Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)
Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.
Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials…
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I recently spent ten days in France as a post-PhD treat. During that time I spotted a couple of reliefs/mosaics on school buildings – and several other interesting pieces of public art on French buildings such as churches and apartment blocks – as well as staying in Corbusier’s monumental and highly atmospheric Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, which could be seen as a giant, functioning artwork in its own right (complete with its own school)!
Unité aside, highlights included murals and mosaics by the poet, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau, including his murals for the wedding hall in Menton town hall and beautifully decorated churches in Fréjus, and Villefranche-Sur-Mer, which blurred human profiles and figures with animal life, and depicted aspects of everyday life such as traditional clothing, work and socialising.
In Menton, a beautiful, Italian-influenced fishing town, he adapted the traditional technique of creating mosaics from locally found stones.
I also spotted some huge bas relief concrete panels by the prolific French artist Denis Morog (the French version of William Mitchell!), using abstracted shapes and patterns reminiscent of the sun and of the movement of water, at the library in the centre of Lyon, and on an apartment block in Nice.
The first school piece I spotted, a mosaic depicting a map of the countries of Europe in a jigsaw puzzle-style, is in the Etats Unis area of Lyon, close to Tony Garnier’s early twentieth century planned housing settlement to improve living conditions in industrial Lyon.
At the Chagall museum itself, I realised I vastly preferred his paintings when translated into other media such as mosaics, stained glass and tapestry. There was an interesting exhibition on, though, about the work of prominent twentieth century artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse for churches, and the post-war desire to beautify the buildings that others wanted to bomb.
I recently visited Tullie House to see a small exhibition of work from a collection acquired for the city of Carlisle through the Royal Academician Carel Weight, as part of nationwide events commemorating 250 years of the Royal Academy. Weight was one of the artists who was heavily involved in Pictures for Schools, and sold work through the scheme. As well as showing Weight’s own paintings, the exhibition showed work by members of Weight’s circle, including peers and students, such as Peter Blake, acquired for Tullie House. I reviewed the exhibition for Corridor8: read online here.
For some time, I followed with interest on Twitter the development of New Town Utopia, a new documentary about the new town of Basildon in Essex.
Although I’ve visited Harlow, another Essex new town, I’m not familiar with Basildon. I found the documentary, which I watched this week, to provide a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the town. Rather than merely dwelling on or aestheticising the town’s architecture, or condemning its social failures, it matched the aspirations for the town’s development up to the experiences of those who had moved there from the East End of London, and those who were born and grew up there.
The words of Lewis Silkin, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, run through the film, setting out the context from which new towns such as Basildon emerged in the post-war period. Silkin explains that they aimed not just to alleviate the ‘grossly congested and overcrowded’ living conditions of the inner-city, but to ‘produce a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified type of person, with a healthy sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. By being well-designed and filled with artworks and cultural centres, he hoped that new towns would play their part in fostering an ‘appreciation of beauty’. The film questioned the extent to which new towns such as Basildon lived up to this. Whilst their new residents were delighted with new homes with conveniences such as indoor bathrooms, the improvement in living conditions did not always correspond to the changes in citizens which politicians and planners such as Silkin envisaged; Basildon, like the areas of East London from which many of its residents came, retained a reputation for toughness, and its interviewees categorised the town’s pubs according to the violence of the welcome one was likely to receive.
Whilst the shopping areas and public spaces of Basildon, like other post-war new towns, were populated with artworks such as large-scale sculptures and mosaics, what was most striking in New Town Utopia was the culture that emerged outside of the mainstream culture of the town, and these municipal gestures (or perhaps as an escape from it) – from the electronic bands of the 1980s (most famously Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet) to later generations of rock and indie promoters, to poets, painters, pupeteers and street artists.
To find out more about New Town Utopia visit www.newtownutopia.com.
Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)
If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.
Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of…
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This fascinating blog post by Inexpensive Progress, a Cambridgeshire-based writer and collector, sheds some light on the fate of some of the work from the Cambridgeshire Collection of Original Artworks for Children, as well as giving details about the scheme’s history in Cambridge and some of the artists involved.
Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.