RUIN HUNGER: ROBIN HOOD GARDENS, GRENFELL TOWER AND THE DESTRUCTIVE PARADE
The Victoria and Albert museum [of Kensington & Chelsea] has recently come under sustained criticism and accusations of artwashing for its 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale "exhibition" of a still raw chunk of the recently demolished social housing block, Robin Hood Gardens [of Tower Hamlets].
On the surface the idea is sound. Who saves ruins nowadays? By and large, we only preserve the precious, not the blighted and all too easily ignored. Although even the idea of rescuing or obtaining someone's former home, shortly after they were evicted from it seems problematic. The title gets us of to a bad start: Robin Hood Gardens: Ruin in Reverse – the fact that a lump of a former structure is repurposed for display, somewhere between art and architecture goes no way towards extinguishing the fact of its actual ruin, and how this directly impacted its former residents. The idea that you can walk into this wreck of salvage as an installation, as if it was reflective of walking in someone else's shoes, is arrogant in extremis and suggests, if not exploitation by the V&A, then at least creative opportunism. Any sense of place is very literally stripped, the skin without the bones, the corpse having lost its soul, the tactility anaemic and as for originality...meh. It works better as a memorial, ruin left to its own non-devices and an inner circle nod towards the Smithson architects who designed it.
The charge of art-washing is grounded in the re-presentation or repurposing of authentic [a valuable and sometimes scarce quality/commodity in the fine arts] community spaces with aesthetically pleasing works with a nod towards challenge to the extent that they do not appear toothless as art engaging with the real world [https://socialcleansing-is-brutal.tumblr.com/]. It is the re-instantiation of an "authentic" space in Venice, the naked bars of a cage t be gawped at without the tiger behind it, a flattened spectacle stripped of context and thus deeper meaning, that makes it offensive to so many on various sides of the political, design or former resident divides. The V&A and its chief, Tristram Hunt [sometime Member of Parliament and/or historian] have defended the display of the "work" as a way of sparking new dialogues. This is true, but it is not the entire truth, as it should be. Yes, the protests outside the V&A, and most vital and meaningful of all, Twitter feuds [although this does constitute genuine, albeit limited, debate] with other social network groups calling for protection of affordable social housing in London. But it might have served the V&A well to give the residents and protestors a voice at the Biennale, to bring them into the debate instead of trying to fend them off from on high, like some small-town despot surrounded by gold coins ensconced in a castle tower...hmmm.
FRAGMENTS TO THE SHORE
Consider this aesthetic "event" in the light of the Grenfell Tower fire. Where the destruction of a site, which then becomes ruin, is symbolic of wider social problems, both attitudinal, commercial and aesthetically, that often led directly the building's collapse. There is nothing good to say about the Grenfell Tower fire. It embodies a stark sense of difference between the many ways in which the community that lives in the area, but not its government, have rallied round with determined support for people who in most cases have lost everything except their own lives. While the key outcome of criminal negligence that lead to the deaths of many people, has resulted in a renewed awareness [panic] for the checking of fireproof cladding in local authorities across the UK.
From an aesthetic point of view, it shares much with the aftermath form of the 9/11 terrorist attack in which a disaster became symptomatic and thus iconic of wider international or social concerns, and a spike in pariotic fervour fuelled them to even greater heights that many of us could never have imagined. The awe, shock, anger and fear that each structure inspires will, over time, become enshrined as another form of spectacle – in which many people lost their lives. Grenfell Tower itself has become a totemic representation of an indifferent government, local authority incompetence and corporate greed; the lack of answers and a univocal response of government support and legal retribution is testament to this. The ruined structure itself, with what is sometimes called its hauntology of past events and possible/ruined futures takes on a unique kind of value in which remembrance is enshrined. Like any form of memorial, this has aesthetic qualities.
Grenfell Tower as ruin, as icon, has become the representation of its victims. In the same way that holocaust sites become highly visible reminders [not just elemental signifiers] that are too hard to ignore and often come to require some form of preservation by way of memorial, in the case of 9/11 the Ground Zero site becomes a place in which to reflect on events but also to mark time. With the scars, this site of ruin carries its own form of baggage, the weight of history. By some degrees the former residents of Robin Hood Gardens are a different kind of victim.
Their geographic loss is keenly felt. Like so many in larger cities like London, they are displaced, their communities are scattered and they are moved on from a central area of the city that in other's eyes is not "home" but has become prime real estate [this redefinition is a psychological way of pulling the rug from under people's feet]. People becoming a problem is the most anti-social of public concerns, although it is often only at this stage, when it is too late, and dissent has risen that the police, local authorities and the government visibly take notice and move towards action.
