It would be easy to label Parallel (of Life and) Architecture, currently on show at The Edge gallery, Bath, as part of the growing trend for Brutalist revivalism and fanaticism. But far from a familiar fetishisation of the movement, this is exhibition is ambitious, setting out to engage with the ideas of Alison and Peter Smithson, the husband and wife architectural duo who were central to the development of British Brutalism. Three installations by three different ‘duos’ have transformed The Edge gallery into an exploration of what Brutalism meant in its early post-war days and more interestingly what it means now. Part of Brutalism’s current appeal lies in the fact that it arose from an era of austerity. Although 1950’s austerity looked very different to that of today – it was the building of the welfare state as opposed to its dismantling – Brutalism made a promise for a better future. This is something that, maybe nihilistically, seems faint today, but as Ben Highmore writes in his recent book, The Art of Brutalism, “it is this structure of feeling… that in the end calls to our present moment”.
The dialogue between then and now is explicit in the exhibition’s title which references the 1953 exhibition Parallel of Life & Art. This was the first collaborative exhibition devised by the Smithsons, Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, the two heavyweights of the Independent Group. But as well as there being a similar in title, the exhibitions share similarities in method too.
For Parallel (of Life and) Architecture Assemble and artist Simon Terrill, who collaborated on ‘The Brutalist Playground’ (2016), have devised a new work titled ‘The Ostrich and the Kipper’ (2017). This is an array of found footage, images and objects, that come together in an installation that harks back to the same imagery and sense of collage that was so definitive to Parallel of Life & Art. Terrill and Assemble have also included several Eames chairs, a metal cantilever chair and a wooden stool - a direct reference to one of the most famed images of Alison and Peter Smithson, Paolozzi as well as Henderson which appeared in the Parallel of Life & Art catalogue. The Ostrich and The Kipper is an ode to the collaborations between the Smithsons and the Independent Group, but it is also a welcome re-imagining of the more artistic, image based side of Brutalism, which often fades into relative obscurity compared to its better known architectural batholiths.
Design collective The Decorators and the architecture studio GOIG have contributed ‘Transformations of the city’ (2017), a 1:2 recreation of the Smithson’s installation for the 1968 Milan Triennale, which considered how the city of Florence was affected by everyday events. The approach to the installation stays close to that of the Smithsons in 1968, displaying an array of everyday objects and tourist memorabilia. But the inclusion of a live stream of tweets, sent from Bath and projected onto an overhead canopy, is an important acknowledgement of new forms of media and how they affect our understanding of physical space.
The most radical re-imagining of the Smithson’s work is ‘A Nodding Acquaintance’ (2017) devised by Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley. Looking to Alison and Peter Smithson’s fascination with how people interact in public spaces, Warren and Mosley have created a ‘street party’ that overtakes the gallery space. Inspired by the Smithsons architectural plans as well as the Victorian furniture in Nigel Henderson’s photographs of post-war street parties, a wooden structure in the centre of the space invites visitors to lean or sit, bringing people into proximity with one another. Arrows painted on the floor and the walls suggest lines of travel and, whether they are followed or not, their presence makes you conscious of your movements. Adding to this awareness of movement, a television screen on the gallery floor shows a live, aerial view of the gallery space, writing the visitor into the plan of the space.
The installation cleverly makes a double point about the idealism and failure of Brutalism. Whilst Brutalism strived to create an architecture that would foster community and that would be responsive to its inhabitants and specific locale, often such plans did not fit the needs and desires of its occupants.
The resurgence Brutalism has seen in recent years mustn’t forget this. Indeed, there are parallels between then and now but there is dissonance too. Parallel (of Life and) Architecture can be seen as cautionary tale, but one that also makes moves towards a resolve: that this ‘structure of feeling’ shouldn’t just be superimposed on today, but should be treated as a starting point for something else.