Keelin Willis: The Creative City

    “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.” (Mumford, 1937: 185)

 

Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.

However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.

That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.

To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.

This is a derivative work by the blog's author, Keelin Willis, superimposing a colour image of the skatepark on the original southbank structure.

An adaptation of CON_B04286_F001_006 – the skate park (that can be found today) has been graphically imposed onto the original photograph of the Undercroft using GIMP. Image by Keelin Willis.


Keelin Willis
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References:

  • Hall P (1998) Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and the urban order. Weidenfield and Nicholson: London.
  • Mumford L (1937)What is a City? Architectural Record, LXXXII.

Ruby Gaffney: Pictures of London in the Age of Social Media

The Courtauld’s digitisation project acknowledges that the online world has radically changed who can consume culture, and how they can do so. The collection will no longer be confined to a basement library. By putting the collection online for the public to access for free, its potential reach will span to anyone anywhere, so long as they have internet access. The photographs can be put to more diverse academic purposes, but they can also be browsed recreationally or looked at through a personal viewpoint.

During the time I’ve spent interning at the Courtauld and getting involved in the digitisation process, I’ve been thinking about the digital age and how it has changed the way we both consume and create photographs. Social media means that anyone with access to a smartphone has the ability to take unlimited high-quality photos, a platform to share them, and an audience. I can scroll on Instagram and find endless pictures – it feels like another photographic library, condensed into tiny digital form.

I find a parallel between the Courtauld’s aim of converting older mounted physical photographs into new digital files, and my own aim in compiling this post: to consider the personal photography which now saturates our newsfeeds from family and friends as an accessible new form of artistic expression.

After browsing the Conway library’s many images of London, I went on social media to see how ordinary people today choose to capture the same locations from the collection. As would be expected, the comparisons show how much London has changed. For example, I barely recognised a photo dated 1963-8 of a few gloomy pillars overlooking the Thames, as Instagram is now full of colourful videos and pictures of this space – now the iconic Southbank skate park. In other comparisons, we can also see increased crowds in the background, more modern vehicles, and advanced lighting and technology (particularly prevalent in images of theatres or galleries, or of Oxford Street.)

The comparisons also show changes in what we prioritise in this new medium of photography. Our profiles are intrinsically linked with our identities, so the pictures from social media focus on people to a much greater extent than those from the library. Even if a person isn’t the focal subject of the photo, the image always contains an implicit awareness of the person behind the camera. Unless we post anonymously, no photo is impersonal. What emerges from the pictures in the Conway collection is a series of images of London at a particular time. What emerges in the photos on Instagram is someone experiencing a particular place at the time of posting.

At the same time, however, the impulse to capture and share these London landmarks is felt by both professional and recreational photographers throughout the decades. I spoke to a few Instagram users about their experiences with sharing photography on social media. Responses were varied, but most people shared a feeling that social media has increased, or created, their interest in photography, and inspired them to take pictures of their surroundings. Digitised collections like the Conway library have a similar potential to inspire online viewers.

Charing Cross:

CON_B04110_F002_003

CON_B04110_F002_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Charing Cross, taken from Instagram

Image @jaxcov on Instagram.

“There’s so much amazing photography on social media which easily grabs your attention. This definitely made me want to take better photos of my own!”

Thames Barrier: 

View of the Thames Barrier through pillars, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Thames Barrier taken from Instagram

Image @bradleywaller on Instagram.

Sunset view of the Thames Barrier from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013B. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of sunny thames barrier

Image @sassykirkham on Instagram.

“I take pictures of the street, the sky… basically I take pictures of all around me. I don’t take many pictures of myself.”

Courts of Law:

View of the Law Courts from above, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F003_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Red bus in front of royal courts of justice, taken from instagram.

Image @ambhout on Instagram.

proposed plans of the Courts of Law, dated 1871.

