This article was published in the November 2020 issue of Apollo. The Pump Room and visitor experience at Buxton Crescent are currently closed due to Covid-19; visitors are advised to check the venue website for further updates.
The 5th Duke of Devonshire was a man with little self-doubt. His vast wealth from the local copper mines bankrolled the transformation of a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District with a source of mineral water into a fashionable spa destination. Buxton would vie with Bath, at least in architectural terms. Built in the 1780s, Buxton Crescent was at the heart of the duke’s grand plan. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, it has emerged as a luxury hotel, spa and heritage centre, allowing it to resume its role as one of the great Georgian architectural set pieces.
Buxton’s sweeping crescent was designed by John Carr of York, who admired the classical urbanity that had been achieved in Bath. In that city the Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder and built in 1754–68, consists of three curved segments of townhouses – described by the writer Mark Girouard as ‘like the Colosseum turned inside out’. The Royal Crescent followed, designed by Wood’s son and built in 1767–75. Made of local millstone grit, Buxton Crescent originally accommodated two hotels and six lodging houses, lavish assembly rooms and, in the ground-floor arcade, specialist shops. Nearby was St Anne’s Well, where warm mineral water from a subterranean geothermal spring bubbled up. (In 1783 Carr designed an elegant drinking well.) Completed in 1789, the crescent proffered a muscular, expressive sweep of masonry – less refined than its golden counterparts in Bath but markedly confident.
Royal York Crescent, Bristol, built in 1791–1820 (photographed in 1999). Photo: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A crescent – in which a number of houses are laid out in an arc to form a continuous facade – can refine and enclose an urban prospect or, inversely, embrace a wider landscape or view out to sea. Regency developments from Brighton to Bristol jostled to outdo one another; the Royal York Crescent in Clifton, Bristol – a terrace of 46 houses begun in 1791 – extends to 1,300 feet (Buxton is 360 feet). Yet with grand ambition came financial difficulties; few structures emerged as planned. In 1766, Robert Adam was commissioned by Sir James Lowther, later 1st Earl of Lonsdale, to create a new design for Lowther village on his Westmorland (now Cumbria) estate. Adam’s design on paper was a diminutive urbs in rure, featuring a number of cottages arranged into a Greek-cross shape with matching segments of a crescent forming the central circus. After revisions, a small part was built in the 1770s, including two curved sections, sitting prim but charming in their rural setting.
John Nash made the circus a central element of his vast Regent Street development. Yet only Oxford Circus and two quarters of the intended Regent Circus were built – Park Crescent east and west (continually rebuilt after war damage) remain without their reflections to the north of the New Road. Even so, properly semi-circular rather than elliptical, set upon a ground-floor colonnade, the ensemble was described by Nash’s biographer Terence Davis as ‘perhaps Nash’s greatest single stroke of urban architecture’.
Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, London, designed by Chamberlin, Powell Bon and built in the 1970s. Photo: Howard Morris; © Greyscape.com
There was little appetite for curves in modernist design. But the long arc of Jewin Crescent in the City of London, heavily bombed during the Second World War, inspired the curved Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon and built in the 1970s. Comprising nine levels, the building was originally intended to incorporate ground-floor shops, with flats above. In the end, it provided offices for local arts and educational institutions. Without shops the rhythmic half-circle of bush-hammered concrete columns became a brutalist feature in its own right. In 2009–10, the top three floors were turned into 69 flats, in line with its planned use.
It is, however, the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill who has seized the crescent as a hallmark, applying it over the decades to sites in France, Sweden and Italy. In the 1980s, asked to redevelop the area behind the Montparnasse train station, he used prefabricated concrete to create a postmodern rendering. Recently, he has monopolised the waterfront in Salerno with a massive arc-shaped structure, drawing loud (and, it seems, justified) local criticism. In opposition to such monumentality is tiny Keystone Crescent, built in the 1840s for multiple occupation very close to King’s Cross in London. Its inner and outer circles lead to complicated geometry. The result is delightfully eccentric and, nowadays, highly desirable.
View of Keystone Crescent in Kings Cross, London, built in the 1840s (photographed in 1971). Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By 1992 Buxton Crescent had fallen into near dereliction. In 1970, Derbyshire County Council took over the eastern end of the building to use as offices, and a public library was housed in the assembly rooms. The hotel in the west pavilion had closed in 1989; High Peak Borough Council bought it in 1993 and from this point, for the first time, the whole building was in public ownership. Driven by Richard Tuffrey, the conservation officer on High Peak’s council, the tide began to turn over the next decade. In 2003, High Peak and Derbyshire County councils partnered with Trevor Osborne, a property developer with a local heritage background, and plans were made to turn the crescent into a luxury hotel and spa.
