Andrea Phillips, 2008
The image of Balfron Tower, a high-rise housing estate in Poplar, East London, has morphed notably since its construction in 1965. This is true of many European housing estates built in the years of post-war euphoria to facilitate the production of new forms of urban sociality in the gaps left by bombs and in the purview of new, flexible, forms of labour. The tower, designed by Erno Goldfinger, still dramatizes the East London skyline, predominantly thanks to a Grade II listing granted in 1998 in the wake of the rehabilitation of Brutalism by architectural tastemakers in attendance to increasingly globalised rhetorics of design. But despite a rapid process of gentrification in London’s East End, Balfron has not achieved the same distinction as its twin, Trellick Tower (built by Goldfinger in 1972), the shadow of which falls on the far more profitable environs on Nottinghill. Both tower blocks are remarkable for their exterior lift shafts, connected by walkways to the main body. Once known as the ‘tower of terror’, Trellick now epitomizes the successes of mixed use housing enterprises in city planning, and when apartments come onto the market they are in great demand. Balfron, in contrast, is only minimally touched by the insinuations of public private partnerships; its 27 stories a reminder of an alternative aesthetics of density, where people fight for space with a violence unbefitting the city’s adaptive and entrepreneurial new face.
The drama of this contradictory achievement, in which urban sociality appears to have mutated into a Janus-faced metropolitan invention, is apparent in Diann Bauer’s new work. Taking Balfron Tower as her subject, modeling it out of cardboard on a scale of 1:72, and cutting it through with brutal shards of alien matter, Bauer proposes a complex viewing of such high-rise housing, in which a politics of dependency wrought through exclusion and poverty sits alongside the aspirational demands of popular sovereignty, and where ‘the social’ of social housing might be differently epitomized by an ability to straddle the divide between necessary support and capital speculation. This discrepancy, Bauer suggests in sculptures that are at once attendant to the beautiful form of social function and completely destructive of it, produces a violence uncontainable to the unitary tools of sociological analysis, or through any identification of a quantifiable social body as this new form of social-capital cannot be described or contained by such tools. As with much of her work, Bauer seems to suggest that the design and use of buildings commissioned to house large sectors of urban populations cannot be understood through the same terms of benevolence by which they have been – and continue to be – instigated: no such process can take place in the light of a pathology that could be said to be evident in the architecture itself, in which benevolence is either accepted strategically or rejected tout court by those allocated space within it. Instead, Balfron Tower, like its many neighbours, testifies to the fact of parallel or paradoxical spaces existing together, enabling inhabitants to expand what social subjectivity might be, suggesting themselves as a number of different actors at the same time, able to make profit in a number of ways in a number of spaces. As such, sociality – and much less concepts such as citizenship - becomes tactically difficult to describe.
All this would disappoint Erno Goldfinger, who, along with his wife, moved on a temporary basis into flat 130, on the 26th floor of Balfron Tower upon its completion, in order to see if his design was useable, likeable even. Here he served champagne to fellow residents and asked them what they thought of the building. The radicality of the separated lift shaft may well have been subject of these conversations – in terms of architectural design a notable predecessor of many early forms of architectural postmodernism, in which exposure of the ‘works’ became stylistically emblematic of a remodeled wave of social commitment on the part of architects. For Goldfinger, following his mentor Le Corbusier, the exposure of the ‘machine’ of the building was not simply a design rationale but also a form of behavioural pedagogy. (The politics of this intent is based on a contradiction implicit in the concept of social design: on the one hand, people ‘behave up’ given the chance to share the concept of equalized space with their neighbours; on the other they provide the fodder for new forms of social stratification, made economic by the machine in which they are living.)
The lift shaft, then, a prominent signal of innovative efficiency and transparency of architectural intent, was also a business-like sign of the literal play of postwar civic forms intended to establish a new city in which people co-operated with the basis of social housing – that is, that the people of the city agreed to live with each other in close formations, to establish communities with equality of experience at their basis. Such communities, rhetoricised through a familiarizing cartoon vernacular, would live easily together in close proximity, traveling up and down an external lift shaft to work, to school, to the local shops. Certainly this was the belief of Goldfinger, whose Marxism dictated the necessity to establish council-funded social housing, rather than private development (a distinction difficult to imagine now), as a core of the healing process of a Europe decimated by war. The lift shaft was an ethical sign therefore, extending the idea of machines for living into machines for the production of civic sociality, updating Corbusier’s edict to build as a moral shaper of individual life towards a social whole – cohesiveness literalised in the form of the tower block.
