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Brutal Foraging

by Anna Fairchild, BA MA DFA, August 2022

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Fig. 1 Stevenage New Town plan (Bedwell area 2)

Figs. 2, 3 & 4: Stevenage telephone exchange, built in 1974

Allium Ursinam, more commonly known as wild garlic or ‘ramsoms’ is an edible plant which coats the woodland floor in springtime. Foraging into small shady wooded areas, you may come across this delicious plant. Or rather the scent of it becomes apparent and leads you onward.

During the spring of 2021 I found myself in just such a small shaded area of urban woodland, situated at the edge of a quiet children’s playground in the Bedwell neighborhood of Stevenage New Town in Hertfordshire.

Stevenage began as a Saxon village in the 7th century, called Stith, meaning ‘strong oak’; it was a meeting place, possibly at the site of a large oak tree. In the late 13th century Stevenage became a small market town and from 1281 weekly markets were held there. Disaster struck in 1349 with the Black Death, when much of the population was lost. In the hundred years preceding 1901, the town grew to a population of more than 4,000 people; gas street lighting was introduced in 1855 and a piped water supply in 1887. In 1894 Stevenage was granted an urban district council.

The New Town Act was passed in 1946, with a government plan to move people from inner-city London to market towns. Stevenage was the first of these communities to be selected; during the 1950s and 1960s six new neighbourhoods were created, including Bedwell (Fig. 1).

So back to Bedwell and the small urban woodland. The scent of wild garlic in early April beckons me into the wooded area and as the tonal contrast moving between light and shade forces my eyes’ to adjust, the garlic scent grows stronger. I feel myself begin to stoop to the lower levels of the woodland floor, almost on all fours, my knuckles bent inwards, hands becoming feet an urban creature; companion of plants, insects, stuff, terra. A slight breeze parts the lower branches of the trees, revealing another structure, its raw, material cast surface with traces of wood grain and knots, but not made of wood, (Figs. 2, 3 & 4) contingently becoming part of the woodland. The scent of garlic, the cast concrete raw surface structure of the Brutalist Stevenage telephone exchange, and me on all fours becoming vital urban matter.

And why not, after all? The material stuff of things is just that; stuff connected. As Jane Bennett puts it in her 2010 book, Vibrant Matter; A Political Ecology of Things, in response to Theodor Adorno’s statement that we (as beings) crave reconcilement: “For the vital materialist…the starting point of ethics is less the acceptance of the impossibility of ‘reconcilement’ and more the recognition of human participation in a shared vital materiality. We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it…” (Bennett, J, 10, 2010).

The Stevenage telephone exchange, built in 1974, is said by local people to ‘stick out like a sore thumb’, to be a ‘blot on the landscape’ or ‘a thorn in the side’.

Interesting, because blots, plant parts, body parts and landscapes all indicate how powerfully architecture like this can affect people. How powerfully it can resonate with what many people regard as a ‘naturally’ occurring ‘landscape’, how raw a building like the telephone exchange can feel. This is indeed no mistake. And this is where Stevenage New Town embodies the concepts of Brutalist thinking and design. The term Brutalism was first used by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953 when they published their project to build a Soho house with all surfaces left unadorned, in whch the materials would honestly express themselves. Coming from a post-war ethic of ‘make-do-and-mend’ austerity, Alison Smithson wrote: “It is our intention in this building to have structure exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable” (1953, 342).

Brutalism can be viewed as a movement that evokes growth and change, even transformation. These are its often overlooked and misinterpreted powers. Overlooked, it could be argued, because it ‘dares to’ reveal the blurred boundaries between the grotesque and beautiful; it unapologetically proposes or creates problems, rather than answering or illustrating existing ideas.

Brutalism, not limited to the 1950-70s canon but still evolving, emerged through post-war austerity and ‘brut’ expression through material, reflected in Le Corbusier’s 1938 ideas: “…to make beauty by contrast…between crudity and finesse…precision and accident.” Taking Brutalism as a starting point, it has potential as something contingent, evolving and relational, “…an evolutionary not revolutionary movement.” (Joedicke, 1969).

To take this notion of evolutionary momentum, part of the process of re-aligning oneself within the ‘vital materiality’ of ‘stuff’ in the world is possibly – and what I call in my own work – an ‘imaginative thinking backwards’; an unfolding and enfolded practice of oscillation between an aesthetic designed form and an intuitive process of things becoming led by materiality. Brutalism embodies this constant movement, shifting between surface texture and detail and its three-dimensional form; it moves between three, two and three dimensions; form to design/plan and surface to form again.