The restoration proved complex, dogged by funding problems and delays. The plight of such a significant building persuaded key funders, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to grant aid for urgent work. In 2006, the fund awarded £12.5m to the project and another £11.3m in 2014. (The total figure from all public and private sources – including more than £600,000 from Historic England – is around £70 million.) Condition surveys by conservation architect Nicholas Jacob, completed in 2014, revealed a labyrinthine interior, resulting from multiple adaptations over two centuries. A lack of maintenance had led to severe water damage, from above and below, with significant incursions of dry rot. Finally, and inevitably, the building had suffered from vandalism.
Planning permission was granted in 2010 following a seven-year legal battle over licencing of the spa water (involving Nestlé), and since then the project has faced further setbacks, including complex regulations within a Grade 1-listed building requiring public access and, now, the chaos caused by a pandemic. In June, the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust was awarded a ‘Lifeline’ emergency fund grant from HLF, allowing it to reopen the Pump Room and launch the new visitor experience, which had been delayed by Covid-19, and which takes place in eight of the historic rooms in the restored building. The newly opened five-star hotel and spa return the building to its original use and nod to the duke’s desire to put Buxton on the map. One of the most drawn out and expensive architectural conservation sagas is finally nearing its conclusion.
From the November 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
Berlin is a city in reverse, if its buildings are anything to go by: each year great swathes of it are transformed into an approximation of the imperial capital it once was. This process has come to a head with the resurrection of the Berlin Palace, which, after numerous setbacks, is due to open in December as a museum, but its effects can be seen throughout the capital, and indeed the country as a whole. Palaces are rebuilt, as are entire medieval quarters, and new development is prescribed a strict historic drag. Why is modern Germany, by some measures the most successful European state of the 21st century, so consumed by nostalgia for the city of the past?
The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace is the most obtrusive instance of this tendency. The enormous baroque structure currently nearing completion at the capital’s centre stands on the site of the Palast der Republik, an equally vast modernist complex built between 1973–76 by the government of East Germany as a combined leisure centre and parliament. That structure stood in turn on the site of the imperial palace, which had been damaged during the Second World War and pulled down by the GDR; their own replacement for the building was demolished after reunification.
Although the campaign to rebuild the old palace was first waged in the early 1990s, a lack of funds delayed this Cold War project until recently, and the intended function of the building was never clear. Finally, it was decided that it should host the Humboldt Forum, a museum and research institute displaying ethnographic collections largely assembled during the empire. Unsurprisingly, a new-build imperial palace has proven to be a provocative home for colonial booty, especially given the increasing momentum behind the campaign for restitution of such artefacts.
In Germany, as the ongoing controversy over the palace demonstrates, the struggle of the present with the past is endless, and its implications for the city delicate; particularly so in Berlin, a city still tormented by its 20th-century wounds. Critics have observed that the erasure of East German traces such as the Palast der Republik is, like the filling of lots left vacant by the war, designed to produce a false historical unity: the expression of an urge to forget the unhappy episodes that have been the focus of much official Erinnerungskultur, or remembrance culture. Debate over this strategy has been fierce, with some residents of the former east (for example) feeling that their own pasts are being erased in the process.
Furthermore, this smoothing of traumatic ruptures does not seem overly concerned with Nazi relics – the current German finance ministry occupies the erstwhile headquarters of Göring’s air force, for example. Indeed, quite the contrary could be asserted. While modernist structures are being demolished around the country, as in the case of Frankfurt’s brutalist town hall, new construction is bent not only on recovering the imperial city: it often looks disconcertingly like the architecture of the National Socialists. The water separating the architecture of these two eras is dangerously murky. Although its current advocates, such as Hans Kollhoff and David Chipperfield, may claim they are harking back to the great early 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, this turn to neoclassicism tends to evoke the 1930s, inevitably since the last turn away from modernism to columns in the city was undertaken at that time. In some cases, this ambiguity even seems intentionally cultivated.
The new-old palace, for instance, is not a perfect simulacrum. The east facade is devoid of ornament, offering instead a bare grid that nonetheless suggests the proportions of classical architecture. This etiolated classicism, stripped of ornament except for the implication of columns, is not inherently fascistic – it can also be found in London and Washington – but it was the preferred mode of fascist regimes, and the monumental reappearance of this trope in the centre of Berlin can hardly fail to recall Speer and Hitler’s design for a new world capital. The palace is not the only instance of this tendency: the German intelligence service’s huge new headquarters which opened in 2019, the largest such facility in the world, meets the street with two severely classicising pavilions. These are reminiscent of the long-demolished Ehrentempel in Munich, twin monuments to the Nazis killed in the Beer Hall Putsch.
The Gropiushaus in the Hansaviertel quarter, Berlin, which was reconstructed in the late 1950s and early ’60s and includes apartment blocks designed by Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. Panther Media GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
Berlin’s retrograde motion can be attributed in part to its post-reunification building codes. The enforced maintenance of pre-1945 rooflines, materials, and street patterns has resulted in the city’s relative coherence, which was the proclaimed intention of this strategy. Instead of the chaos of more liberally regulated cities such as London, and the supposedly dehumanising post-war towers at Berlin’s edges, the advocates of what is called ‘critical reconstruction’ – developed in the 1970s by architect Josef Paul Kleihues – argued for an architecture of modest regularity and continuity.
