Florence Heyworth: London’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon – Alexandra Road Estate Then and Now

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council's Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council’s Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

        ‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature
        trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of
        nature or been
stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows
        opposite with a copper glow’.
[1]

        Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.

Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.[2]    

In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration.[3] His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people[4], a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.[5] 

Exterior view of Alexandra Road flats backing onto a train track.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, NW8, London, England. Camden Architects Department. negative number: B88/811. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_001.

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. "Early morning visit... still looking visionary!".

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. “Early morning visit… still looking visionary!”.

Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half).[6] Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again.[7] However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.[8]

Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.[9]

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts.[10] Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.

However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’[11]

Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’,[12] perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.[13]

Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit,[14] while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold, [15] but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.[16]

The misrepresentations of the estate in the media have led to several community-led documentary projects, including the 2012 documentary ‘One Below the Queen’ and the 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’. For more information about filming on the estate, see http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film

Exterior view of Rowley Way, the main street on the Alexandra Road Estate. NW8, London, England.

Camden Architects Department. Negative number: B88/810. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_005.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on Instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’.[17] In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’.[18]  However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative.[19] The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’[20]  

 

Further material:

Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist
I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!

Blogs to Explore
See Sophie Bailey’s I Suppose It’s Not The Place’s Fault and Ben Britton’s The New Towns Are No Longer New for fascinating insights into the social housing of the 1950s.

Bibliography:
Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
Wei W (2008) Housing terraces in the UK (Part II). 7 July. Available on: https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
Andrew M (1993) Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing? In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993): 14-15.
Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by National Building Agency. In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
Swenarton M (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981. In: Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
McLennan W (2017) Our estate, the movie set? We just want you to fix our boilers, say residents. Camden New Journal, 7 December. Available on: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents

Endnotes:
[1] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[2] Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[3] https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
[4] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14
[5] London Borough of Camden, Housing Committee, 1 April 1969. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[6] Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by the National Building Agency.” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
[7] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[8] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[9] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[10] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[11] http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents
[12] https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/02/10/stop-portraying-council-estates-as-crime-ridden-and
[13] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[14] https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/working-class-streetwear-high-fashion
[15] https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/the-alexandra-road-estate-camden-a-magical-moment-for-english-housing/
[16] https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/brutal-attraction-meet-the-londoners-who-live-in-the-citys-most-controversial-buildings-a3278566.html
[17] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive : 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14.
[18] Andrew Freear, “Alexandra Road: The last great social housing project,” AA Files, vol. 30, 1995, 35.
[19] News Update (September 2015). http://www.rowleyway.org.uk
[20] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html


Florence Heyworth
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Victoria Bennett: Worker/Housewife – Designing the Frankfurt Kitchen

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text version

The mid-1920s in Frankfurt, Germany saw a desperate housing shortage. The First World War had swept through the city a few years prior, leaving the need for much of its housing to be re-built. In 1925, architect and city planner Ernst May was employed to head a new social housing project, known as the New Frankfurt, which would see the construction of 10,000 new homes for the working classes. It would be the largest social housing project of the Weimar years.

A modernist designer with utopian ideals, May saw the New Frankfurt project as an opportunity for increased domestic liberation through design. Inspired by the emerging theories of ‘efficiency engineering’ and household rationalisation – ideas which promoted the time-saving possibilities of ‘better’ object placement and applied them to the home – May believed that a well-designed home could make life easier for its occupants. He enlisted the help of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky – Austria’s first female architect and fellow efficiency advocate – to design a new and thoroughly modern kitchen, befitting of this vision. The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it has come to be known, is arguably the most important legacy of the New Frankfurt project and is widely recognised as the first example of the modern fitted kitchen, as we know it today.

An exterior shot of the building showing wisteria arranged under the windows

Ernst May House, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


The 1920s were a time of social change for women in Germany. Declared to be the equals of men, women were granted the vote under the Weimar constitution. Increasingly, women were single, working, and less interested in family life, and the figure of the ‘New Woman’ emerged as a symbol – with her shorter hair and traditionally ‘unfeminine’ attire – depicting this shift.

