The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-
by Anna Fairchild, BA MA DFA, August 2022
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Fig. 1 Stevenage New Town plan (Bedwell area 2)
Figs. 2, 3 & 4: Stevenage telephone exchange, built in 1974
Allium Ursinam, more commonly known as wild garlic or ‘ramsoms’ is an edible plant which coats the woodland floor in springtime. Foraging into small shady wooded areas, you may come across this delicious plant. Or rather the scent of it becomes apparent and leads you onward.
During the spring of 2021 I found myself in just such a small shaded area of urban woodland, situated at the edge of a quiet children’s playground in the Bedwell neighborhood of Stevenage New Town in Hertfordshire.
Stevenage began as a Saxon village in the 7th century, called Stith, meaning ‘strong oak’; it was a meeting place, possibly at the site of a large oak tree. In the late 13th century Stevenage became a small market town and from 1281 weekly markets were held there. Disaster struck in 1349 with the Black Death, when much of the population was lost. In the hundred years preceding 1901, the town grew to a population of more than 4,000 people; gas street lighting was introduced in 1855 and a piped water supply in 1887. In 1894 Stevenage was granted an urban district council.
The New Town Act was passed in 1946, with a government plan to move people from inner-
So back to Bedwell and the small urban woodland. The scent of wild garlic in early April beckons me into the wooded area and as the tonal contrast moving between light and shade forces my eyes’ to adjust, the garlic scent grows stronger. I feel myself begin to stoop to the lower levels of the woodland floor, almost on all fours, my knuckles bent inwards, hands becoming feet – an urban creature; companion of plants, insects, stuff, terra. A slight breeze parts the lower branches of the trees, revealing another structure, its raw, material cast surface with traces of wood grain and knots, but not made of wood, (Figs. 2, 3 & 4) contingently becoming part of the woodland. The scent of garlic, the cast concrete raw surface structure of the Brutalist Stevenage telephone exchange, and me on all fours becoming vital urban matter.
And why not, after all? The material stuff of things is just that; stuff connected. As Jane Bennett puts it in her 2010 book, Vibrant Matter; A Political Ecology of Things, in response to Theodor Adorno’s statement that we (as beings) crave reconcilement: “For the vital materialist…the starting point of ethics is less the acceptance of the impossibility of ‘reconcilement’ and more the recognition of human participation in a shared vital materiality. We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it…” (Bennett, J, 10, 2010).
The Stevenage telephone exchange, built in 1974, is said by local people to ‘stick out like a sore thumb’, to be a ‘blot on the landscape’ or ‘a thorn in the side’.
Interesting, because blots, plant parts, body parts and landscapes all indicate how
powerfully architecture like this can affect people. How powerfully it can resonate
with what many people regard as a ‘naturally’ occurring ‘landscape’, how raw a building
like the telephone exchange can feel. This is indeed no mistake. And this is where
Stevenage New Town embodies the concepts of Brutalist thinking and design. The term
Brutalism was first used by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953 when they published
their project to build a Soho house with all surfaces left unadorned, in whch the
materials would honestly express themselves. Coming from a post-
Brutalism can be viewed as a movement that evokes growth and change, even transformation. These are its often overlooked and misinterpreted powers. Overlooked, it could be argued, because it ‘dares to’ reveal the blurred boundaries between the grotesque and beautiful; it unapologetically proposes or creates problems, rather than answering or illustrating existing ideas.
Brutalism, not limited to the 1950-
To take this notion of evolutionary momentum, part of the process of re-
Returning to my studio from the Stevenage forage I start to recall shapes, forms and textures from my embodied observation, building what I call investigative, imaginative models from foam board, which oscillate between folded plans and forms. (Fig. 5) Allowing the tears and incidental surface indentations and measurements drawn onto the board to remain, as part of the process of thinking, I begin to develop new shapes and forms from my observations of the telephone exchange.
Fig. 5a & b: Investigative foamboard models
The models, eventually used as moulds for direct casting with Jesmonite plaster,
are destroyed during the casting process. The digital photographs of these moulds
are a way to fix points in my ‘thinking backwards’ methodology from my direct observation
of a structure. Through imaginative and investigative inquiry, and using paper negatives
to make unique photograms in the darkroom, I discover new viewpoints: the paper texture
and the ‘almost drawn-
Here I maintain that an unfolding cartography of the contingent relationship with
site emerges in the ‘drawings’; a fresh two-
The etymology of the word ‘photogram’ is important. It was coined by Laszlo Moholy-
Fig. 10 & 11 Photograms exhibited at Brutal-
It is at this interplay, or intersection, of emerging knowledge that I would maintain that the temporal process of each photogram, the paper fibres of the negative, the nuances of timing the enlarger, the spread of the light, the use of my hands, the shadows and fingerprints that sometimes appear in the photograms (Fig. 12 & 13), together enable an imaginative evolution of new images and structures. It is during this intuitive and embodied operation of drawing that new ontogenic mapping, unfolding practice and knowledge of existing structures and sites may occur.
Fig. 12 Excavators 2, 2022, 16 machine stitched darkroom photograms, 82x100 cm
Fig. 13 Scooper no. 2, 2022, 16 machine stitched darkroom photograms, 82x100 cm
This search for new perspectives through investigation of existing structures and
sites, is what I term my ‘Brutal-
Fig. 14 Disused ABC cinema 1938 Luton
Fig. 15 The old Arndale Mall façade, Luton
Fig. 16 & 17 The Sundon Park water tower, Luton, Bedfordshire
Fig. 18 Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022
In New Materialist terms, with the vital materiality of all the stuff around us,
I argue this has the potential to resonate with what Debra Shaw, in Posthuman Urbanism,
discusses as an oppositional position, which aims to challenge the ‘…exclusionary
practices that have produced the human as a category and object of study’ (2017,
p10) as a way to re-
The imaginative re-
Fig. 19 Excavators 2, part of the Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022
Fig. 20 Scooper 2, part of the Brutal Light Foraging series, 2022, AVX Luton, Hat House, August 2022