However, one must ask why this search for lost order overlooked other, less tainted models, such as modernist estates of the 1920s by Bruno Taut, or projects of the 1950s such as the Hansaviertel, with blocks designed by architects including Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. These were hardly chaotic or ‘dehumanising’, whatever that means in the context of architecture. Despite objections from the planners of reunified Berlin that modernism had no concept of public space, these lushly wooded estates seem more suited to our own ecologically sensitive age than the ‘stony Berlin’ of Prussian militarism (or worse) that is favoured by its current architects.
Instead we have Kollhoff’s Walter-Benjamin-Platz, a colonnaded square constructed in west Berlin at the turn of the millennium which echoes the severe, grey regularity of the fascist city – ironic, to say the least, given the fate of its namesake. To drive the point home, part of its paving was originally inscribed with a quotation from Ezra Pound’s ‘Usura’ Canto. Benjamin, of course, died fleeing the Nazis; the offending text was removed only this January.
Walter-Benjamin-Platz, Charlottenburg, Berlin, designed by Hans Kollhoff and built in 2000. Arco Images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
Kollhoff’s design is unusually frank in disclosing its precursors; most of Berlin’s recent classicising architecture is, like the Wilhelmine-esque villas of Petra and Paul Kahlfeldt, or the commercial nonentities around Leipziger Platz, more ambiguous. Yet all of them express a desire to turn back time. The association for the reconstruction of the palace, for instance, is open about the aims of the project: to ‘complete [Berlin’s] historic centre and heal the previously wounded cityscape’. But the desire to live in the past, taken to the extreme of rebuilding an earlier version of the city, can, in a place like Berlin, never be unproblematic. Furthermore, the money and the power to build in Berlin evidently lies in the hands of those who hanker after a very particular version of the city’s story. The reason for this preference is never explicitly stated. Perhaps that is because the implications are still – as yet – unspeakable in a country with Germany’s past.
From the October 2020 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here. More
The architectural historian Mark Girouard had equivocal feelings about researching his book The English Town: A History of Urban Life (1990). He appreciated that it had given him the opportunity to make the case that the Victorian cityscape, long denigrated as an unforgivable hodgepodge of pestilent slums, gloomy factories and pompous town halls, was in fact as worthy of celebration as the medieval and Georgian townscapes that had preceded it. The pain of writing the book came when visiting the towns as they now were, and he could see nothing but catastrophe in the changes that had befallen city centres during the post-war period:
I came to know too well the boa-constrictor hug of the ring road; the cracked concrete, puddles and pornographic scribbles of the subways; the light standards rising out of tasteful landscaping on the roundabouts; the new telephone exchange pushing up its ugly head, with such inspired accuracy, exactly where it could do the most damage; the claustrophobic arcades, streaked surfaces and tattering glitziness of once-new shopping centres.
This is a punchy paragraph, but there is something about the litany of derisory epithets that should alert us to similarities with the language that has always been used to malign the architecture of the recent past. Its fervour certainly recalls that of the master of the architectural take-down, John Ruskin, who directed his ire against such now-loved things as Edinburgh New Town or St Martin-in-the-Fields. Such linguistic echoes reveal that architectural taste is generationally cyclical, and suggest that blanket condemnations of ‘concrete monstrosities’ will eventually give way to a recognition of what was good in post-war architecture.
A change of heart is inevitable, but it will come too late for many of the finest buildings and civic set pieces of the period. In the UK, an assault is taking place on the post-war built environment as far reaching and devastating as that of the post-war period’s erasure of the Victorian city. We will come to regard the demolition of buildings such as Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens and John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library with the same bewildered regret as we do the loss of the Euston Arch. Although it is the demolition of individual monuments by famous architects that makes the news, perhaps a more insidious loss is the steady chipping away at the urban fabric of the planned architectural set pieces of the period. Chief among these is the city centre of Coventry in the West Midlands. Sheffield, Glasgow or Liverpool may have more individual modern masterpieces, but Coventry is one of the few places outside the new towns where the post-war architectural imagination was given full reign to create a total urban ensemble.
The freedom to remake Coventry on pioneering modern lines was forged in the aftermath of the events of the night of 14 November 1940, when much of the centre was reduced to rubble by German bombers. Coventry’s response to this catastrophe is central to why I find its post-war built environment so moving. It is sometimes asked why the Second World War did not give rise to monuments to compete with the powerful, sombre classicism of Edwin Lutyens’s Thiepval Memorial, but Coventry, spreading out from the cathedral rebuilt by Basil Spence, is in many ways a city-wide memorial: the whole place is imbued with the values of internationalism, reconciliation and rebirth. I often lead visitors around central Coventry, including people who expected not to like it, and they are always charmed by its combination of picturesque vistas, its superb collection of integrated public murals and sculpture, and its exceptionally considered townscape – created through a strict design code, good materials and street furniture, and quality architectural lettering. Above all visitors are struck by the vestiges of post-war optimism that suffuse the place, even if it is now eroded and neglected.