Returning to my studio from the Stevenage forage I start to recall shapes, forms and textures from my embodied observation, building what I call investigative, imaginative models from foam board, which oscillate between folded plans and forms. (Fig. 5) Allowing the tears and incidental surface indentations and measurements drawn onto the board to remain, as part of the process of thinking, I begin to develop new shapes and forms from my observations of the telephone exchange.

Figs. 6-9 Photograms on 16" x20" Ilford photographic paper, exhibited in Congruous at Saturation Point, August 2021

Fig. 5a & b: Investigative foamboard models

The models, eventually used as moulds for direct casting with Jesmonite plaster, are destroyed during the casting process. The digital photographs of these moulds are a way to fix points in my ‘thinking backwards’ methodology from my direct observation of a structure. Through imaginative and investigative inquiry, and using paper negatives to make unique photograms in the darkroom, I discover new viewpoints: the paper texture and the ‘almost drawn-like’ quality suggest surfaces such as concrete or wood, transforming the foamboard material in the process. (Figs. 6-9)

Here I maintain that an unfolding cartography of the contingent relationship with site emerges in the ‘drawings’; a fresh two-to-three-dimensionality; an affirmation of the textural qualities and vital materiality of the initial experience of observing the Brutalist structures within the context of their location. Here I take the term ‘drawings’ as being within an expanded field, meaning that the light and tones ‘draw’, both by obscuring and by revealing the digitally-printed ink and the paper fibre of the inverted negative prints. Nuances of line, tone, and texture are accentuated, changed and evolved through this process and there is, within these images, an oscillation and interplay between two and three dimensions within the surface of the finished photograms. (Figs. 10 & 11)

The etymology of the word ‘photogram’ is important. It was coined by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1925 as the artistic equivalent of the x-ray, allowing us to see structure, form and depth inside opaque things, potentially creating new understanding of apparently fixed/solid objects. The photograms resonate with Moholy-Nagy’s observation: “…it allows us to capture the patterned interplay of light…without the recourse to any apparatus.”

Fig. 10 & 11 Photograms exhibited at Brutal-Lab, Departure Lounge Gallery, Luton, 2022

It is at this interplay, or intersection, of emerging knowledge that I would maintain that the temporal process of each photogram, the paper fibres of the negative, the nuances of timing the enlarger, the spread of the light, the use of my hands, the shadows and fingerprints that sometimes appear in the photograms (Fig. 12 & 13), together enable an imaginative evolution of new images and structures. It is during this intuitive and embodied operation of drawing that new ontogenic mapping, unfolding practice and knowledge of existing structures and sites may occur.

Fig. 12 Excavators 2, 2022, 16 machine stitched darkroom photograms, 82x100 cm

Fig. 13 Scooper no. 2, 2022, 16 machine stitched darkroom photograms, 82x100 cm

This search for new perspectives through investigation of existing structures and sites, is what I term my ‘Brutal-Foraging’ work cycle. The aim is to problematise and re-present rather than represent the organic/inorganic ‘stuff’ of urban sites, such as Stevenage and Luton (Figs. 14-17). To think radically, as Thatcher and Dalton observe, using the starting point of a psycho-geographical derive is “…to understand urban: the structure of cities in their continuities of ambience, nexuses, connections and barriers.”

Fig. 14 Disused ABC cinema 1938 Luton                  

Fig. 15 The old Arndale Mall façade, Luton

Fig. 16 & 17 The Sundon Park water tower, Luton, Bedfordshire

Fig. 18 Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022

In New Materialist terms, with the vital materiality of all the stuff around us, I argue this has the potential to resonate with what Debra Shaw, in Posthuman Urbanism, discusses as an oppositional position, which aims to challenge the ‘…exclusionary practices that have produced the human as a category and object of study’ (2017, p10) as a way to re-draw and examine; a re-imagining within audiences and local communities of the spectacle (Debord, 1967) of the media portrayal of the often maligned and overlooked architecture of urban sites.

The imaginative re-drawing is intended to propose new forms and images which may highlight the different relationships and balances possible between the organic/inorganic, animate/inanimate stuff of places in the everyday around us, beyond the here and now. (Figs. 18-20)

Fig. 19 Excavators 2, part of the Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022

Fig. 20 Scooper 2, part of the Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022