Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

Following on from my recent research in Poplar, I have been shooting in the Thamesmead area of south east London. The area is notable for hosting a vast 1960s housing estate – broken up into ‘sub-estates’ – built in the modernist/cubist style popular amongst architects and urban planners of the era (particularly those who worked for the Greater London Council). The estate is in diverging states of disrepair and upkeep, many of the properties are now privately owned and some parts have been demolished to make way for a long-term regeneration plan.

My shots are focused on the elevated ‘streets’ that dominate the estate. My original intention with the images was to focus on the facades of the housing, the textures, geometric shapes, the colours, and also the inevitable signs of decay. As I walked through the labyrinth of the ‘street’ and looked for these elements, I began to notice the shortcomings of the design. In many places it felt very dark despite it being the middle of the afternoon, there was flooding everywhere after heavy rain, and there were very few communal areas such as gardens, benches or even an area that felt welcoming or inviting.

As well as showing the material facade of the building, my images also show how a space can be poorly designed. The estate is essential a series of empty spaces, there is no impression of community from an outsider’s perspective. The space does not seem to have been designed with the intention of cultivating a community. It is inviting to theorise why the planners selected this design for such a massive estate, and if I decide to proceed with this idea and image set for my final submission I shall be providing more context to the political and social forces that created the Thamesmead estate.

Nevertheless, what is interesting is that there are still signs of individualisation within the ‘streets’, and that even within a design that appears to reject the idea of community, residents can provide a more welcoming space simply by painting a wall or by placing a few plants outside the front door. I will continue reflecting on these images whilst waiting for my film scans to return from the lab.

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Assignment Five Research: Thamesmead

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)

For the fifth set of images in this assignment, I chose to shoot at the Barbican estate in London. I find the complex an interesting place due to it being a great example of 1970s Brutalist design and still seemingly functioning – at odds with the rejection of Brutalism by contemporary society. It is controversial for many Londoners due to its ugly aesthetic and association with 1970s urban planning. However it is the organisation of the complex and its varied use which makes it an engaging space. I therefore set out to attempt to capture the Barbican’s contemporary functions again using my Rolleiflex camera for the sake of continuity with the other sets of this assignment. I decided to use Fuji Provia slide film in order to obtain as clear scans as possible and also because I thought the muted tones of Provia would be more suitable than more saturated colours of a negative film. I was tempted to use black and white film, but I decided upon colour in order to capture accurately how it is seen by visitors and residents. In hindsight I think I should have used faster colour negative film as the Provia resulted in a lot of blocked shadows and blown highlights.

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I shot a lot of images at the Barbican so deciding upon three or four was difficult. The image above shows the harshness of the concrete structure contrasting with the natural colour of the flower beds laid out by the residents. The image gives a strong sense of an overpowering urban environment, but perhaps in defiance of this the residents seek to create their own space on the balconies of their flats.

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It is easy to imagine that growing flowers in an environment dominated by concrete gives residents a sense of ownership over the space. I shot the above image looking down onto an underground car park beneath the estate. I did not expect to see signs of residence when looking down upon three subterranean levels of concrete.

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Despite the signs of residence and community on the estate, there were points where I was reminded of its location within a busy part of London. The above image shows part of the complex which is given over to offices and the performing arts centre. The bike path was busy and full of commuters whilst I was walking around, travelling between the estate’s offices, flats and nearby tube station.

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The final shot shows an architects’ office with people busy at work. This demonstrates one of the estate’s contemporary uses alongside its original function as a residence for working class Londoners. It’s success as a space seems to be rooted in its continued occupancy by a community of residents who value the flats they reside in, its use as a performing arts centre (one of the largest in Europe) and its occupancy by private firms such as the architects’ office. This set therefore accurately shows the complex’s various functions and how the estate continues to successfully function despite the controversy and divided opinion over its aesthetic and design.

Assignment three: buildings in use (Set 5)