The central baths, Coventry, built by the city’s Architect’s Department in 1962–66 (photographed in 1966). Photo: Bill Toomey/Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections
In its day Coventry’s replanned centre was internationally lauded. Coventry was the archetypal post-war boom town, largely based on a flourishing automotive and engineering industry. Sociologists flocked there in order to study its newly affluent workforce. As Britain’s Detroit, it was inevitable that the city’s replanning would be dominated by the car, albeit with an infrastructure that ingeniously segregated pedestrians and vehicles. The reversal of Coventry’s economic fortunes, as deindustrialisation began to bite, was subsequently experienced with particular harshness. Released in 1981, the song ‘Ghost Town’ (1981), by the Coventry-based band The Specials, expressed the sense of urban crisis in Thatcher’s Britain, which they juxtaposed with a romanticised past of the ‘good old days […] inna de boomtown’. This fraught history helps to explain why the dashed optimism expressed in Coventry’s rebuilding became so difficult to stomach, and why the city has become embarrassed to the point of self-loathing by its post-war heritage, trying to force its humane and civic city centre into the mould of a mundane retail park. The nadir came with the building of the postmodern Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre in 1990, which wantonly destroys the carefully modulated vista set up between the pedestrian shopping precinct and the cathedral.
Those of us who love Coventry had hoped that this drawn-out architectural hara-kiri was coming to an end: the city now has impassioned champions, among them the writers Owen Hatherley and Jones the Planner, while in 2016 Historic England released an impressive report, Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73, which was followed by a number of significant listings. Then Coventry was made UK City of Culture for 2021. Here was a tremendous opportunity to embrace the city’s unique identity, making a tourist asset of its internationally significant urban planning and the moving story of its re-emergence from war.
Depressingly the city seems intent on continuing to rely on an outmoded retail-led regeneration strategy, although it is difficult to imagine Coventry ever being able to compete with neighbouring Birmingham as an ersatz shopping destination, especially in the current climate. It is grotesque that a city supposedly gearing up to celebrate its culture on an international stage is simultaneously pushing through plans to mutilate listed buildings, including the train station, civic centre, and central baths and leisure centre, all superb instances of the refined and elegant modernism practised by the city’s Architect’s Department after the war. Huge chunks of the south of the city are set to be cleared for yet more banal retail space. The Bull Yard, an urbane square in the tougher idiom of the 1960s, is one thing set to go, despite its being elegantly detailed and home to a wonderful Aztec-inspired frieze, in seemingly kinetic concrete, by the late William Mitchell. For its year of culture Coventry should work with the grain of what it has. Taste will change. With a more sympathetic approach, Coventry might aspire in a few decades to become a World Heritage Site, emulating places such as Bath or Ironbridge – because it too is a supremely eloquent exemplar of a particular moment in urban history. The city will regret the carelessness with which it is trashing what makes it unique.
From the September 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
- in Photography
On 19 December 1819, British forces attacking Ras Al Khaimah at the northern tip of the Arabian Peninsula reached the last bastion of resistance – the ‘impregnable’ Dhayah Fort. Seven hundred and ninety-eight men, women and children were sheltering there without sanitation, water, or effective cover from the sun, and they held out for three days under heavy fire. When they surrendered on 22 December, just 177 were identified as fighting men. The surrender of Dhayah Fort marked the start of British rule in Ras Al Khaimah and the surrounding sheikhdoms, which became a British ‘protectorate’ until 1971 and the foundation of the United Arab Emirates.
The ignoble history of British and, before that, Portuguese dominance in this region is narrated in Um Al Naar (2019), a 40-minute ‘comedy-horror’ by Farah Al Qasimi. In the film, Um Al Naar (‘Mother of Fire’) is a jinn, a pre-Islamic spirit, who’s based in Ras Al Khaimah and the subject of a programme on a reality TV network. Bemoaning her loss of power and influence, Um Al Naar describes the nation from its occupation to the present day, accompanied by fast-changing documentary footage and a snappy line in graphic design. A separate series of stills, Arrival, draws on this video, depicting scenes said to be drawn from the jinn’s world.
S Eating Watermelon (2015) from the series Arrival, Farah Al Qasimi. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai; © Farah Al Qasimi
As such, Arrival is a worthy addition to Photoworks Festival 2020, which runs from 24 September–25 October in Brighton, UK, online on the Photoworks website, and as a ‘festival in a box’. Subtitled ‘Propositions for Alternative Narratives’, the festival programme includes work by artists from China, South Africa, India and many other countries, who all come from a new generation of image-makers. Al Qasimi, who was born in 1991 in Abu Dhabi, resists the mantle of educator (in previous interviews, she’s suggested people could look these things up online), but she agrees that showing Arrival in Britain might make audiences think. ‘There are certain hints of British imperialism in the Gulf that are visible through aesthetic decisions or aspects of public space,’ she says. ‘So maybe that slight familiarity will provoke questions about the lasting influence Britain has had over so many parts of the world.’