The New Woman symbolised a lifestyle of work and leisure, following the expansion of employment and education opportunities that became available to women during the War. However, many took an aversion to this new sense of female independence. Conservatives worried about the long-term effect the New Woman might have on traditional values, as more women were in university than men, male joblessness was high, and the birth rate had dropped. Fewer women were working as servants, and so many middle-class homes also found themselves at a loss. A coalition of interest groups began to steadily form, seeking to readdress the woman’s place as being in the home, and the idea of the ‘professional’ housewife emerged, using efficiency engineering – specifically, its scientific language and approach – to intellectualise the idea of housekeeping. Suddenly, the same notion of rationalisation so embraced by modernist architects for its critique of traditional design was being used in socio-political terms to argue that the home would provide a suitable and modern experience for women, and, thanks to its new methodology, would be held in the same regard as a man’s professional work. This campaign to reaffirm the domestic sphere resulted in the introduction of a state policy called ‘Female Redomestication’, and education and employment options for women were largely diminished once again, as they returned to the home.

Back in Frankfurt, Lihotzky was designing her efficient kitchen. She consulted housewives and experts, drew inspiration from the spatial design of factory floors and train dining cars, and studied psychological and material evaluations. She realised that by placing the sink, stove and workspaces in a triangle, less time was spent walking between each. Her final design came pre-equipped – for the first time – with built-in storage, a gas stove, fold-down ironing board, adjustable ceiling light and a swivel stool. It was the first German kitchen with electricity. Efficiency was in every detail: the cupboards were painted blue as it was understood to be fly-repellent; cutting surfaces were made from beech to resist staining and knife marks; aluminium chutes were designed to hold staples such as flour and sugar for easy storage and pouring. The floor space, measuring in at just 1.9 x 3.44 metres, was decreed optimum for carrying out the tasks therein, and the room could be shut away with its sliding door.

It was designed as a gleaming embrace of technology and the future. It waved goodbye to the time-consuming and labour-intensive traditional kitchen: poorly ventilated, dimly lit, disorganised, and badly furnished. Lihotzky had optimised domesticity. She would later say that by doing so, it acted ‘very well as propaganda’ for the ‘bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen’, and was aware that her gender, as designer, added to this narrative. Nevertheless, she would describe her time spent on the New Frankfurt project as amongst “a group that stood up for certain principles and architectural ideas, and fought for them uncompromisingly”.

How is it possible for such different interpretations of efficiency (conservative ideas of re-domestication, and modernist ideas of liberation through design) to co-exist? The answer lies in a 1923 book by author and housewife Christine Frederick, titled ‘Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home’, which has been referred to as the ‘the bible of progressive architects of the 1920s’.

long and narrow kitchen fitted with functionality in mind

The Frankfurt Kitchen. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04374_F001_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


“Couldn’t we standardise dishwashing by raising the height of the sink? Did we not waste time and needless walking in poorly arranged kitchens? I came to earnestly believe that scientific management could, and must, solve housework problems as it had already solved other work problems”.

The quote above – from the introduction of Household Engineering – begins a rallying cry for improved health, design and efficiency in the home. Frederick coined the concept of scientific home management after she began to apply the same principles used by her husband (who worked as an Efficiency Engineer) to her work as housewife, realising its time-saving potential. Her husband’s profession gave her writing credence and an ideological slant: with better working practices, the housewife would be freer. Architects used the practical advice in Household Engineering and applied it to their floorplans, and May and Lihotzky recognised the evolutionary role that considered design could have for the occupants of their social housing. However, this is perhaps where the cross-over of progressive design and domestication ends. While Household Engineering explores in detail how best to carry out housework, it takes a less radical approach towards who will be doing this work. Frederick frequently refers to the person in the kitchen as ‘the worker’, and it’s clear from Household Engineering’s floorplans of accompanying servant quarters that working-class women were expected to provide labour for middle-class households as servants still, only now with ‘scientific’ guidance on which tasks it would be acceptable for them to sit down during: “This permits the worker to give her entire energy to it, thus resulting in quicker and better work”.

If there was any question as to what the New Woman would do with her newly saved time, Frederick seems to imply the answer is more work. Indeed, Frederick herself admits to pouring her saved time back into improving her workflow, to every minor detail: “Every day I tried to find new ways, new methods and new short cuts in my home problems. If I made out a good schedule of work for one week I tried to improve on it for the week following. No housework detail was too small or too unimportant”. 

A question naturally arises from this: how did the architects and designers of the New Frankfurt envision occupants using their newly rationalised space?

Velvet sofa positioned with its back away from the window. Window lined with spiky plants like agave and aloe.

Architect’s House. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.