CON_B04089_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

“Social media has made me more interested in photography – it’s hard not to get roped into the constant stream of inspiration. I always wanna try out the things I see online.”

“I have over 4000 pictures on my phone’s camera roll, and probably about 5 times that amount on my computer. I only have physical copies of a tiny fraction of these! I think that’s an exciting thing about my generation: that we have so many images of our lives.”

Kings Cross Station:

View from 2nd floor of the old St Pancras Station. From the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F001_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset over King's Cross station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

Sunset over london's King's cross railway station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

“When I was younger I was highly influenced by likes, but since 3 years ago I don’t really care. I just post photos that I think are cool and interesting.”

“Taking pictures of myself forces me to look into a mirror and find the qualities that I can love.”

National Gallery:

A profile view of the National Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04092_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of London's National Gallery

Image @kikustralala on Instagram.

“I post what I want, and pay little attention to the likes, follows and comments. When I do look, I find it interesting rather than introverting. In the past I have deleted a photo due to it not getting many likes. But recently I haven’t done that.”

Barbican estate:

Image of the Barbican estate from the Conway Library.

CON_B04266_F005_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Barbican Estate

Image @captainmcnamara on Instagram.

“I love photography in general. But social media has made me love being in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love being part of movements especially for black women like myself. I want to show their beauty through my own photography and myself.”

Image @hhhelss on Instagram.

Trellick Tower:

Image of the Trellick Tower from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of trellick tower from instagram

Image @craig85smith on Instagram.

Full image of the Trellick tower, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of Trellick Tower from Instagram

Image @ill.diary on Instagram

“I post pictures of my family and friends and things I love.”

Image @valentina___vi on Instagram.

Oxford Street:

London, Oxford Street, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04283_F001_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in Oxford Street

Image @aissis_thatsme on Instagram.

“I both like and dislike that social media has made me take more pictures. I dislike it because when I see something beautiful my first instinct is to take a picture rather than just enjoy it.”

“It has totally changed the way we view photos – the art of capture has become diluted with “clout” chasing.”

Royal Albert Hall: 

Drawing of the Royal Albert Hall, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall taken from Instagram

Image @loucatrin106 on Instagram.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall's staircase, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of the Royal Albert Hall

Image @littleredridingmarika on Instagram.

“I like social media because it feels like I can create my own personal catalogue of things I’ve seen and done. Even without sharing it with other people, I like that I can scroll through and see a highlights reel of memories from my life.”

“I like the idea of capturing my point of view wherever I go and sharing it with the people that I know.”

Southbank:

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @oriolbech on Instagram.

Contrast view of the part of the Southbank which is now the skatepark, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @bernardoberbari on Instagram.

“I like London’s diversity and how it feels like a busy yet congenial place full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I like how despite its size you can still feel like part of a community.”

Tate Modern:

Tate Gallery, Clore Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Inside view of the Tate gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @hideaway_vibes on Instagram.

“I like London because it feels like anything could happen at any time.”

Whitehall Cenotaph:

SUnshine view of the Whitehall Cenotaph, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04289_F001_033. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Protest sign reading "Will swap 1 Trump for 100000 refugees" in front of the Cenotaph, White Hall, from Instagram.

Image @dinoboy_89 on Instagram.

“You could take interesting photos anywhere in London.”

“It’s a character. I don’t think there is a part of London that isn’t photogenic.”

 


Ruby Gaffney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Leonora Monson: The Strand Statues

The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.

In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.

After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.

Side by side images of the statues before and after dilapidation.

Left: The statues in situ on the Strand before 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_009). Right: The same statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_020). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.

Side by side images of the building before and after dilapidation.

Left: View of the BMA building on the corner of the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_005). Right: The statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_006). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.

Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.

The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.

Side by side images of two of the statues before dilapidation.

Left: “Maternity” in situ on the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_044). Right: Cast for “Nature” destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1907 (CON_B07186_F003_054). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.