Al Qasimi says her work isn’t about the UAE per se but rather ‘about many different things that converge in this one specific site’. She is half Lebanese, half Emirati, and educated in the United States (she has a BA from Yale and an MFA from Yale School of Art); her photographs and films share a wider concern with invisible rules we live by, and their absurd, contingent nature. The jinn in Um Al Naar represents ‘hysteria, curiosity, spirituality – a desire to be expressive and untethered,’ Al Qasimi says; her video Everybody Was Invited to a Party (2018) uses the 1980s Arabic version of Sesame Street to explore the unfixed nature of language and letters.
Bedroom (Baba) (2018), from the series Arrival, Farah Al Qasimi. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai; © Farah Al Qasimi
In earlier projects this interest skewed towards identity, in series such as More Good News (2017), which gave an alternative view of Arab men to the violent stereotypes often perpetuated in the West. The World Is Sinking (2014) included images of Al Qasimi herself, handed over to retouchers of various nationalities with the instruction ‘Make me beautiful’, and duly altered to fit various ideals. Elsewhere in this series women seem to be literally engulfed by their surroundings, blankets covering their bodies or their clothes blending into the background.
Al Qasimi creates alternative narratives with her images, which are always beautifully appealing but often quite startlingly oblique. The series Back and Forth Disco (2019), which was shot in New York City, mixes images photographed on the fly with scenes she saw, but didn’t take at the time, instead reconstructing them in the studio later. ‘Sometimes I re-photograph things I have seen in public, so I don’t step on anyone’s toes or violate anyone’s privacy,’ she says. ‘I think the photographs all contain truths, and what matters is what you see in the frame.’
Dragon Mart LED Display (2018) from the series Arrival, Farah Al Qasimi. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai; © Farah Al Qasimi
In fact, her images often deal with the shiny surface of things, attractive both in appearance and in content. Commodities and products are an ongoing preoccupation. Al Qasimi has included images shot at Dubai’s Dragon Mart mega-mall in more than one series – it pops up again in Arrival, which will be shown on billboards in Brighton – while Back and Forth Disco focused in on immigrant-owned small businesses and was displayed in bus-stop ad slots. It’s partly down to growing up in the Emirates, Al Qasimi says, because ‘malls are where you go when it’s boiling hot outside and you want to stay entertained’. But it’s also linked to her almost anthropological interest in societies. ‘I’m interested in the promise of shopping – an object doesn’t just represent itself; it represents the possibility of a life in which you own it,’ she says, ‘and what that may say about your values and place within the world.’
Photoworks Festival 2020: ‘Propositions for Alternative Narratives’, takes place from 24 September–25 October in Brighton, UK, online, and as a ‘festival in a box’. More
- in Photography
The California-based artist Sam Contis talks to Fatema Ahmed about ‘Day Sleeper’, her recently published book of photographs from Dorothea Lange’s extensive archive, and about her first book, a photographic study of life and the landscape at a single-sex liberal-arts college near the Sierra Nevada.
Dorothea Lange’s personal archive of about 40,000 negatives and a few thousand prints is at the Oakland Museum of California. What led you to the archive, and how this book came about?I moved to California in late 2012 – I live in Oakland – but it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when I saw that the Oakland Museum of California was doing an exhibition on Dorothea Lange. I’ve long loved Dorothea Lange, so I went to the show and discovered that they [the museum] were the keepers of her personal archive. I was simply curious what that meant, and so I emailed and made an appointment […], with no project in mind other than to satisfy my own curiosity, and it was there that I saw pictures of hers that I had never seen before and that I was really excited about.
I had no idea that when Lange first moved to California in the first few years she opened a studio and really spent the first decade of her career as a portraitist. There were beautiful pictures of her family that I had never seen before, and hand studies of her first husband, Maynard Dixon, who was a painter. I think I had had a very limited view in terms of not realising that the government work really spans a short period of time in her life. For example, the FSA [Farm Security Administration] photographs are only four or five years of work. I was excited to find an artist in the archives who was new to me.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy of MACK and the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
The only reason I know that the archive is in Oakland is because the museum organised a show that travelled to the Barbican here in London and then went to the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The title of that exhibition was ‘Politics of Seeing’. It was a big show, but what’s so interesting about your book is that it presents not a different photographer, but images made in very different circumstances. When did you know that you wanted to put them in a book?I was going home from the archive and telling friends and other photographers, ‘I just saw the most beautiful Dorothea Lange pictures that I’ve never seen before’. I had wished there would be a book of these pictures, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that I would be the one to do it. Then I started talking to Sarah Meister, the curator of the exhibition that’s on right now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York [until 19 September], and they’re doing a different sort of Dorothea Lange show from the Jeu de Paume/Barbican show, one that focuses on works from MoMA’s collection. It was through those conversations that the book came about; book-making is an important part of my practice, and that felt the natural way to allow other people to see a lot of this work.