It would seem that Bauer has little time for niceties of such positivist architectural conjecture. Conversely, in her installations and paintings, architecture is treated as a violent form, an invective methodology capable of breaking bodies and breaking itself, surpassing the bounds of its presumed sociality in order to ooze the bile of those repressed by its form, those made violent by its territorialisation. In Bludgeonerator (The Showroom, London 2006) Bauer painted onto aluminium sheet chaotic cartoon images of ancient Japanese warriors slicing their way through white modernist architectural forms and in turn being sliced, abused, raped and castrated by slithers of these sharp buildings, destroyed by the casualty of a war or earthquake (the difference seemingly insignificant), with no anchor, no specific site, to guide viewers towards any type of redemptive outcome. These aluminium sheets covered the entire surface of the gallery walls, from its acute triangular apex to its wide glass front window giving the impression that the painting’s characters, and with them gallery visitors, were being taken up by a disastrous whirlwind and projected forcefully towards a wild but unspecified outside. In Necrotroph-optopolis (Paradise Row, London 2007) Bauer created an installation with a similarly ambiguous directional pull, whereby a convex wall of detailed drawing (this time pulling images from such places as Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents, and slicing these already dying, limbless and beheaded bodies with the same architectural shards) stood opposite a concave black perspex screen upon which an abstract city masterplan had been detailed, an obverse Ville radieuse picking up the reflection of the dismembered bodies positioned opposite. In between these two curved walls, hovering like a cluster of missiles, a set of buildings was hung. These, which decreased in size as they came closer to chest level, were constructed with the precision of architectural model making but extenuated with alien additions; uninhabitable arcades and passages, windows like eyes, rooms whose exteriors resembled android faces.
In The Insolvency of the Goldwoods Estate (Pump House Gallery, London 2008) Bauer turned her attention for the first time to what would appear initially to be a more quiescent scene: that of the European housing estate, built upon postwar dreams of social inclusion. Hanging from the ceiling of the gallery, insinuating themselves into works from the group exhibition installed below, precision scale models of phantasmatic high rise estates hovered in mid-air, their forms partially recognisable as those of London’s poorer districts. In fact the Goldwoods Estate is a fictional amalgamation of Goldfinger high-rise, the anarchic designs for post-disaster and mid-disaster architecture proposed by Lebbeus Woods (a consistent influence in Bauer’s work) and the non-trumpeted tower blocks visible from Bauer’s studio window in the east end of London. The coerced alliance between Goldfinger and Woods offers insight into the conceptual methodology offered by Bauer. The false meeting of two architectures, one profoundly supportive of philanthropic housing, the other of an anarchitecture built on the frank political knowledge of its neo-liberal destruction, suggests contemplation of the multiple forms of bankruptcy at work in the decision-making processes of contemporary housing oligarchs.
What has changed since Balfron was populated in 1965? On the one hand, here may be found the owners of the mortgages that are said to have put the neo-liberal marketplace into a downwards spin, those people whose decision to participate in the opportunities offered by the right-to-buy of previously government-owned apartments and houses substantiated the bonuses of fund managers; on the other hand, the same buildings, recuperated from their status as ‘sink estates’, now appear tarted up on the websites at the elite end of estate agency on offer at a price far in excess of the reach of the real victims of sub-prime. In the face of financialisation’s ongoing ‘crises’ brought about, it is insinuated, by the errant greed of poor people and the flexibility of banks to facilitate avarice, perhaps it is easier to see the foundational contradiction in such a city project as Balfron (a problem that is faced now globally as urban density becomes a dominant aesthetic and political form of the 21st century). That contradiction can be summarized as the relation between the concept of architecture as a benevolent celebration of democracy and architecture as a destructive force of capital. The clever take advantage of this contradiction, others lose the fight. The high-rise housing estate thus represents the contradictory face of capital and its translucent relation to property, poverty and its suggestion of the equal distribution of opportunity to live in (any) space. Thus towers of terror are produced, with lift shafts in which poverty produces forms of death and abjection uncounted in the inventions of new citizenship. What is anti-social behaviour in such a context? Who can negotiate from the bottom of the building – who can take this space as if it were free and easy?
Bauer’s work moves between complexities of violence suggested by a necro-polis, in which the city is subject to its own death, the death and burial of the demos – the housing of the death of the demos – and the parallel darkness of the dissolution of social housing, in which the utopian high rises of Europe, built for the bright future of a functioning city, literally leak and dissemble or are violently shot through. The artist suggests that there is a connection between these two – a dysfunctional telos of the being-together of the city and its architecture.
But the artist’s observations cannot be limited to a critique of architecture, which is itself only a seductive by-product of the barbarity at play in the concept of redemptive sociologism. The psychotic decrepitude visible on the surface of housing, especially that built in the 50s and 60s for a new and expanding Europe, is the mark of pure rejection: the necessary rejection of the organisation of thought (and policy) about the arrangement of people and places through any benevolent unitary framework. These facades are anti-social in the profoundest sense, no matter how many neighbourhood centres and how many artists in residence are sent to socialize them. And whilst such anti-socialisation is often read as a form of resistance (and perhaps it is), it is also the articulation of a desire to by-pass the forms of improvement that are proposed by liberal social democracy through the embrace of capital.
Resistance is organised around the possibility of being in two places at once, to take advantage of social capital in its newest and most literal form: in the movies, in the clubs, in the dealer’s pocket, in the lift shaft, in the papers, dead, alive. As such, the violence of such dissimulation is a violence born of not abiding by the rules of an ameliorative society. These buildings were never open social forms.