Open House London: architectural history for the people

Adam Coleman, MA History of Art student, joined the Birkbeck team to give his first tour as part of Open House London, the initiative that first sparked his interest in architectural history.

I’ve always been a fan of Open House London since moving here back in 2002; on reflection, I think that my interest in architectural history (and in particular post-war social housing) is probably attributable back to some of my early tours of estates like Camden Council’s Alexandra Road. The event has always struck me as a great entry point for the general public into architectural history, so it felt the right platform (and the right time) to ‘switch sides’ as it were and be the person giving the tour, rather than the one going on it. On Saturday I was pleased to join the Birkbeck team (steered by the incredible Eva) to contribute to the programme of tours at Gordon Square. The tour I led tour focused on Birkbeck’s RIBA award-winning cinema, completed by Surface Architects in 2006. I followed this on Sunday by co-leading tours of Tottenham’s Ferry Lane Estate, a low-rise housing estate of 750 homes completed by the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1970s.

The opportunity to co-lead tours of the estate came about somewhat serendipitously as a result of research undertaken for Birkbeck’s Graduate Certificate in History of Art, which I completed in last academic year. As a result of my research, I had already been in contact with the estate’s active Resident Association and when I suggested that they enter Open House to mark the 40th anniversary of the estate’s opening they were enthusiastic. Without the buy-in of the Residents Association a tour would not have been possible – or indeed appropriate – and the collaboration meant that the tour could combine my architectural research with resident insight into estate’s dramatic lived history (which saw various tussles with the GLC and a high-profile case of squatters occupying an empty block).

The estate had always fascinated me since moving to Tottenham five years ago, and the research I undertook only deepened my interest; leading to more questions rather than solid answers about its built form. It was built during a period of great change in British history which witnessed a Conservative Government’s forced dismantling of the British Welfare State combined with a growing public dissatisfaction with modernist architecture, typified by the high-rise point-blocks of the late 1960s. The estate combines two contrasting housing typologies (medium-rise flat blocks and low-rise terrace/street housing) built in a consistent neo-vernacular material vocabulary comprising red brick and slate-hung upper levels. The plan of the estate is informal: private, semi-private, and public spaces combine in an irregular manner with strong natural landscaping throughout. My particular line of enquiry concerned the way in which its built form reflects this period of British history, and the extent to which it can be understood as a progressive example of estate planning which combines modernist ideas with emerging postmodern thinking.

Social housing (or lack of) is a very ‘live’ issue in Tottenham, as elsewhere in London. Local residents are currently joining forces to campaign against a controversial planning application which would see a commercial developer build over 1,000 flats in 13 tall towers, with not a single home at genuinely affordable or Council rent being proposed. It certainly felt like an apt moment to acknowledge the vision and ambition of GLC’s Ferry Lane Estate.

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Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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Arts Week 2018: The Corners

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, discusses an Arts Week event looking at architecture and pedestrians with photographer Chris Dorley Brown. 

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Chris Dorley-Brown visited Birkbeck Arts Week at The School of Arts on Friday 18 May to discuss his 30-year career as a freelancer. The talk coincided with the release of his new publication entitled The Corners by Hoxton Mini Press, which examines his photography between 2009-2017 across East London street corners, industrial buildings, landscapes and architecture.

Initially trained as a silkscreen printer and print finisher, Chris branched out as a freelancer in 1984. Living and working in the East End for over 20 years, Chris began his media career working as a camera assistant for Red Saunders studio. His comprehensive slide show of his street photography at Birkbeck discussed his initial work building a photographic archive with the London Borough of Hackney.

Chris quickly started to develop his own digital techniques to create narratives; working with multiple exposures taken over an hour, Chris’s images have used around 100 shots taken at different times. These shots have been constructed to resemble one definitive image creating a surreal, dreamlike narrative of the urban landscape. The stillness, composition and colour of all his images adopt the look and feel of an oil painting. Notable shots include a police evacuation where the police sealed off the streets after the discovery of a bomb from World War 2. A boy is seen in disbelief holding an apple near the sealed off area, whilst a faceless young lady, oblivious to potential danger, cannot help but investigate, walking towards the tape. Other images perfectly capture the cynicism of city life, from the street voyeur, a homeless man, who emerges from the hidden corner of a local high street, facing off at an unseen Chris behind the lens. Old pedestrians ‘collide’ with the younger generation of cyclists across the traffic junction emphasising at the inevitable ‘changing face’ of the landscape. Chris also revisited his photography capturing ‘Drivers in the 1980s’. The slideshow perfectly expressed the conflicting emotions of Londoners, from a spaced-out businessman alone in his thoughts inside a red double-decker bus, to the visibly frustrated faces of motorists, caught between shots and the intermittent traffic lights during rush hour.

The talk provided a nostalgic look at London life and Dorley-Brown’s work is a great testimony to a skilled media professional who perfectly captures the history and architecture of the East End.

Further material from Chris’s career can be obtained through the public collections of The Museum of London and The George Eastman Museums.

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