Wander off the Béton Track with us
GreyScapers want to hear about what you love or fascinates you about the modern built environment. Send us your photo essays and stories or simply your favourite collection of photos that best capture a city you know or think we should all know about. It maybe that you are fascinated by somewhere because of it’s place in history or because it has stood the test of time
Visiting Bobigny, a city situated in the North-East Paris suburb, is a must for fans of brutalism. Oscar Niemeyer was amongst the titans who created masterpieces that continue to shape the urban landscape. In 1968, Bobigny became the Prefecture (a loose translation is Police Headquarters) for the Seine-Saint-Denis regional area. A new modern city centre was created to show Bobigny’s elevated status. I’m actually a resident of Pantin, a neighbour so to speak, and I’m a frequent visitor to Bobigny. My first visit way back was for the city’s Heritage Day, a french version of Open House.
I had the chance to visit Oscar Niemeyer’s 1978 masterpiece, the Bourse Départementale du Travail. It’s auditorium is known locally as the “goéland” (the gull) or the “albatros” (albatross), because of its bird shape. Its original function was to be a centre of activity and auditorium for Unions and as a local administrative centre. The interior is bathed in the three colours of the Brazilian flag: green, yellow and blue. The photo I took is from the fourth floor.
My personal favorite brutalist building in Bobigny is the city hall. Built in 1974 by Marius Depont and Michel Holley, this is a concrete beast, as a fellow fan of brutalism when you visit you can judge for yourself.
Another brutalist building of note is The Prefecture, a centre of administration designed in 1971. It is the work of the architect Michel Folliasson. Catch a glimpse of Marta Pan sculptures which contrast so well with the very dark beton brut building.
An esplanade is a planned open space, in Bobigny it is dedicated to resistance fighter, Jean Moulin and is home to the DRHIL, the Regional and Interdepartmental Housing authority and is well worth photographing
To finish this brutalist pilgrimage, a must is Saint-André church, situated between the Bourse Départementale du Travail and the city hall. This fascinating religious building was designed by Marius Depont in 1982.
Photo credit: Joni Arlene
The Barbican through an Artist's Eye
I live and work as an artist in the corner flat of Frobisher Crescent above the Barbican Arts complex. My painting of the Crescent was exhibited and sold at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017. The architecture of the Barbican is the landscape and inspiration for most of my paintings. I am actively engaged with representing and reflecting the experience of being here. I am an anthropologist as much as an artist, watching, observing, being here… but a local anthropologist – taking both an objective and subjective eye onto my world. For me, the Barbican is my personal space. It’s where I live, eat, breathe. It’s the first thing that confronts me when I wake up, what I look at out of my window all day long, the last thing I see before I close the shutters and curtains at night. If I wander into my studio in the middle of the night, the Barbican and the City is there, confronting me again in dark, strange forms and Hopper-like lights in flats, office blocks, the conservatory roof, the School…
The society I am immersed in studying is part human and part material. I am not so much living on top of the Barbican Theatre and Concert Hall as actually living inside the drama of the Barbican itself. There’s the action right below me daily: gigantic air vents which march across the roof of the Barbican Centre in a formidable set of sculptural forms and colours, constantly changing as the light and shadows evoke different moods – yet also always familiarly present, weighty, permanent, fixed. The drama is constantly being played out in different acts, depending on the time of day, light, weather conditions: a landscape wracked by torrential rain and winds, covered in a palette of snow or bathed in dry sunlight, like an African village…
There is also the constant reminder of the City that forms a backdrop to the Barbican: ancient Roman walls, St Pauls, the Shard, post-modernist glass buildings, some in different stages of construction, cranes, planes and helicopters: a seemingly endless interaction with a constantly emerging world beyond the Barbican.
The Barbican however is my central protagonist: its viewpoint is my litmus test, it is my heavens’ embroidered cloth and the dreams under my feet… There are few human actors, mostly extras: stick-like Lowry figures on the podium by the School in red jumpers; teenagers hanging out in the Sculpture Court occasionally; builders drilling, window cleaners or engineers inspecting the roofs or balconies.
At night, through the glowing windows of the Crescent, I glimpse signs of humanity – humans by numinous screens, shadows by the windows. During the day, the life is to be found in the colours in the boob-like half crescent windows of the Crescent and beyond – lights and colours that dance a jig – that have texture and emotion – that belie the so-called austere, masculine starkness that is often associated with Brutalism. I don’t see any cruelty or austerity in the way the Estate was built – only real care, attention to detail and design and security in its expensive materials, the thorough way in which each entrance hall way was constructed, each door knob. I feel I am always processing its grandeur and majesty.
But equally, there is intricacy – subtlety, fragility, delicacy, small details on the roofs in ladders and gutters, fine lines in the tiles, small comforts to be found in the strangest places. The Barbican is replete with small interesting angles to consider; I’ll be walking towards the podium lift, and suddenly be drawn towards the image on the glass, the way it is juxtaposed with the concrete and I will have found my subject matter for the next piece. My work is tiny, miniscule in comparison with the mass of forms here – partly because I am working in a small space: also because I am making art for small spaces, for people who live in small flats here and primarily because I see something intimate in all the varied concrete forms.
I appreciate the primitive sculptural nature of the design and this aesthetic has influenced my choice of materials: sometimes I use recycled papers incorporating an unconscious use of colours once applied consciously – the memory of different light on the same landscape; charcoal – constantly breaking in my hands – reminding me that the Barbican broke with staid convention. The Barbican is often represented in precise, formal lines in posters, architectural drawings, photographs – but in my art, I see its raw, vivid and textural quality. It’s become very personal: I don’t take criticism of the Barbican lightly, tread softly!
The Bauhaus Weavers
Visiting the Bauhaus School in Dessau was a special moment. The name is so familiar and the images but standing on those stairs thinking about who raced up and down them turned out to be a magical moment. Windows, lighting above simplicity of design and choice of colour brought together so many images, stories and inspirations. Imagine standing in the middle of Oscar Schlemmer’s 1932 painting ‘Bauhaus Stairway’ or immersing yourself into Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art 1988 ‘Study for Bauhaus Staircase’. It was that sort of feeling. (Schlemmer who escaped after the school was forced to close in ’33, lived in the US and his painting’s new home became the stairway at MOMA in New York, whilst Lichtenstein put his in the stairway of his loft in Greenwich Village.