Beauty in Plain Site

By Fatou Diop

We all know that during the pandemic we were unfortunately very limited, with a lot of restrictions. For many, we literally felt locked in a cage; trapped, surrounded by four walls. Maybe because of this it allowed us to appreciate the little things that we did not really think about before, like the simple fact of going out for a walk or paying visits to our friends. Did this for some of us mean we found beauty in what was once considered banal? Find out more in, Beauty in Plain Site Here

All Images By Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew managed to create beauty in what normal times we would not even consider worthy of a second look with his photographic project that celebrates modernist buildings and chronicles their decline.

Coleg Harlech, Colwyn Foulkes and Partners, 1970-73

Chris Matthews is a graphic designer, historian, and visiting lecturer at the University of Nottingham. And for this new photographic project, he was contacted by Owen Hatherley, a writer and The Tribune’s cultural editor. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Landscapes of Communism and The Ministry of Nostalgia are amongst his works. He requested the help of Chris Matthews to shoot 300 modernist structures, dealing on the way with everything from unfriendly neighbours to the hardships of life on the road during the time of Covid-19.

Modernism refers to everything that’s happened in Western culture since the middle of the 19th century and includes styles or groups of styles, characteristics or shared attitudes across the creative world. Modern artists are in general utopian in their quest they seek a better world, so we may well consider them idealists. This is what Chris Matthews tries to convey with his images. He wants to make us understand that a new kind of life has been achieved by human effort, that a little paradise simply exists everywhere.

Burdock Way, Halifax, 1970-1973

All Images By Chris Matthews

He took eight months to capture a lot of the pictures taking around 10000 images which he edited down choosing 300 pictures.

Not a straightforward and simple task and he said

‘In the end, I was sitting in my Fiat Panda for most of the time going from one supermarket toilet to another,’

Not that he didn’t enjoy his time on the job. As a devotee of modernism and the chair of the Twentieth Century Society East Midlands regional section, Matthews had a special affinity for this project.

As a fan of Hatherley’s work as well, he leapt at the chance to collaborate on the project, which grew initially grew from 100 structures to 300. It was evident that this ‘difficult’ undertaking would need thorough planning. With the help of his central position and a handy weather app, he planned a series of three-to-four day visits to see as many structures as possible with timings for the best light imaginable.

The morning shoot for the experimental plastic classroom in Preston, for example, required Matthews to arrive several hours before the school day started. In contrast, a July excursion to Newcastle was very profitable, with Matthews shooting nine structures in one day, compared to only one or two each day in more remote places.

I was always very empathetic to Owen’s approach to history, which was very interested in location, and place, and detail,’ he says.

A lot of the buildings Matthews photographed are now in a poor state or already abandoned, such as the Coleg Harlech further education college in Harlech and the extraordinary Bernat Klein studio designed by Peter Womersley in Selkirk. Stirling’s Florey Building in Oxford was also photographed in a sorry state.  James Stirling’s Florey Building in Oxford was also photographed in a sad condition. Meanwhile, Grimsby Library, which is only being partially used due to cutbacks, was another sad story of a great building not reaching its full potential.

It was so conducive to reading and thought and very creative – there’s such a quality to it. But the top two floors are shut off because of austerity cuts, and it has reduced opening hours … it’s very sad and was also photographed in a sorry state.

For Chris Matthew neglect is the word to describe the situation of many of these buildings.

With unfriendly pathways and graffitied empty billboards, the austere Blackpool police station is particularly bleak. Swan House in Newcastle proudly crosses a complex road intersection, yet is pictured within urban degradation. The Hockley Circus underpass in Birmingham, with its characteristic William Mitchell sculptural reliefs, he considered one of the most unfriendly places, even in broad daylight.

Perhaps Covid-19 contributed to the air of desolation that pervades many photos of what would otherwise be bustling cityscapes. Despite this, Matthews was able to get entrance to Bristol’s Clifton Cathedral, where each chair was individually marked off with black and yellow caution tape — a true symbol of the times.

You get the impression it wasn’t a buoyant, good mood period,’ Matthews says, adding that he appreciated being out and about with ‘the sun, and the light, and the air, and the beauty of what you’re photographing.’

As the famous philosopher, Confucius said

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it”.

However, know that there are more positive images too in the collection, like the GMW’s famous Arts Tower at Sheffield University which appears in fine shape.

To find out more about the picture of the buildings please visit the exhibition, Wide Angle at the Gareth Gardner Gallery in Deptford. If you enjoyed Beauty in Plain Site then why not read Revive Through Art Here

Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, by Owen Hatherley, is published by Particular Books in the UK, order a copy here:

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