You used the word ‘beautiful’, and that’s a really striking aspect of some of the pictures. They’re also surprising. One of the things that Dorothea Lange does, and maybe you do it in some of your work, is that she can make bodies quite sculptural or parts of bodies quite sculptural, and then make inanimate things look full of life.I think that’s where I saw a strong kinship or correlation between the way we work, the way we approach the world photographically – the ways that the landscape or these inanimate objects can look like the body and the body can have this sense of the landscape in it. That really struck me and – just to go back to your note about the ‘Politics of Seeing’ show – one thing I wanted to emphasise in the book is to look at these more personal pictures, for example the family pictures, next to work that’s more overtly political or work that was made on assignment for the government; to have those kinds of images more strongly co-exist together, to get rid of chronologies and to allow the images to be removed from their original context and have these new relationships emerge. There’s the same artist in all of these kinds of pictures – just because you’re on assignment doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to look at the world differently. […] So I’m glad you’re seeing trees become bodies – or the veins, for example, in a pair of hands start to look like trees.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy of MACK and the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Dorothea Lange once said that she’d learned to move in a certain way so that people wouldn’t look at her when she was doing a lot of her work. I wonder whether you noticed anything particular about how she was working.It’s very physical making photographs, and she was quite a small woman and had suffered polio as a child. I think even the way she moved as a result of polio changed her relationship to the world dramatically, and the way she was just able to move physically through it. In spite of that she often carried three cameras. She would have two large-formats and a medium-format camera – and this is very heavy, laborious equipment.
I’m somebody who also works with a handheld camera and a large-format camera, which fits on a tripod; and you can see in some sequences of images when she’s working with a camera on a tripod – a large-format camera where she’ll put the camera down in one place and stay at a distance where she’s able to observe. That’s the interesting thing with a large-format camera, you can’t not be seen. There’s no way to remain invisible, but there is a way to allow yourself to become part of the scenery and, over time, if you set up and allow people to get used to your presence, then when you move through it with a bulky camera people don’t notice you as much.
I saw her sort of starting at more of a distance, seeing exactly what she was interested in but then slowly moving closer and taking a few photographs along the way. It almost felt like a warm-up exercise, a conversation with the subject as she slowly got closer to what it seemed like she was interested in all along.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Library of Congress/courtesy MACK
Are there any images that you were particularly pleased to have found or were surprised by?There are some beautiful portraits. She was known for her portraits but, for example, there’s a portrait of a young girl where she’s raised her hand to her mouth and she’s giving the camera quite a provocative look. I was floored when I saw that picture. Every time I encounter it, I feel like I’m stopped in my tracks. There’s also this beautiful, tender little photograph where she’s photographing her daughter-in-law cutting her son’s hair.
The book focuses on California, so when I was talking about the personal and political, this is all in the state that she’s made her home, where she’s living and working, and a lot of the pictures in the book aren’t very far from her house. There is a picture that I really love of a man in a coverall suit wearing a hat and these dark glasses. He’s working in a port in Richmond, which is actually right next to Berkeley, so again that’s definitely a picture that was made a few miles from her house.
You write in your afterword that she seems to be very interested in hands.There is a passage that I’ve included in the notes of the book, where she talks about an early childhood experience. I think a lot of artists, or a lot of visual artists, have these profound visual experiences early on, and in some ways the work you make is a constant reflection of that. She talked about as a child going to church with her mother, because her mother was interested in listening to the music. She was too small to see the musicians, but what she does remember is above the church crowd the hands of the conductor waving wildly. In a way I feel like she’s seeing those conductor’s hands for the rest of her life – but with her interest in labour, too, the hands are a great reflection in some ways, even more than a face, of a person.
Dorothea Lange, from Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange and Sam Contis. Courtesy MACK
If we come to your own work, can you tell me how you got interested in Deep Springs, the subject of your first book? For readers who don’t know it, it’s a tiny liberal-arts college in California on a cattle ranch. It’s still an unusual college, but it was even more unusual when you were taking photographs there…It had been single-sex for 100 years and has just recently gone co-ed. Initially when I heard it was going to go co-ed, that set up my desire to approach it as a place, but it was a place that I had heard about probably five or six years before I started making pictures there. I think my interest in it was a larger interest in the West and thinking about how the West has been gendered.
We’ve seen certain depictions of masculinity in the visual culture of the West and there’s a long photographic history, too. I’m interested in pushing back against certain established views, whether it’s around a single person or maybe a larger culture. I was interested in the myth of the American West and the iconography that has emerged through that mythology and had come, in my eyes, to be a sort of dominant visual reference for the West – particularly as I had recently moved to California, and as a woman trying to think about my place within that larger history of the West, and even just in terms of that photographic history, I was interested in asking questions around what it meant to be a woman making work in this landscape. That physical space, the college and Deep Springs Valley gave me a place to explore those ideas.
