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Entranced by London's high-rise housing

An exhibition at the Museum of London this spring posed the question - 'Tower Blocks: Love Them or Loathe Them?' Participants in an accompanying debate agreed that there had lately been an upturn in the way that high- rise housing was perceived, and speculated why. But, at the nadir of their fortunes in the 1970s and 1980s, one artist in the exhibition - David Hepher, head of painting at the Slade - took tower blocks as his subject and he still paints them now.

His location for the last four years has been Brandon Estate in the London Borough of Southwark: a London County Council (lcc) development, dominated by six 18-storey towers, which The Architects' Journal studied soon after its completion (aj 1.11.61). What scope has this scheme given Hepher as a painter? Why is he so drawn to architecture and such blocks as these?

Hepher recalls a childhood in 'rambling Georgian rectories' and churches or houses were a frequent destination for weekend family outings. But in retrospect another architectural memory from those years seems particularly significant. 'I was living in Sheffield at the time that the Park Hill flats were being built,' he says. 'Of course, I never dreamed that one day I would be painting something similar to them but they must have made an impression on my subconscious.'

Having studied at Camberwell School of Art and then the Slade, what Hepher predominantly painted in the 1960s were large studio still-lives. These owed something to the late Atelier paintings of Braque, but in their incorporation of diverse materials - pieces of ornamental woodwork, sheets of corrugated iron - also revealed his interest in the contemporary American art of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

After a while Hepher wondered if he was perhaps too reliant on 'a secondhand painterly language'. Seeking a more 'neutral' alternative, he turned his eye to quintessential suburbia, with slices of a privet-hedged, bay-windowed, brick Edwardian world. These spatially-compressed scenes - close-up scrutinies of ground-floor exteriors where human presence is only hinted at - can seem both bland and eerie. But, by 1974, Hepher felt that he had exhausted their interest. 'I wanted to paint their inner-city equivalent, which is vertical rather than horizontal. I thought about a 1960s block in Stockwell that I had driven past many times. I wouldn't want to paint a building that was over-designed; this, though, was straightforward, unpretentious, practical - and striking in its way.'

Was his response partly determined by a sympathy with the idealistic programme that, originally at least, informed such housing schemes? 'It is tempting to say 'yes' but honest to say 'no'. I'm not waving a flag about the pros and cons of urban living. I'm less interested in the social aspects of these subjects than in what they offer me as an artist.'

One thing they offered him was a way of depicting recognisable structures in an everyday world while at the same time satisfying certain Modernist prescriptions about painting - the formalist emphasis on flatness and an 'all-over' treatment, giving each area of the canvas equal weight, found in Clement Greenberg's criticism after the second world war.

These tower-block facades have the same structural grid that informs so much Modernist abstraction. The building's concrete frame provides the overall order within which many smaller-scale geometries recur - the squares or rectangles of windows, spandrel panels and balconies. But the rhythmic repetition of identical units is continually qualified by features that distinguish one from another - the colour of the curtains, for instance, or the way that they hang. There is diversity in uniformity but, pictorially, it does not disrupt the whole.

Sometimes Hepher's titles suggest his primary concerns: Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream (1979-81) is particularly subtle in its modulation of those colours across nine storeys of another South London facade.

'They took a long while to complete,' says Hepher of his paintings of this period. 'They were complex and I approached them in a complicated way. But I began to worry that they ended up looking a little too neat. Though they were relatively physical compared to photorealist work, they weren't quite how the buildings felt.'

Ways of seeing

By the time of his repeated trips to the Brandon Estate in the 1990s, Hepher had found ways to convey that 'feeling' onto canvas, but they are better registered by first considering his subject.

At almost 40-years' remove, the aj's building study on Brandon makes fascinating reading. The new 18-storey blocks were part of a larger scheme that entailed both slum clearance and rehabilitation of existing terraces. Commenting on the 'spate of tall towers' (Vickers, Shell) that were then transforming London, the aj's anonymous appraiser described the Brandon examples as 'the Welfare State's first major addition to the power symbols of the Metropolis'. They 'crop up often and dramatically in the view from many unexpected places ... giving the lost motorist his bearings for the first time in the brick jungle of South London.' Intended as a high-density solution that would minimise decanting and bring new open space, they were 'well conceived as a whole and consistently detailed'.

I visited the estate one afternoon this summer and it was easy to see why its towers caught Hepher's eye. Their lcc designers, led by Edward Hollamby, clearly didn't want them to appear too monolithic. Each facade is recessed at its centre while the flats are set back within the concrete frame in four-storey groups. This gives one dominant and one subsidiary grid to each block and also some three-dimensional modelling. The six towers stand in green open space and continually re-group themselves into effective compositions as you wander among them.

They look to be structurally sound and well maintained, with few signs of vandalism, while mature trees add to the appeal of their landscape setting. These positive impressions are confirmed by talking to Phil Mason, a neighbourhood manager with Southwark's housing department, who dealt with the Brandon Estate on a daily basis from 1984 to 1991.

'It seemed like a New Town to me - as if someone had really thought about planning it,' says Mason. 'A lot of the people I knew there had moved in when the towers were new and had stayed. Even when high-rise blocks were getting a bad press, they were never seen as undesirable. And they haven't had much money spent on them - just cyclical decoration and upgrading of the district heating system. It's a combination of things that has made them a success. Good original design, an active residents' association - and they're near the tube and the park.'

In Hepher's paintings, however, the estate emerges in a less benign light. It will look to many viewers like the urban world at its toughest.

He begins with small studies and drawings made on the spot. 'I always want my response to come from being out there,' he says. 'As I walk around the area I look for what will work pictorially - maybe something close to, maybe something more distant. The finished painting is an amalgam of these various impressions.'

Back in the studio, Hepher first covers the canvas with a thin layer of concrete which he partly overpaints but elsewhere leaves boardmarked and raw. His evocation of the material reality of his subject couldn't be more literal. Conflating near and far, the painted additions include oblique or frontal views of the towers themselves but also sprayed-on graffiti and simulated stains. To one edge may be a doodled Mondrian ('I often think of Mondrian when I'm painting these blocks') or a vignette of earlier high-rise building - Toledo as seen by El Greco or a Mount Athos monastery.

The textured concrete, stains and graffiti give Hepher's large canvases an instant impact. 'I don't want to paint buildings that have been reclad or smartened up,' he says. 'I'm drawn to ones that have weathered, that have had something happen to them along the way.' His attitude is essentially Romantic - that there is 'a beauty of sorts' in the stains, a disfigurement that can be exploited for pictorial ends. Hepher's account of Brandon, placing it in a denuded landscape and dramatising its defacement, is entirely personal. He wants to make compelling paintings, not neutral documents.

But what, anyway, would a neutral document be? Hepher's works question such a concept. Of late he has included photographic imagery in his paintings; but while that may seem more dispassionate than his own 'hands-on' marks, it only offers one more partial truth: 'I want to juxtapose different ways of seeing', says Hepher. Like an artist he especially admires, Patrick Caulfield, those ways of seeing (and the ways of depicting they entail) are central to his art. But while Caulfield has spent decades dissecting interiors, Hepher has stayed out-of-doors.

'Above all, I'm a landscape painter,' he asserts; which, for a long-standing resident of South London, largely means the urban landscape and its scattered towers. Hepher has now found another subject: the lcc's Loughborough Road Estate near Brixton with stark 11-storey slabs. His painstaking scrutiny of the post-war high-rise seems set to continue.

David Hepher is represented by Flowers East, 199-205 Richmond Road, London E8 3NJ, email flowerseats@compuserve.com, tel 0181 985 3333

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