Lost in transit
Seen from this side of the Channel, Calais has always appeared as a place to pass through rather than to stay, a place to negotiate, not notice. An exhibition of work by the collaboration Photolanguage, in the town's Galerie de l'Ancienne Poste, takes as its subject matter this neglected Calais, revealing a rich vein of post-war reconstruction architecture which has been largely overlooked.
The exhibition comprises photography by Nigel Green and text by Robin Wilson, two English artists who have spent the last two years researching and archiving Modernist Calais, with support from the Museum of Calais and the Kent-based Sans Frontiers organisation.
By 1945, Calais was more void than place.With the urgent need for rehousing, the town's authorities looked to normalised and prefabricated solutions. The result, however, was quite at odds with the pre-war International Style's confident heroism and Modernism appears in Calais as the model of immovable permanence. The weight of built matter recalls less a 'brave new world' and more the bunkers built by the Todt Organisation against the Allied invasion.
Green presents us with key examples of this architecture in 19 unframed, large format, blackand-white photographs, each approximately 1 x 1.2m in size.While two monumental brick buildings by the architect Roger Poye and a remarkable church by Maurice Suaudeau are present, the majority of the images are of more anonymous forms: low-rise housing, urban villas, dockland depots, even garages.Green demonstrates how the same architectural grammar is applied across the spectrum of building types, from the religious to the industrial.
Green also uses six wooden cabinets - seeming to date from about the reconstruction period - to present his 'fragment photographs'. These are torn-down elements of larger photographs, exposed to excessive chemical action, which results in an almost alien terrain of architectural details.
Hovering in grey, courier new typography, Wilson's translated text runs frieze-like, well above eye level. It comprises four sentences that he says are an attempt to infer the intangible qualities of Calais and a reminder of the town's role as a place of transition. One is a quotation from Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1911: 'The spreading use of clipped box with its dark foliage on light-coloured walls . . . is an excellent omen.'
This Wilson links to the ubiquitous use of privet hedge in north Calais, which repeats the strict geometry of concrete facades in vegetal form.
Two static projection pieces occupy a rear room, one showing a view from the port terminal restaurant, the other a colour slide of a detail of the painted underside of Place d'Armes, the principal market square of north Calais. This, and coloured panels in the exhibition room proper, entitled 'structural decoration', testify to the existence in Calais of a local version of a Le Corbusian colour scheme.
Green and Wilson's exhibition essentially acts as a temporary museum of the reconstruction, providing a foothold for the rediscovery of this much traversed, but little regarded, slice of urban space.
Glenn Lowcock is an architectural photographer and a writer on art and architecture. Further works by Photolanguage will be shown at the Museum of Calais from November 2000 to February 2001