When I approached [Deep Springs] I thought perhaps I might only have, say, a year to make the work, that it might go co-ed more quickly. But then I ended up spending almost five years there – it was a long, drawn-out process for them to go through – but I was happy to have a longer period of time to explore. I wanted to explore what it actually felt like to stay in this space and see the landscape change over seasons, and work with the young men who were students there over longer periods of time.
There are two strands in the book that speak to each other really well – you combine archive photographs with your own pictures. Were the old photos of Deep Springs and the landscape part of the plan from the beginning, or were they something you came across once you were there?I had no idea those images existed until I had actually visited a couple of times. Most of those pictures come from old personal photo albums that have been given back to the school [for its] archive. The pictures weren’t meant to service an official document in any way, but they were made as personal pictures by some of the first students at the college. I was really interested in looking at how they were looking at themselves at that time and how a lot of them were coming to this place, like me, from somewhere else. They weren’t native Californians necessarily, and so what it meant to find themselves in this landscape and what it meant to use photography – for them it was a new tool, and I was really struck by the way they were using it.
The college is a very physical place – the students farm, they look after animals – but your pictures are very gentle in many ways and the people seem very comfortable being looked at. There are hardly any with people who are looking directly at you – and then there are some extraordinary ones, like the guy who’s sprawled out reading on a sofa or a bed, and he’s naked. How did you get to that level of closeness without them being fussed about your presence?That picture that you mention, that felt like a dialogue with the young man in that picture and it was made after I’d known him for a couple of years. I wanted to feel, in a way like I described Dorothea Lange slowly moving through the landscape, I wanted to get to the point where I was just there, like a piece of furniture, or a tree in the landscape, but we could interact as much as they or I wanted to. That sort of relationship, I think, develops over time. I wouldn’t just drop in for a day or two – it’s actually quite far from my house, and in some weather it’s a nine-hour drive, so I would go for weeks at a time. It’s a very close-knit community and so it was important for everybody, including myself, to feel really comfortable.
You talked about being interested in ideas of the West, which are almost created by our collective image banks. There’s also a domesticity in the pictures because of the tasks that people are doing and have to do, so it seems very masculine but also very pastoral.It’s not necessarily an all-male community – it’s an all-male college, but there are women present like professors; for a long time the ranch manager was a woman. But because it’s a work college the young men are asked to do different kinds of tasks, ones that might traditionally be gendered as more feminine tasks and some that might be more traditionally gendered as masculine tasks, and they do both. They’re milking the cow, they’re hanging the laundry, they’re cooking for each other. They’re also raising and butchering animals, they’re collecting eggs. […] I really wanted to reveal the fluidity in the work that they did in that environment.
With the archival photos, do you think people had images in their head that they were responding to? Were they deciding to frame something in a certain way because of something they’d seen, or is it much fresher than that?I think they probably had certain images in their minds. There was a lot of painting of the West, and they were there in the early 20th century – they started to take pictures in the teens and early 20s and in the few decades before that – but photography was invented around the time that new settlers in America started migrating westward. Photography really was used as a tool to sell a certain version of the West to get people to move west and to get these settlers to come […] to sell as an idea of Come West, start over, reinvent yourself. That idea of the West has always been synonymous with photography because it came into being at the same time.
Practically, most of your photographs are black-and-white, but there are a few colour images. What kind of choices were you making both when it came to taking them and including them?Originally, I wasn’t sure what my photographic approach would be in this place, so I wanted to keep an open mind and approach it more experimentally. I was working with different kinds of cameras, different formats of cameras, and different films, black-and-white, colour; I was also using digital cameras. Initially I thought I would choose one to tie it all together, and then I realised pretty quickly that what was interesting to me was working in different ways and making different kinds of pictures, from landscapes to portraits and maybe closer studies. But then having this multitude of formats, and colour and black-and-white, and then when the archival pictures came into the mix – they’re technically black-and-white photos but they have a certain patina of time and the time has a colour to it – that also became a helpful way of linking the black-and-white and colour in my mind.
I wanted to be able to speak out in these different registers or languages and I felt like the colour was really important. It was really important, for example, if you see the red blood on a sheet that came after a slaughter and to see the colours of the land, the colours of the flesh. But the black-and-white images were equally important as a way of referring to the history and the way we see this landscape, and blurring the lines in a way between the past and the present.
Day Sleeper: Dorothea Lange – Sam Contis and Deep Springs: Sam Contis are both published by Mack.
‘Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures’ runs at MoMA until 19 September. More
On the weekend of the third Sunday of every July, a pontoon bridge is constructed between St Mark’s Square in Venice and the church of Il Redentore (‘The Redeemer’) on the island of Giudecca. Called the Festa del Redentore, the weekend-long ceremony is known for its spectacular display of fireworks towards midnight and nocturnal revelry thereafter. But when the ceremony takes place this year – on 18 and 19 July – the social-distancing measures that are doubtless to remain in force will provide historically minded Venetians with a reminder of the genesis of this ceremony and of the church that sits at its heart: the city’s deliverance from the plague of 1575–77.