Throughout the project, May published a journal of the same name (Das Neue Frankfurt) and a 1927 article titled “The new apartment and the household effects” (Die Neue Wohnung und der Hausrat) written by Franz Schuster (architect and furniture designer) sheds a light on the team’s vision for women and their labour. It suggests intellectual pastimes in place of housework, and views the latter as unimportant and to be done quickly through improved efficiency: “The woman no longer wants to spend the entire day cleaning the house and doing meaningless things; she wants to be able to take part in contemporary intellectual life, and must be able to survive in the economic competition. She can no longer afford to waste her thought and effort on trivial things, whether she is a mother, or wife, or on her own – she wants to be a valuable comrade-in-arms in the building of a new Era. Thus she must demand of her home – as we do from everything else – that it not restrict the development of our best and most vital powers, but rather advance them; no one would claim that dusting, cleaning, and furniture brushing are particularly valuable in themselves. Thus the Era itself demands the new [efficient] household”.

It has been said before that the modernist movement set out to change more than architecture, and the Frankfurt Kitchen is a good example of this. Its design was intended to make life easier for Frankfurt inhabitants, helping women to spend less time on their own chores. The main criticism of its design at the time centred on the small scope for individualisation that the built-in furnishings allowed for, particularly at a time where women were spending more time at home. However, Lihotkzy has maintained that herself and the wider Frankfurt team considered the efficient kitchen an emancipatory space, describing it as “a modern laboratory where work was able to be done as quickly as possible”. She hoped to create a culture of less housework, and her kitchen is a successful piece of design which improved – with lasting effects – convenience, technology, health and safety and workflow within the home. It would go on to influence kitchen design through to current day, and it served as Lihotzky’s contribution to the issue of housework.

The Frankfurt Kitchen provided a means, rather than an end, to a problem.

However, it did so by designing a vision of the future where efficiency equated to greater freedoms (both leisurely and intellectually) – so that when society was ready to move in the same direction, the structures for positive change would be already in place.


Victoria Bennett 
Digitisation Assistant

Layers of London Highlights: Records by Michael Mayes

 

Introduction by Fran Allfrey, volunteer officer

 

You can now find over 80 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.

Anyone is able to log on and add photographs that they have taken themselves, and many museums, archives, and libraries have been adding their collection items too. Most importantly, anyone is able to just explore the map!

Since lockdown in March 2020, over 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!

In this post, we have reproduced four of seventeen records (and counting) made by our volunteer Michael. Thank you, Michael, for creating so many evocative records, which really show the variety of photographs in the Conway Library.

Michael says: “My favourite photograph is one of Anthony Kersting’s – The Horniman Museum. It’s a place I know well from visits and he captures it in that unique way he has, making a building, no matter how familiar, appear to you as if for the first time.
My favourite entry, however, is of The Crown Tavern. I hope I’ve captured the nostalgia of the period and the central role pubs played in social life particularly as we have lost so many already and no doubt more to come.”

Records created by Michael Mayes

 

The Crown Tavern, Aberdeen Place, London. Architect CH Worley, built 1898. CON_B04084_F002_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Crown Tavern, 23 Aberdeen Place, London NW8

This pub is sadly no longer with us, having sold its last drink in March 2004. Its new incarnation is a striking residential property restored to show off its late Victorian origins. This image is intriguing. The wonderfully decorated windows invite the sunlight to steal in, throwing panes of light across the floor and wall, and highlighting a coat on its peg. A restless dog lingers near its master. A half-finished beer stands on the table, where on the opposite side a man sits, rolling his smoke, with a pint of Dublin’s finest waiting to be enjoyed. Cheers!

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, erected in 1942. CON_B04266_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London WC1 

Badly damaged by bombing in World War Two, the then-named Holford Square was condemned in 1948 and rebuilt to plans drawn up by the architect Berthold Lubetkin. It was renamed Bevin Court and located in Holford Gardens. Lubetkin had previously, in 1942, designed and installed the memorial you see in the photograph. In an uncanny parallel with events in June 2020 when protesters targeted statues of figures involved in the slave trade, Lenin’s memorial was regularly damaged and defaced, and eventually it was buried by Lubetkin beneath a staircase when Bevin Court was being built. The photograph featured in an exhibition, British Art and Design Before the War, at the Hayward Gallery in 1979-80. The photographer has captured an image of what could be considered an understated design: the arch above Lenin’s head, the inset inscription, the housing set at a downward angle. Note, however, the security chain around the base, a sign, perhaps, of the protests to come.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge, London. Opened 1865. CON_B04108_F003_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge

This image featuring the railway bridge is undated though there are some clues as to the period in which it was taken. The clothes worn by a small group of young people in front of the King Lud pub on the left suggest the 1950s or earlier 1960s; note also the bus and the traffic light design. Scrutinise the cyclists hurtling down the hill, drop-handle racers having a great time in the light traffic – it is probably not rush hour. The City is either at rest, suggesting a weekend, or in an urgency of homeward bound city workers still toiling at their desks.

