exhibition: Thamesmead, 2010 by Naoya Hatakeyama

installation view of Thamesmead, 2010 at Shiseido Gallery. photo: Naoya Hatakeyama © 2017


Thamesmead, 2010  

In the autumn of 2010, six months before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I was invited to the A|R|C Artistic Research and Collaboration residency at ambientspace , the East London studio of artists Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel. The residency had an informal style, and I lived with the artists for a month to share in their research into utopian architecture. I like London anyway, and had an exhibition on in a different part of town at the time, so my visit achieved several purposes.  

It was there that I learned the term “Brutalist architecture.” “Brutal” suggests buildings of a cruel and barbaric mien, but apparently comes from the brut of béton brut (raw concrete), originally used by Le Corbusier, the same brut of art brut. This kind of architecture is distinguished by high use of low-cost concrete, fortress-like dimensions, and open-mindedness – that is to say, not being bourgeois. Often too, the functional elements of the building are exposed. Brutalist architecture also has obvious close connections to the socialist utopian ideology of the former Communist bloc.

London has some typically Brutalist buildings (all of which, incidentally, have polarized public opinion) such as the Hayward Gallery and Barbican Centre, and once we had made a thorough inspection of these, Mukul suggested we venture further out to East Tilbury and Thamesmead.

Thamesmead is a “new town” located south of the River Thames 15km east of central London, first developed in the 1960s as a “21st century town” for the growing workforce of the capital. Originally marshland and potentially prone to flooding, this drawback was overcome by clever design features such as elevated walkways, and having garages rather than actual living quarters at ground level. A number of artificial lakes were also installed, in line with the Swedish idea, fashionable at the time, that the presence of lakes and canals reduced crime and vandalism. In addition, it was assumed that the inhabitants of this new era would value their privacy, so residences were designed in such a way that neighbors rarely had to set eyes on each other, unlike older-style terraced houses. The result was a housing estate of extremely radical appearance for the time. 

The estate, occupation of which began in 1968, is also known as the location for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The scene showing the four delinquents dressed in long white underwear and black bowler hats, strutting alongside Flat Block Marina in slow motion, will be familiar to many. Certainly as a location Thamesmead looked the part of a futuristic city, but is the rather grim impression one gains from the film just down to the subject matter, or did the place really have that kind of ambiance?

Subsequent progress for the new town was far from plain sailing. Many of those special design features backfired. People found it quicker to cut across the grass than use the elevated walkways, for example, and the garages gained a reputation as the scene of unsavory activities. Plus, as the economy slumped, plans for an international yacht harbor were put on hold, and all this combined with the poor provision of public transport and retail facilities eventually resulted in Thamesmead being derided by those around as a “sink estate” (an economically and socially deprived area). Initially mainly occupied by vetted members of the white working class, as Thamesmead’s notoriety grew, so its population changed, until it housed deeply impoverished immigrant communities, including Britain’s most concentrated African population. 

Architects built buildings, built a town with the aim of a better future. Fifty years on, time-wise, one could say we are now in that future. But how does our present relate to the “future” imagined back then?

With support from a new developer, Thamesmead is now being given a new lease of life over a ten-year period. The buildings I photographed were successively demolished starting in about 2013, and no longer exist. Looking at the photos, one would never guess this, because people see photos assuming the things in them exist, rather than the opposite. So when it came to showing these pictures I thought I really needed to add some kind of commentary. I asked Mukul to write something; drawing on his practice as a DJ, he assembled texts from various sources associated with Thamesmead, including original marketing material, and remixed them into a piece of poetry with the suggestion that, “If you’re going to display it large on a wall, use Futura (future) for the font!”

Plans showing the completed Thamesmead of the future are already released to the public. The high-rises by the water appear well-endowed with that ubiquitous, highly polished look of high-end real estate.

written by Naoya Hatakeyama. Tokyo, April 2017