A new study of post-war reconstruction in Picardy, France offers both a historical narrative and regional perspective on Modernism, writes Robin Wilson
Between 2007 and 2009, photographer and artist Nigel Green conducted a series of documentary forays into the Picardy region of northern France. Commissioned by Picardy’s regional photography organisation Diaphane, Green made a comprehensive photographic record of the architecture of post-war reconstruction, the heritage of French Modernism built in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. A book of the project was published in 2010 and, following major exhibitions in France, it is currently on show for the first time in the UK at the Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury.
Green has long been fascinated with the remains of Modernism, and Reconstructionfollows an earlier book, Transmodernity, on the post-Second World War reconstruction in Calais (2001). What this new project offers is an immersion into a regionally specific history of Modernism. Green portrays a modern architecture of hybridity. On the one hand, this is the result of a more historically cautious, local inflection of modern principles, such as the combining of a new tectonic and aesthetic use of concrete with more traditional stone and brick facing. However, there are also buildings of uncompromising severity and peculiarity, the expressions of a kind of a primitive, Modernist-Art Brut.
The main text of the book is written by Martin Kew Meade, a Paris-based historian who is one of the few specialists on the period. Meade’s contribution lends the publication a strong historical narrative and contextualisation of the architecture, in terms of the evolution of construction technology and French urban policy. Thus, while many of the photographs stand alone as distinctive images within the pictorial tradition of ‘new objectivity’ photography, the project is also grounded by its aim to provide a detailed and systematic record.
Green writes of how he responded to ‘archival necessity’. He comments on how an unmodified and authentic confrontation with this earlier, modern material culture can still be discovered in the backwater towns and B-road destinations of Picardy, such as Ham, Moreuil and Soissons. He says, ‘To find an environment that consistently exhibits this condition enables a contact with the past that is unique and genuine. This is not a representation of history reconstructed in the present, rather a revelation of the past that is unadulterated and actual’. For Green, these are radical environments, not just historical curiosities. But they are also often left unprotected from the forces of change. Green notes that two silos he photographed had been destroyed by the time of the book’s publication, and further buildings have been razed since then.
The book organises the architecture into 11 categories that separate distinct building typologies, such as ‘churches’, ‘hotels and cafés’, ‘sport, services and utility structures’. The last category of the book is ‘street views and corners’, which functions as a thoughtful postscript and reveals much about Green’s photographic approach in general. In this more spatially defined category, he highlights how his attention encompasses the wider built environment, not just individual buildings. He portrays the continuity of surfaces and spaces that define not simply isolated architectural forms, but more complete pockets of this indigenous, modern urbanism.
One of the most complex images of this type occurs in the ‘agricultural buildings’ section from the town of Villers-Cotterêts. Green has photographed a 1920s stone townhouse, bordered by industrial, agricultural buildings to either side and behind. Its original features look impeccably in order. The shutters of the house all closed, its iron gates shut and rusted. It is unclear whether the house is permanently abandoned or temporarily vacated, while the industrial infrastructure looks more definitively derelict. Moreover, this ensemble seems to comprise the entire extent of the town’s depth beyond the road. Through architecture, the image portrays the atrophying of a community, and a powerful disjunction between the resilience of built matter and the transience of the social and economic conditions that brought it into being.
Green’s study spans the mundane to the most monumental and bespoke structures. One section is dedicated to ‘rotondes’, the turntable infrastructure of the Northern Railways network. The example at Hirson-Buire could plausibly be the stripped remains of a fascist parade arena. Hirson/Buire also boasts the ruins of what Meade identifies as the ‘Florentine tower’, an ornate control tower by Gustave Umbdenstock (1920).
Indeed, towers could have made for another category in Green’s documentation. From a four-storey stadium entrance tower in Albert, to Auguste Perret’s vast housing and office tower, part of his redevelopment of the train station of Amiens (1947-52), the tower is a ubiquitous typography on Green’s itinerary. Perhaps more than any other structure they represent the distance Green’s project has calibrated between the civic and social ideology behind this Modernism and its current status as an architecture of uncertainty and estrangement.
Robin Wilson is a writer on architecture, art and landscape
The Herbert Read Gallery, UCA Canterbury
20 January – 14 February, free