Curator Helen Kaplinsky talks about her exhibition at Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill estate which makes no secret of capitalising on the emergence of a new concrete loving class.
In 1980 The Firestone Factory, where sports cars were manufactured in the 50’s and 60’s was demolished. The factory was one of many on a stretch in Brentford known as the Golden Mile, in the 1920’s the preferred location for industry, gloriously celebrated in Art Deco style. Soon after the demolition of Firestone the Historic Buildings Committee of the Department of Environment recommended 150 inter-war buildings for listing and Modernism officially entered the canon. In 1998 English Heritage listed a whole raft of post-war buildings, most of them not quite as glamorous as Firestone. In fact they had distinctly unglamourous associations, slum estates, otherwise known as British public housing: Trellick Tower (Erno Goldfinger, 1968-72) Spa Green Estate (Lubetkin & Skinner, 1946-50) and Alton Estate (LCC Architect’s Department, 1952-60) – all in London – are examples. However, London was not the only forward looking planning office in the country. Sheffield city architect Jack Wormsley had a vision to raise the Victorian slums and put the ‘socialist republic of the north’ on the map for its courageous urban planning.
I’ve curated an exhibition from the Arts Council Collection within two show flats in Sheffield’s redeveloped Park Hill, commissioned by Wormsley, completed in 1961 and today the largest listed building in Europe. The exhibition includes works all the way from the advent of British Modernism when the Arts Council Collection was founded in 1946 up until today. My approach was in part inspired by a series of exhibitions run by the Arts Council in their first decades, the 1940’s and 50’s. Sculpture in the Home, as the name suggests, featured artworks in a domestic environment amid modern furnishings in order to encouraging a cultured consumer class to purchase small scale sculpture for the home. The exhibition at Park Hill includes works by some of the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists such as Lynn Chadwick who also featured in these early Arts Council programs, as well as Constructivist artists Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin who were, like the architects of Park Hill, proponents of a pragmatic but nonetheless optimistic British version of European Modernism.
Alongside these works are muddied and nostalgic ruminations on Modernism by contemporary artists such as Toby Paterson and Martin Boyce. The pioneering architectural work and furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames are of particular interest to Boyce. With Dark Unit and Mask (2003) Boyce remodels a small replica Eames storage unit and a little known Eames’ design for field splints produced for the navy during World War II. The splint becomes objet d’art reminiscent of the African and Oceanic artefacts collected by Picasso and his contemporaries with a mounting formed of fragments from mid twentieth century Ant and Series 7 chairs by the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen.
Most unexpectedly for visitors, I have included some key post-modern work. Only when the stories behind production are discussed does the relationship to the site of Park Hill speak. Homage to the New Wave was made in 1977 while Andrew Logan was living and working at Butler’s Wharf at Bankside, London in a community of artists, musicians and punks who occupied the post-industrial wasteland on the edge of the Thames. In 1984, Butler’s Wharf was purchased by founder of Habitat and former owner of Heals furniture store, Terence Conran, who converted it into loft-style apartments. The post-industrial space became chic, and punk was absorbed into the culture of consumerism, a move which Logan’s sculpture seems to foresee by making a unique commodity from the safety-pin, a symbol of the radical provisionality of punk.
If you hadn’t noticed already Brutalism is back in fashion and not just because English Heritage says so. In the 1950’s, British architects of Park Hill, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, then still in their twenties, fell for the aspirational promise of Le Corbusier. They believed society could be made better and happier through their well considered designs. Saving Park Hill from demolition in the 1990’s was seen as crucial to preserve the legacy of post-war Britain and its idealist architecture. Yet its huge scale made it too monumental to be a simply a monument, it must be occupied. Manchester based developers Urban Splash have led on a large scale renovation project. However it has not just been that good old British pragmatism which has made British Modernism a cultivated taste today. These buildings are a valuable aesthetic, they are useful for now. Most of the public housing I’ve mentioned has undergone a transformation since changing from public council housing to private. The aspiration embodied in the Brutalist Modernist soaring hulks of concrete and glass are a remade Modern. As Urban Splash have very convincingly argued they are desirable duplex apartments close to the city centre and their *unique selling point* is retro modern appeal which perfectly matches our affordable Ikea furniture.
BRITISH MODERN REMADE — STYLE . DESIGN . GLAMOUR . HORROR.
Park Hill Estate, Sheffield, 4th May – 16 June 2012.
An Arts Council Collection exhibition curated by Helen Kaplinsky.
Symposium with Steven Gartside (Manchester Metropolitan), Jaspar Joseph-Lester and Dale Holmes (Sheffield Hallam University), Lisa Le Feuvre (Henry Moore Institute) and Matthew Poole (University of Essex). Chaired by curator Helen Kaplinsky. View Programme.
Tuesday 22nd May 2.00 – 6.00pm, Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery.