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Exhibition - Studies for the Filter House

Robin Wilson visits the Flood and Filter Houses

Matthew Butcher: Studies for the Filter House. Until 29 February at the Bartlett Gallery, London WC1

Architect Matthew Butcher constructs an elaborate utopian fiction about the possible transformation of the Thames Estuary in Studies for the Filter House, an exhibition currently on show at the Bartlett School of Architecture’s gallery. Butcher’s ‘studies’ are of an unspecified moment in the future, when the waters have risen and mankind turns its attention to living with the flood and the unstable, aquatic, marshland habitat it creates.
The power of Butcher’s fiction is supported by a sophisticated engagement with mixedmedia, which includes ink and pencil drawings, photomontage, axonometric projections and video. He uses digital techniques sparingly. There is a refreshing sense of materiality in the drawings and a minute attention to detail.
The show is divided between the two volumes of the Bartlett Gallery. In the first space, Butcher displays an earlier phase of his project, called the Flood House. This is introduced with the ingenious device of a digitally manipulated Ordnance Survey (OS) map. The stretch of river between Canvey Island and the Hoo Peninsula is shown, with the south bank extensively flooded. ‘Flood House’ now appears as an OS place name within the new expanse of blue, and cartographic fact merges seamlessly with cartographic fiction.
The ‘house’ is in fact a landscape system, in which a network of temporary ‘rooms’ is distributed on sandbanks across the swollen estuary. Butcher suggests a system of management that involves slowing the river with locks and nets that capture silt, establishing temporary islands and isthmuses.
Montage drawings show how linear, tent-like structures made of marshland bur-reeds might occupy the sandbanks, to provide rudimentary shelters and meeting places for a more mobile, migratory, estuarine population.
In the second half of the exhibition, the emphasis shifts from mediation of the flood to the establishing of a culture; a civilisation based on a permanently flooded landscape. The imagined inhabitants of the Filter House have moved on from the restless mentality of the Flood House period, and are seemingly permanent operators of this more sophisticated machine.
Their house possesses two glass chambers, like giant bell jars, between which the occupants move. These serve to purify the rising waters for the inhabitants’ use, as part of the house’s filter system. However, through the gathering of a dense layer of condensation, the jars also provide distorted views of the landscape, constructing the fantasy, or anticipation, of a drowned world. The ‘house’ expresses a desire for a yet more complete period of inundation, being an elaborate measuring device that allows its users to indulge in what Butcher describes as a ‘dark utopian dream’. The Filter House exhibition is interspersed with a number of what Butcher terms ‘floating cultural references’, such as an axonometric of a space station, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s rotating wheel station of
2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, Butcher borrows something of the particular sense of menace
and malaise in Kubrick’s film.
Studies from the Filter House is a show through which to contemplate our own fate as a civilisation bound to changing climatic and geo-political circumstances, while sampling the leading edge of present architectural drawing. This excursion back to the Bartlett school is recommended.

Resume: Matthew Butcher translates that sinking feeling into flood-friendly and futuristic architecture

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