In a hyper-dense mega-city such as London, moving people from its centre to its outskirts or even satellite towns yet to be absorbed by the city's slow creep is called what it is "social cleansing" undesirable people, or more generally people that lack a prominent and united voice to champion them who are not considered to be valuable to society, often working poor, broken families or just second third generation immigrants, to whom the UK is increasingly indifferent, are made homeless. Like confiscating someone's sleeping bag and forcing them out from the town centre [because they are people who have suddenly "become in the way". A lack of means forces people to succumb to the shock rise of housing prices and exploitative rents that means they can no longer survive, let alone thrive in their own city.
I recommend watching the documentary, Dispossession, in which the current plight of social housing supply in the UK is keenly felt as the amount of council housing moves towards a growing deficit when more and more publicly-owned flats and houses are sold-off to private real estate firms, often at at a fraction of the cost and with little or no renumeration or alternative provision for residents.
THE HARSH MIRROR – SELF-REFLECTION IN A TIME OF [WELL-MEANING] VANITY
If I turn the perspective back on to myself, in this case me as writer, artist, spectator, and the art world's ability to diverge from sentiment and pure vision chiming with design and articulation. The immorality of the pure aesthete is often gross. And there is an air of this around the V&A's exhibition. Having already "acquired" the block of Robin Hood Gardens it is framed an immersive visitor experience [a holiday in/and/out/of the sun], mainly for those who can afford to be at Venice, although I'm sure it will return to London [and what then?].
The growing interest in certain kinds of environments, the wrestle between public/private spaces and key forms of architecture [jonathan Meades said – there are no movements] such as Brutalism and Modernism have developed from a form of Ruin Lust [http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ruin-lust] and in the spirit of conservation and re-purposing [that word again] into ruin hunger: a yearning to visit the profane environs where the other half live or to look upon a site of destruction with the wrong kind of eyes, scanning for interest, displacing [and parking] concern and affect. This is typified in many press-ready terms: poverty-porn, fetishisation and mythologising, all of which seem to go hand-in-hand, and I find it hard to say that the raw buildings can exist, even in the more potent form of ruins without some narrative legacy being tied to their appearance and the ideas we associate with them.
The Barbican has provided starker contrast as to what it means when an estate remains in use, well valued [by the City of London Corporation] and thus well-maintained and protected even, such that it becomes iconic and exclusive to enjoy. Contrast this with a recent Trench article about the council estate as one person's place for living / to another's space for leisure or "exploration" – http://trenchtrenchtrench.com/features/stop-fetishising-my-block – many are guilty, myself included, of making some things more than they are, and yet few stand accused.
My poetry-film project, Disappear Here, in which I collaborated with 18 artists to produce work, was an attempt to re-present the good and the great [and for some, the ugly] of Coventry ringroad, both as social space and example of architecture. By extension my fascination filtered from its concrete core to the spokes of the city-at-large. It became about more than just the place but the way-lines of the lives that run through it. The artists told stories about movement, losing, and finding oneself again. Artists telling the story, and evoking the often difficult realities of the ringroad, and the city of Coventry did some service in highlighting what can be embraced and celebrated [after a second, third glance] but also underlining what needs to change, what can be done to make things better.
Architecture is so divisive, it generally inspires love/hate reactions, or at worst indifference. One persons's eyesore is another's saving grace. And I think it is for this reason, shoddy though the "work" is, the V&A have done something sort-of interesting, that through dissent and argument has become highly topical and will continue to be relevant, though this is not really achieved by their own hand, it is more a form of unwanted blow-back, perhaps something they deserve.
There is no monument to the former residents of Robin Hood Gardens: flesh is easily stripped away, it decays; it is only memory, and its resentment, that petrifies. But perhaps that is what the reconstituted slice of council housing block will become in later years, a testament to tried and slightly failed but gradually beloved social experiments in building a better world. But I do not think this is any part of the V&A's intent, they remain calcified in the glass prism of aestheticism and architectural historicism. The individual stories of Robin Hood Garden former residents and the people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire are incidental to the V&A's process of trying to push forward on a progressive agenda of relevance [I almost think it is odd to look at the plight of one structure without considering the fate of the other – a discussion yet to be had] and there is a decadence to the objective remove [there is power in distancing, both metaphysically, over time, and in the very literal sense, censoring or closing down discussion by absence] of viewing someone's former home reconstituted as objet d'art, a grand architectural curio that at the expense of context [social housing] is reduced to something cold, isolated and without meaning.
No one thinks, no one looks to see, where the gutters go.
The rain falls, you leave it to go its own way, drains run out, the sea fills
– don’t think about it.
Buildings go up, rubble comes down.
Between the cracks, the fall.