Side by side images of a statue before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: “Infancy” in situ, prior to 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_060). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Infancy” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_064). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Side by side images of a Epstein next to one of the statues before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: A model for “Matter” in Epstein’s workshop (CON_B07186_F003_050). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Matter” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_067). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?


Leonora Monson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Sarah Way: Interpreting the Conway with BeyondAutism

One of the main aims of digitising our amazing photographic archive and putting it online for the public to access for free is to allow our materials to connect with new audiences. We want to allow our images to become resources for a myriad of endeavours, from academic to recreational to personal and everything in between!

Part of the benefit of working with such a large group of volunteers is that we are able to hear ideas from many people with diverse experiences every day and test them right from the start of the digitisation process. We have some great examples of that here in this blog – but what about creative members of the community who aren’t able to frame their interpretations into a blog post or to help us digitise our images because of their physical and learning needs? What would they make of our collection?

This summer we were lucky enough to have a chance to answer this question through a partnership with BeyondAutism and their Post-19 service. BeyondAutism is a pioneering service led by the Head, David Anthony.  The college offers young adults with complex needs aged 19 to 25 “an individualised personal curriculum.”

This image shows students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

BeyondAutism students and teachers creating the artwork

“Our students follow a programme of study that best prepares them for adulthood, focusing on the skills required for independent or supported living, training and employment, health and wellbeing and community participation.”

This image shows Courtauld staff and interns enjoying the creation process with students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

Courtauld Digitisation staff and interns getting involved in the creative process

After an initial meeting, we decided to start a collaboration. The wealth of creativity amongst their cohort and the bountiful diversity of images in our collection made us confident we could find some way to forge a meaningful workshop. A few weeks later David struck gold: we could use our library of London architectural photography to allow his students to explore ideas for independent or supported living. The students would creatively interpret what being part of the community of London meant to them in a very instinctual, tactile way.

A tactile approach to our image collection

We provided hundreds of images and large canvases while the team at BeyondAutism provided specialist support, tactile materials and lots of PVA glue. Eight brilliantly dedicated students, the college staff, our Digital Media team and interns all got involved in co-producing. We started tentatively with a few images stuck on a very large blank canvas in the morning but by the afternoon we were pouring glue freely over multi-textural work and brightly coloured feathers contrasting the Conway’s black and white images of iconic skyscrapers and monuments.

This image shows a particular student at BeyondAutism who benefits most from working in a room alone with his teacher so that they can concentrate undisturbed.

A student at BeyondAutism working on a solo project with his teacher

The results were a very sensory, sticky and wonderfully original set of collages, all unique in their outcome, all reflective of a much bigger process of coming together, learning from each other and understanding the beauty of diversity. We built our digitisation project around Samuel Courtauld’s vision of “Art for All” and this experience has made us determined to be bolder in exploring what this can mean at every level.

This is a tilted image showing all four collages created at the BeyondAutism workshop

The finished works at the close of day

We will exhibit the collages in The Courtauld’s Conway Library this autumn, so if you are interested in attending the opening and hearing more about this topic do contact us at: digitisation.volunteering@courtauld.ac.uk.

This is a picture of the first artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with limited colour accents in green and red at the top

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 1

This is a picture of the second artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with red feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements, as well as a dinosaur sticker and a stylised man

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 2

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with yellow, green and orange feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 3

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with blue transparent film, pink paper a red pooling element and a stylised man.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 4

This is the fifth and final canvas created in the BeyondAutism workshop. It is a collage of pieces of images from the Conway Library depicting mainly London buildings.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 5


Sarah Way
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Manager

Jessie Palmer: AF Kersting, Canary Wharf, and the Removal of the Fat Cat

My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”[1], to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, The Tower.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.

Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, From the River.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF, The Vestibule.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886)[2], he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.

Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.

The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF.” AF Kersting CON_B04268_F003_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.

The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.

[1] Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com

[2] Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.

 


Jessie Palmer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant