Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Party at Balfron Tower

A crowd of people storm up stadium steps on Sunday and on Monday the steps are deserted. Just the railings and the concrete remain. People whirl around a turquoise dance floor and have blurry memories of a girl’s hair and an amber light that haloed her in the morning.  Simon Terrill’s exhibition Phantom at Sutton gallery explores the nature of people, place and time in photography.  Terrill is able to capture moments of great human frenzy and excitement and then the stillness and consistency of the spaces they inhabit. These joyous and ephemeral moments become memories that will morph and change as they are remembered. However, the concrete stays still and objective and (like an Aldous Huxley nightmare) can be wiped clean of today’s individuals and gets ready for the next batch. Balfron Tower is photographic mural of the dark, monolith housing estate in which Terrill lives. Balfron Tower had been designed by Erno Goldfinger as part of a post war vision of a vertical London. In the process of constructing this photograph, Terrill enables the residents of the building to make their mark on the place they live their life. By photographing it, Terrill makes the human moments, however small and quirky, rival the longevity of the steel and cement.

The residents of Balfron Tower are out on their balconies or on the green lawn in front of the building celebrating with coloured lights, potplants and streamers and cups of tea and TVs on and holding hands and making joyous circles. The building has been flood lit and has been photographed from a distance so all of the residents seem tiny. It feels similar to looking at a model railway where we are initially awed by the size and scale of the construction and then on looking more closely start to marvel at the detail. We get the perspective of perhaps some omnipotent being that sees all and can peer into any apartment we choose or perhaps we are just a little voyeur who lives in their own big concrete slab across the street.  

The cold and blocky architecture of the Brutalism movement in the 1950s – 70s was founded on a socialist utopian ideology. Erno Goldfinger was part of this movement who wanted to create highly functional, uncompromising, antibourgeois buildings that would be affordable and honest. However, the great grey masses tended to look rather unfriendly and miserable and would stick out from the rest of the urban environment like stark, alien fortresses.  We see in Balfron Towers these small, dark bridges across to the lift tower on each floor.  These bridges have an ominous narrowness in comparison to the bulk of the building. Like a gangplank of a pirate ship, they suggest limited ways to get out once you’re in. The building was said to evoke ‘a delicate sense of terror’.

Terrill picks up on the terror. The floodlit building against the dark sky with the small celebrating figures throughout it fills us with an existential chill. When we start to look at the little groups we see one has written the word disco in lights on their balcony, others have suspended a little donkey piñata between the floors with colourful streamers. All these tiny people, with their tiny expressions of joy or laughter seem so vulnerable. This architecture does not encourage individuals to express themselves outwardly. So while these residents may be close to their neighbours in proximity, they are encouraged to keep personal expression to the confines of their apartment. The building protects these humans from really having to live together and accept diversity.

 By constructing these joyous crowd scenes, Terrill comments on the original utopian ideals of the architects. Utopias rely on a sense of a communal whole that puts aside the needs for individual expression. The little individuals contrast their expressions of happiness with the giant looming ideals of promised freedom and equality that the building evokes. We know this moment of togetherness and community will end like a New Years Eve countdown and they will kiss and say goodnight and wake up to concrete and the gangplanks down to the lifts. However, this does not have to end so melancholically. The project itself was very uplifting for the residents of the building and they got a great deal of joy and empowerment from this event.


at Sutton Gallery

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