There are aspects of the world around us that, not least because of their very familiarity, we take for granted, failing to really see, much less pay any kind of critical attention to. This is especially the case for the sort of public or civic architecture that makes up the background noise of urban living, and even if we see it, there isn’t much reason to think about why it should be the way that it is, to really interrogate the conditions that have led to the places we live looking the way they do – shaping our lives in the way they have. There is, however, a sort of basic vocabulary to this functional architecture, having its roots in the post-war movement known as Brutalism and spreading out diffusely in the following decades to become the common language of public space. James Smith’s book Memorability as an Image takes its title from Reyner Banham’s account of the criteria that define this more diffused style, suggesting that the visual impact of the building is paramount, along with exposing its structures and using materials in a way that does not conceal, but rather clearly displays what they are. Banham looked to places like Los Angeles as paragons of this new urbanism in a way that seems misguided today. But in this work Smith considers a number of specifically English sites, most notably the Greyfriars bus station, to address the complexities of the European post-war diffusion of the Brutalist style and its significance.
To this end, he employs several different visual strategies and the book itself is made up of distinct works that are, nonetheless, interlinked. That he should have chosen to approach his subject in such a fashion is an acknowledgement of the multiple perspectives necessary to take in these spaces and the different ways we are implicated in their operation; it recognises too that they are something much more than passive arrangements, but are intended to act on us as well, shaping our behaviour as we pass through them, and finally, that they themselves signify something. This is perhaps the most important aspect of Smith’s engagement with such architecture and its legacy, marking the extent to which ostensibly functional spaces tell us something about the forces at work in the social context that has produced them. This architecture has a history and a set of values attached to it that Smith’s work goes a long way toward making visible.
The book, then, consists of four series – Heavy Simplicity (Patterned), Brutal Relics, Greyfriars Bus Station and Civic Stage. It also features a number of essays that elaborate on some of the themes in the work. These will perhaps not be essential reading for everyone, but they do help clarify the social and historical context of Smith’s subject; his own introduction gives some important information too, not least the derivation of the title, though it remains no less unwieldy for being explained.
The images from Brutal Relics treat fragments of these buildings in the way that the title suggests, as relics, the symbolic embodiment of an implied whole. The style of the pictures is forensic, isolating the objects against a plain black background, but they also call to mind the slickness of advertising imagery, as though these once commonplace materials were something precious and desirable, or perhaps that they are remnants of a vanished civilisation, which, of course, in a way they are. Heavy Simplicity (Patterned), meanwhile, concentrates on the details of water damage to concrete surfaces. This expression of decay suggests the wearing away of the certainties that the buildings themselves were once meant to incarnate, it is the tracing of their failed idealism given material form; and yet, this ‘failure’ is precisely not a technical one, it has nothing – or very little – to do with how the buildings are made. Rather how they are made (and the implicit failures of their construction) represents something about the aspirations of the society that produced them, and that is confronted here with the evidence of a lost – or squandered – possibility.
The bulk of the book, however, is made up of images that frame the spaces themselves, most notably that of Greyfriars bus station, since demolished. These pictures have an understated formality to them that communicates their function as records of these spaces, but also, in their very formality, serve as a commentary on what they describe, accounting for these spaces as a set of experiences. This is because the careful orchestration of the space in the photograph reflects the space itself, which has been designed to perform a specific function or to elicit a particular response. Public spaces, like bus stations, are intended to shape our behaviour in subtle ways, controlling the flow of movement through them. With this in mind, Smith gives us both the peopled spaces of the working station and the stages of its gradual decommissioning, which seems like nothing so much as a way of articulating how the aspirations of social planning faltered, only to be dismantled piece by piece. In this vein, we are shown other aspects of the space as well, less functional but revealing nonetheless, such as the views of two courtyard gardens that appear to have gone to seed, their growth untended, like the building itself. Elsewhere, the mirrored office windows in the series Civic Stage resemble nothing so much as a sort of latter-day Panopticon, its disciplinary function having become ominously generalised.
At stake in Smith’s work is the way that the high-minded ideals of post-war urbanism were hollowed out, stripped of their utopian zeal, later mutating into the blandly international styling of corporate capitalism and its associated architectures, so that it becomes impossible to tell shopping centres from welfare offices or civic amenities from fast-food outlets, in much the same way that ‘citizens’ have become so many ‘clients’ for state services. The blurring of those lines is not ultimately a matter of style, however, which is only incidental to this kind of architecture; rather its ‘style’ results from a set of beliefs about how public space should function – and the kind of publics that should occupy it.
In spite of the book’s relative slightness, then, Memorability as an Image manages to successfully convey the wider implications of the subject and how Smith has treated it. The effect established by integrating the different aspects of the work convinces in a way that perhaps some of the individual series would not, largely because of how these varying perspectives help to reinforce each other. Together they show that it takes a determined act of looking to really see what surrounds us, to see the world we have made for ourselves – or that has been made for us by the forces at work in a given historical moment, the ruins of a future that never happened.
– reviewed by Darren Campion
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Memorability as an Image at NN Contemporary Art, Northampton.