The Horniman Museum, London. Photographed by Anthony Kersting, 1990. CON_B04088_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Horniman Museum

The Museum opened on its present site in 1901. It is well known and frequently attended and plenty of information can be derived from its website. This image, taken by Anthony Kersting, exemplifies his approach to photography. Judging by the leafless trees, it appears to have been taken in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. The long shadow raking from the left anchors the building, which is highlighted and framed. Sky detail is minimal but the wisp of cloud is such a delight. The vehicle passing in front of the building suggests a longish exposure. Time, care and attention to detail whisper quietly from this image.

See all the records created by Michael here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/users/2090

And all the Conway Library photographs on Layers of London here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446 

Corrina Summers: Contested Spaces – Capturing Modernist Architecture in Postcolonial India

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black and white photo of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_010

With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. [1] Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.

Colour images of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

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Colour image of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

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Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.

Black and white interior shot of the Chandigarh's Royal Assembly, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04392_F002_021

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_010

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_005

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_004

Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”. [2] The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building and Open Hand monument, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_015


Corrina Summers
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References

  1. Malhotra, A., Chandigarh Exhibited in New York (2013) <https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/17/chandigarh-exhibited-in-new-york/> [accessed 11 December 2019].
  2. Shipman, Gertrude (5 October 2014). Ultimate Handbook Guide to Chandigarh : (India) Travel Guide. MicJames. pp. 7–. GGKEY:32JTRTZ290J.

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Humi

Text Version

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.

Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.   

Spa Green Estate in Finsbury, EC1, opened in 1949. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.

The Finsbury Health Centre Façade, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.

Poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, 1943 by Abram Games, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 2911)

A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.

The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.

The Finsbury Health Centre Mural by Gordon Cullen, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

 


Aya Bolt
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Sophie Bailey: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault”

Audio Version

Read by Elena Vardon

Text Version

Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.

Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… When they leave to go home I do not want the better-off people to go to the right, and the less-well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other “are you going my way?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, "Stevenage High Street Constable".

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage High Street Constable”. CC BY NC.

Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.

The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.

Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Kent House”. CC BY NC.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage Mural”. CC BY NC.

However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.

 

Further material:

New Towns Spotify playlist

These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.

Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project

Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.

 

 


Sophie Bailey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Lorraine Stoker: Modernity in the Conway

Audio Version

Read by Anna Thompson

Text Version

When I started volunteering on the digitisation programme, I never thought it would reignite my interest in the history of art. Yet here I am in the second year of a part-time M.A. in History of Art and Photography, and loving every moment of the challenge. I am about to start my final essay before commencing the dissertation, and I have chosen as my final option This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60.

CON_B04266_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Professor Mark Crinson (University of London) describes the option module as a study of the entanglements of architecture and ideas of modernity, the home and the city in mid-twentieth century Britain, as well as how these issues related to Britain’s place in the world and its relation to its empire. Modernity, whether through the arrival of modernism or the various forms of state modernisation, has long been the focus of written accounts of modern architecture in Britain.

CON_B04266_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The Conway library has led to this and is already proving a fantastic resource in my initial reading and research. There is an excellent collection of London photographs, which I am slowly helping to label, while also identifying useful images for use in the Architecture and Modernism essay and for discussion in seminars.
While I am looking forward to studying the Conway photographs in relation to mainstream Modernism, the influence of émigré architects and the search for utopia is already evident and enthralling in the photographs I have labelled and catalogued. The amazing Bevin Court (a personal favourite) is one of several post-war modernist housing projects in London designed by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect and pioneer of modernist design in the 1930s.

