in our photography and the beauty that the smallest detail can behold, all centered on the themes of space, light and shadow. Contrasting these two is our way of documenting the changes as well as the history of the original estate and its residents' past, current and future. I have enjoyed working on this project and seeing the improvement from our previous show, "Concrete Farms". During our first show, my photographs' and Helena's were practically impossible to differentiate. This time around we seem to have developed a project which works as a whole, but that has also led us to develop individual styles.
The new project coincides with the Hidden River Festival and the opening of the East Reservoir, Stoke Newington, which has not been open to the public for 200 years. What fascinates you about the reservoir?
Helena Crabtree: I didn't know the reservoir existed until we started the project which I found odd. The effect of water on an atmosphere or space is interesting and leads on from our last location - Thamesmead - famous for its inclusion of a lake, which has a calming effect. Here, though, the power of the community is most evident as it was supposed to be concreted over to make more space for homes, but the community saved it which I think is amazing!
Flavia Dent: The history of the New River and the East and West Reservoir is fascinating. The New River is a man-made watercourse, which was built 400 years ago to bring fresh water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the City of London whose water supply was becoming inadequate with the rising population. A number of historic buildings still remain along the river course, which is now twenty-seven miles long compared to its original 40-mile long length. At the beginning of the 18th century it was necessary to obtain a greater pressure of water as a result of an increased population and taller buildings, and the reservoirs were built in response to this. The New River still supplies 8% of London's water. In the late '80s and '90s a campaign to save the Reservoirs from being concreted over was underway and the locals were successful, although the Filter Beds were built over to accommodate new homes. The Reservoirs being still here is evidence of the strength of the community. The East Reservoir has yet to be opened to the public, and serves as a urban wetland reserve, redeveloped by the London Wildlife Trust. All in all, they are symbolic on many levels.
In some of the pictures you took for this exhibition you focused more on the possibilities of interlocking planes formed by lights and shadows together. Do you feel that these new series of images has maybe opened up new possibilities and inspirations for you? In which ways?
Helena Crabtree: These ideas have always been there, I don't think it is new, but perhaps the subject matter allowed for it here. It is worth noting that this is the first time we have had subject matter of contemporary architecture so maybe that affected it. I also feel that we have been more confident with our ideas in this show and I think there is a greater distinction in our styles.
Flavia Dent: In many ways this is something that both Helena and I have expanded on since "Concrete Farms", rather than introduced, although I agree that it is definitely something which is more prevalent in "Life After Architecture" compared to "Concrete Farm". This is something that Helena brought to the table. I now cannot avoid interlocking planes and pictures as preliminary photomontages or throughout the work that we exhibit. It's a fun puzzle and often it fascinated the way a picture can work one way better than another or how pairing two images can add so much. This is why I enjoy working together with Helena and third parties, such as the Redmond Community Centre - it opens up new possibilities.
Do you ever conceive your images as a way to reach out to the residents as well and do maybe a project with them in future?
Helena Crabtree: This is an interesting question that I think we have thought about a lot, especially because the show is in a community centre. I certainly would like to know how the residents see our work and if it has any effect on them. I would still love to go inside some of the flats and take photographs. Although we did manage to get into one of the blocks that had very few remaining residents, it felt slightly intrusive. If we were invited into someone's home it would be nice to hear their stories first hand.
Flavia Dent: Our photography is community conscious, and although we do not photograph those who we encounter and live in the estates, they are at the core of our photography. We are photographing their homes and environments. We are working on getting more people involved, and I would be particularly interested in involving them in my written pieces to go alongside my photographic work.
How did you choose the location for the exhibition this time?
Helena Crabtree: As mentioned above, we were invited, but it was interesting for us to be in a totally different space, more formal with white walls and a hanging system, even though we had less control and felt more like a compromise. Yet for me I think it is great to force our viewers to come to the source of our photographs, experiencing what we did first hand.
Flavia Dent: We didn't, it was kindly made available for us for 8 weeks by the Redmond Community Centre and we choose to exhibit there for five out of those 8 weeks.
Do you plan to publish your images and writings in a book format?
Helena Crabtree: That would be amazing, I think we would have to do some more work on it but perhaps it would be a good goal. I would like more of the locals to engage with it first before we go to that level!
Flavia Dent: Personally, writing is very much part of my practice and goes in tandem with my photography. For "Life After Architecture - A Promise A Week" I printed a small booklet of my writings. I documented every visit to Woodberry Down and published the writings, so to speak, alongside abstract photography montages of the estate. I hope to expand this. Helena is a part of it in the sense that I share the experience with her and the conversations we hold often features in the short pieces.
The theme for the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice will be "Reporting from the Front" and the 2016 biennale will be an inclusive event that will listen to stories, thoughts and experiences coming from different backgrounds. How would you respond to this brief that hopes to expand frontiers and improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life?
Helena Crabtree: I feel it is a great title that responds more to what it is to be human which for me is very important. I wish we could have more transparency in many parts of our society and the more we understand about diversity and celebrate our differences the better. I also believe that we as humans have an innate instinct to tell stories or share what we have found and any acknowledgment of this can only be a good thing. As a result of a greater understanding of people past and present we can build better environments for us to exist in.
Flavia Dent: I read a really interesting article on the Financial Time that stated: "Poor doors are the price that developers and residents must pay in exchange for situating low-cost housing in expensive parts of town...if you build a building with 300 flats in it, it's going to have several doors, so what does it matter if some lead to cheaper apartments and others to more expensive ones?" An interviewee was quoted saying that he would feel a little offended if next door to him there was someone who didn't have to go through the process of saving and was just given the flat to rent at a subsidised level. Some people, nicknamed 'Nimbys' (not in my backyard) are those who have a strong opinion on the form of housing that goes into new developments. When dad and I went to visit the Woodberry Down Marketing Suit and mentioned we were interested in purchasing a flat, we were reassured that the social housing would be out of our way. I would like to start a project that would spring from the word Nimbys and explore what my community has to offer, listen to my neighbours and perhaps take "Concrete Farms" to a new level. I live on Broadwater Farm estate and our former project - "Concrete Farms" - exhibited back in June, explored this particular estate, renown for the 2011 riots. My backyard, so to speak, is made up of hundreds of stories and cultures, worthy of recognition. Having a voice is key and therefore so is Communication, and I would like to pursue this through my written and photography works.
"Life After Architecture - A Promise A Week", The Redmond Community Centre, Kayani Avenue (nearest tube: Manor House), London N4 2HF, UK, until 11th October 2015.
All images in this post courtesy and copyright Helena Crabtree and Flavia Dent.
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