The plague was devastating for Venice. With some 400 dying a day at its peak, by the time it had ended approximately a third of the city’s population had fallen victim to the pestilence, including the elderly Titian. Innovative measures were adopted to tackle its spread. These included a policy of curfew with which we would be familiar today, with residents of three of the city’s six sestieri banned from leaving their homes for eight days and dependent on the city authorities for the provision of necessary supplies.
Procession before Il Redentore (c. 1648), Joseph Heintz the Younger. Museo Civico Correr, Venice. Photo: akg-images/Erich Lessing
When these measures failed, the thoughts of the city turned to God. On 4 September 1576 – at the height of the epidemic – the Senate vowed in the presence of the Doge to make amends to the Almighty by way of acts of public supplication and devotion. The principal offering of thanks was to be the construction of a votive church dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, which was intended as the focal point of an annual ceremony of thanksgiving.
Over the course of debates in the Senate that were held on 17 and 22 November, a frontrunner as architect for the church swiftly emerged in the person of Andrea Palladio (1508–80). Already an old man by this point – he died more than a decade before the church’s consecration in 1592 – Palladio had his whole architectural career behind him. Having established himself in Vicenza as an architect of palazzi and villas for local noblemen, he had found his greatest success in Venice as an ecclesiastical architect, with his facade for the church of San Francesco della Vigna and the church and cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore establishing a new language of ecclesiastical architecture for the city.
With the site and architect chosen, the only matter that remained to be decided was the form that the church should take. In one further discussion in the Senate on 9 February 1577 a question over which the architects of the High Renaissance had long agonised again became a point of contention: namely, whether the church should take a forma rotonda, i.e. a centralised plan, or a forma quadrangolare – a more traditional, longitudinal design. It is likely that Palladio’s sympathies were with the former scheme, the most eloquent proponent of which in the Senate was his patron Marc’Antonio Barbaro, whose advocacy for the form, the art historian Deborah Howard has shown, was in part derived from his first-hand experience of the recent mosques of the Ottoman architect Sinan. The Senate sided with tradition, however, voting in favour of the longitudinal scheme by a majority of almost two to one, with Palladio’s design officially approved on 17 February.
The procession across the pontoon bridge would have been at the forefront of Palladio’s mind as he worked up the accepted design. With the church to be approached centrally on processional days, the facade needed to provide a magnificent statement of the pietistic aims of the city and of its government. As a result, Palladio returned to a solution that he had explored in his earlier Venetian churches. For these, he had created a facade that was a wholly original deployment of antique motifs to suit the requirements of Roman Catholic liturgy. Memorably described by Rudolf Wittkower as comprising interlocking temple fronts, this solution – derived from the architect’s reconstruction of the Basilica of Maxentius (the Temple of Peace, as he called it) in Rome – creates a central pediment of four half-columns flanked on either side by lower half-pediments of a subsidiary order. Simultaneously monumental and harmonious, it was perfectly suited to the glorification both of God and of the city.
The interior of the Chiesa del Redentore. Photo: Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Redentore is perhaps Palladio’s most successful variation on this theme. The grand flight of stairs by which the church is approached disguises the inherent conflict residing in the fact that the major and minor orders – Composite and Corinthian respectively – cannot share the same pedestal without it being disproportionate to one of them. Furthermore, the introduction of an attic storey flanked by additional half-pediments (disguising the buttressing behind) lends a more imposing character to the facade, while continuing to express the division of the interior.
As in the exterior, internally Palladio continued to develop ideas that he had first explored in his earlier ecclesiastical architecture, most notably at the nearby San Giorgio Maggiore. Here, however, his solutions are determined by the requirements of the annual votive processions. As at San Giorgio, the church is divided into three zones: nave, crossing and retrochoir, but at the Redentore they have been modified to express certain processional requirements.
The nave, through which the Venetian people would have moved in procession, has been expanded to achieve a spaciousness redolent of the Roman baths. Instead of aisles, the barrel-vaulted side chapels contain openings along the east-west axis that allow them to act as ambulatories when needed. In the approach to the area beneath the dome, where the city’s officials were intended to sit on processional days, the walls of the nave turn inwards, allowing Palladio to provide the most important space of the church – both ceremonially and liturgically – with a monumental arched entrance. At its easternmost end, behind the altar, a semicircular screen of columns emphasises the centralising impetus of the dome and connects the church with the retrochoir housing the monks (kept plain in a concession to the austere Capuchins, who were the church’s caretakers).
With the Redentore and the annual procession, the Venetian republic was able to provide a monument to its experience of plague of such grandeur that even today this experience has not been forgotten. More than four hundred years later, as lockdown is cautiously eased across Europe, what monument will be appropriate for a secular age and who will be our Palladio?
From the July/August 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
Lead image: Longs Peak/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); original image cropped. More
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