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James Smith: Memorability as an Image

James Smith: Memorability as an Image

26 March 2017 | Edd Elliott

Anyone who arrived into Northampton by coach in the late noughties will remember Greyfriars Station: the ill-chosen pit-stop likely still haunts the waking hours of many a former traveller. The East Midlands town’s gargantuan bus terminal featured in Citywire’s 2010 list of the UK’s least attractive buildings and was characterized by Lonely Planet as ‘infamously ugly’. A looming brick-and-concrete oblong, the 1976 brutalist design was like a cathedral to the banal, all browns and angles. TV architect Kevin McCloud described the transport depot’s entranceway on Lady’s Lane as “the mouth of hell”, a fitting summary for the mess of bland subterranean corridors that lay therein. When it came to a council appraisal in 2011, there was little resistance to scrapping the structure: a BBC poll of a few years’ earlier had shown over 70% of locals thought it should be axed. Greyfriars was eventually put out of its misery in March 2015, Channel 4’s Demolition gleefully recording its reduction to rubble.

Just before Northampton’s much maligned edifice was unceremoniously junked, artist and photographer James Smith was allowed inside. Northampton Gallery NN Contemporary Art commissioned the then recent graduate and local to record the bus station’s final moments. The result formed an exhibition on the town’s recent architectural past. Now, two years on, Smith’s images are collected once again in the NN’s showrooms alongside other of the artist’s photographs: it’s time, proclaims the new exhibition, for a reappraisal of Brutalist design.
 
Memorability as an Image combines three of Smith’s recent projects – Brutal Relics, Heavy Simplicity and Civic Stage – forming an all-out embrace of Brutalist style. The home-grown exhibition features as part of the Northampton gallery’s Five Years series, a retrospective on the studio’s legacy and an inspection of time itself. The composite display includes a series of photos and prints each highlighting a particular example of British Brutalist architecture. There is also an original journal extract from Architecture East Midlands revealing Greyfriars’ original plans – just in case you were keen to reminisce…

James Smith, Civic Stage, Ventilation Shaft 003
James Smith, Civic Stage, Ventilation Shaft 003, 2016
 
So why centre an exhibition around a much-maligned bus station? It’s all a little mundane for ‘Art’ with a capital A, isn’t it? One suspects this is exactly what Smith enjoys. The part-academic first created Memorability as an Image as an essay. The progressive treatise drew on famed Brutalist critics such as Ben Highmore and Reynor Banham: the publication’s title, in fact, is taken from a set of principles laid out by Banham for New Brutalism, which included architectural works aiming to provide “a clear exhibition of (physical) structure” and valuing objects “as found”. The alluringly named Brutal Relics, the NN’s opening section, touts this matter-of-fact approach. The display collects a series of photographs of base building components gathered from Greyfriars – a brick, a reflective panel. The height of glitz is a stack of metal letters that once heralded the station’s opening. This is not, as you can probably deduce, the House of Fabergé recreated.
 
Material surfaces hold a particular fascination for Smith. Many of his photos focus on the exterior skin that objects present. The Heavy Simplicity collection examines the rough grit-and-cement walls of London’s Barbican centre. The almost abstract canvases are awash with flecks and bobbles; a slippery gunk streak – the kind you might find beneath a leaking gutter – slides down the centre of the frames. These, as the title suggests, are heavy substances – physical, course, mainly unpleasant. They are, as Smith might see it, honestly and matter-of-factly what they are.
 
The Barbican’s sincere but abrasive walls are specifically chosen by the Northampton artist and gesture toward wider socio-economic factors that underpin Brutalist architecture’s perception, including the now demolished Greyfriars. In a press viewing for Memorability as an Image Smith referenced the differing fates of his cherished structures. Whereas London’s Brutalist designs – The Barbican, The Southbank, The Brunswick Centre, The British Library – are often prized, their architectural equivalents in northern and midlands areas find themselves maligned and even torn down. Falling within the uncanny chasm of art past and art present, the status of 60s block architecture is uncertain and popular opinion seems split as to whether to commemorate the sober designs as respected “history” or deride them as just another modern eyesore – and the division, it appears, occurs halfway up the M1.

James Smith, Civic Stage, Pocket Park 005, 2016
James Smith, Civic Stage, Pocket Park 005, 2016
 
The exhibition’s third section, Civic Stage, positions itself right on this Brutalist borderline – Milton Keynes. The selection of seemingly plain photographs capture the many windows of the often maligned city and the beige brick buildings that lie beyond. Glass is the surface under the microscope here: each of Smith’s six photos highlight the translucent material. Rather than clear, though, the windows become a constantly distorting lens for Smith, the urban space’s square panes constantly warping the parallel lines of Milton Keynes’ neatly standardized grids and reflecting the glare of nearby lights. “Glass”, the artist said of his pieces, is a “continually moving” entity, changing and sagging over time – its real material nature we often literally see past.
 
Milton Keynes has also changed over the decades. The “New City” was founded in 1967 and presented as the perfect metropolis for the modern age. Neatly equidistant to London, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge, the streets were laid out in rational grids and fitted with congestion-busting roundabouts: you could drive carefree in and out. The Milton Keynes Development Company’s design ethos was rigidly modernist, and angular, future-styled glass and concrete structures came to comprise much of the city’s civic centre. It wasn’t just idle talk either: many of the forward-looking settlement’s earliest inhabitants were 60s new-age, counter-culture converts trucking out of traditional London.
 
Fifty years on and Milton Keynes’ image has completely changed. The once ambitious architectural project is now commonly presented as a mundane, culture-vacuum. (It’s always a worry when transport links out of a region are advocated as the area’s primary benefit.) The wide Barcelona-esque boulevards are now weathered and often sparsely populated. Smith’s photographs intimate towards this decline. The images are full of empty spaces and degraded surfaces. One named Pocket Park shows a once neatly plotted courtyard garden left to wither, its shingle beds strewn across the stained pavement and left smattered with cigarette butts. Compared to the fate of Greyfriars, maybe these areas have got off lightly: they at least are still standing. Designer and author Owen Hatherley, however, has already listed Milton Keynes Shopping Centre as number one in his 2015 Guardian list of Britain’s best ugly buildings. Maybe soon photos like Smith’s will be the only way to remember Milton Keynes’ Brutalist designs as well – all the more reason to catch this strange and fascinating exhibition now.
 
Memorability as an Image is on display in the NN Contemporary Art, Northampton, until 6 May. Find out more details on the gallery’s website.

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