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Regeneration! On the art of Jessie Brennan

2 May 2017 | by Richard Martin

In recent years, it has become apparent that for a range of contemporary writers and artists Britain's post-war housing estates, and especially the political debates embodied by brutalism, maintain productive ways of thinking. In their different ways, the artist Laura Oldfield Ford and the writers Owen Hatherley and Lynsey Hanley all sense something vital in post-war housing – a rawness that might be recuperated, a belief that public housing might be a source of pride and excitement rather than a stigma and a desire for grander collective aspirations instead of individuals left clinging to the housing ladder.


To this list, we should also add Jessie Brennan, another contemporary British artist prepared to consider what has been won and lost in the collapse of council housing. Brennan's A Fall of Ordinariness and Light (2014) is a project that bares the symbolic weight of post-war housing and the struggles brutalism has occasioned. Initially commissioned by the Foundling Museum for an exhibition of artistic responses to William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1732–3), Brennan's work contains an intimacy rarely associated with its subject matter and a sadness at the crushing of collective dreams.


A Fall of Ordinariness and Light consists of four highly detailed pencil drawings of one block of the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The drawings are based on a photograph of the seven storey concrete slab that sits on the western side of the site – a photograph that was scanned and then printed onto A4 paper before being crumpled and folded into states of increasing destruction. The drawings are flat and pristine, but in meticulously detailing the wrinkles and folds of the photographic reproduction, Brennan teases us with the impression that the paper before our eyes has also been crumpled and straightened out. Housed in aluminium frames, the drawings are positioned in a horizontal sequence across the gallery wall so that, when the images are read from left to right, Robin Hood Gardens appears to be falling down in front of us.

The crumbled ball of paper is, of course, a common image of the artistic process  – a visual shorthand for ideas considered, tested and then thrown away. In A Fall of Ordinariness and Light, the final work wears the forms of thinking and re-thinking, trial and error, that have produced it. It is as if a concept has been resurrected from the waste paper basket and given a second chance, the kind of regeneration disavowed by the developers now on site at Robin Hood Gardens.


Brennan's strategy draws our attention to the persistent mediation of modernist architecture and the role that images have played in shaping perceptions of it. Indeed, among post-war housing estates, Robin Hood Gardens has generated more media coverage than almost any other development – creating a lens so thick with arguments and counter-arguments, images and counter-images, that it has become near impossible to see the actual place. Zaha Hadid considers it "a seminal project for its era", while Simon Jenkins calls it "a prison without a roof endured by 600 people for half a century". For some observers, Robin Hood Gardens stands for the arrogance and intellectual follies of architects and critics, and the fallacies of brutalism and modernism in general; for others, the estate epitomises the very ordinary failure of successive governments to maintain council housing, while its redevelopment highlights the extraordinary greed of the London property market.


In A Fall of Ordinariness and Light the treatment Robin Hood Gardens has received, in the media and in reality, is meticulously outlined. But the flattened crinkles and creases of these images suggest the blocks are not beat yet: this fall may only be a temporary stumble, and the possibility of a recharged and reactivated brutalism arises. There is a hopeful, idealistic or even utopian aspect to Brennan's drawings, in their hint of a radical regeneration. Perhaps, in the search for another world, Brutalism's ordinary poetry might still be pulled from the waste paper basket of history, and put back to work in our cities.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 30

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