CON_B04279_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

An organised visit to the penthouse at The Isokon Building (Lawn Green Flats) was impressive. Built in 1934, The Isokon is a rare Grade 1 listed modernist building and an example of a progressive experiment in urban living at the time. The building was home to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, headteacher of art at the Bauhaus school. Early advertising stated: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” Acquired by Camden Borough Council in 1972, it gradually deteriorated until the 1990s, when it was abandoned completely. Avanti Architects, specialists in refurbishing modernist buildings, restored the Isokon in 2004. The Conway photographs and images from the current sales listing of the Isokon penthouse – at nearly a million pounds – provides a fascinating insight into the concept of ‘one-room living’.

CON_B04279_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Then there is BRUTALISM! I really am spoilt for choice, as photographs of key Brutalist buildings in London are also found in the Conway archives. Watch this space, as I delve further into this incredible resource and identify a research title worthy of the Conway collection of London’s 20th century architecture.

 


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lorraine Stoker on visiting the Tate Archives

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

Text Version

I have been volunteering at the Courtauld Institute since March 2017. Throughout my thirty-eight years of teaching Art, Design and Art History in inner-London schools I have visited the Courtauld Gallery many times and have also participated in the Institute’s more recent schools outreach and broadening participation activities. However, it was the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, involving the creation of an online archive of 1.1 million images from their own image collection, with the 20th century housing projects and the Anthony Kersting Middle Eastern photographic collection, which attracted my attention. As Sir Nicolas Serota commented, the project ‘is an exciting contemporary expression of Samuel Courtauld’s belief that ‘art is for the people’, and I was eager to play a small part in the transformation of the Courtauld archives into a national and international public resource.

As a volunteer, I have access to the Courtauld, its community, exhibitions, events and collections. I can even view and sit in awe of the Gauguins every day now! In addition, working as part of a great team, the practical training and experience in cataloguing, handling, transcribing and digitising historical material and in creating a digital archive has certainly been educational and highly rewarding.

Visiting the Tate Archives as part of our training and development was a fantastic experience. After walking through the bowels of the art gallery, with its air conditioning and heating ducts – even an old delivery bicycle – past the spectacular spiral staircase inspired by the original floor tiles, we entered the ‘Site Timeline’ – a drum-shaped room at the heart of the building. This room, a small part of the highly successful £45m revamp, is dedicated to the History of the site and is set within the foundation of the oldest part of the building’s structure, Millbank Prison.  I was well-aware of the history of The Tate as a prison, but it was quite remarkable to hear that in the 1960s there was a serious proposal to add a brutalist, modern extension to the building!

The new staircase, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

One interesting part of the renovation I have since identified is that when designing the rotunda mirrored bar in the Members Room, the architects Caruso St John were inspired by the Courtauld’s own A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet.

Though a regular visitor, I had never got further than the Djanogly Cafè, so The Digital Archive corridor – with its gallery of touchscreens – certainly surprised and impressed me. You can reference a work of art in the Tate collection, access the image of the painting or sculpture and compare it next to the digitised image of the archival item. It was amazing to digitally turn the pages of a Donald Rodney sketchbook, and I have just discovered I can do this on my laptop.

A photograph showing a corridor in the Tate. Along the side of the corridor are large touch screens, where visitors can 'flip through' digitised sketchbooks and art works.

The touch screens in the Digital Archive corridor the Tate, where you can explore digitised items from the collection. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms were next. There, we heard about the 1928 flood and the new flood doors which are, of course, still untested!

At the start of the digitisation of its collection, the Tate’s mission statement was ‘to fulfil our responsibility to promote public enjoyment, knowledge, and understanding of British and international art, we decided that our selection of archive material should follow these principles and reflect that this collection belonged to the nation’. The sheer scale of the Tate’s Archive digitisation, now in its third year, is overwhelming, with over 52,000 pieces already captured, all of which are available to view on the website. This stands in addition to the 65,000 paintings, sculpture and works on paper, also available to browse online. The aim is to take the largest archive of British art in the world and make it accessible to national and international online audiences, so with new collections coming in each year, this is an ongoing task.

The Courtauld’s Photographic Library digitisation project is in its first six-month developmental phase and this Tate Britain visit certainly put into context the extensive possibilities within an innovative digitisation programme and public online interaction, such as crowdsourcing, transcription algorithms, and the development of new routes into the collection in addition to the traditional paths of art or title based retrieval.  Without doubt, this insight into the successful digitisation project at the Tate Britain has galvanised the Courtauld Connects volunteers, as we look forward to the completion of the developmental phase and the exciting possibilities over the next four years.

Tate Britain and Vickers Tower, 12th September 1964, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_G4137)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W1000)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W0999)