Brian Dillon, 2008
151 - 189 Harper Road. Photograph by James Smith
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"There’s no order outside the order of the material."’
Robert Smithson, ‘Fragments of a Conversation’ (1969)
On a first visit in August 2008, some weeks before the work is left to its own occulted and alchemical devices, the site of Roger Hiorns’s Seizure looks already as though it encloses a secret of sorts. A modest cloister of late-Modernist design, the flat complex on Harper Road is half-hidden behind a bruise-purple hoarding, its upper storey flaking as if unused to the sunlight, the whole rising to no more than tree height among buildings of more ambitious upward thrust and implacable, unreadable aspect. The block of flats directly across the road has its entrances turned away from the traffic; scaffolding fronts the hundred or so dwellings that loom over the site on the other side. It seems decidedly interstitial: a human-scale development insinuated, almost as an afterthought, among the starker experiments in social housing. The complex turns in upon itself, sheltering its (now departed) community against the chaos of the city.
It is not only because of its late abandonment, or the knowledge of its forthcoming demolition, that once seen from inside the fence the structure seems to open up, to disarticulate into its skeletal components of concrete, glass and steel. Rather, one has the sense immediately of a place in process, not so much derelict (despite the boarded doors and windows, the plaques of rust and spalled concrete) as half-built and heading towards an as yet uncertain future. A kind of reverse archaeology is under way. Over on the left, at the busiest point, certain strata of the building have been stripped away and already replaced with alien materials, such as the metal mesh that will support the crystals. The interior is being mined for a secret that does not yet exist.
The building at 151 – 189 Harper Road recalls an anxious and conflicted moment in the history of social housing in Britain, and points more precisely to a sudden loss of faith in Modernism. Built in the wake of the great Brutalist housing projects of the 1960s, it evinces a turn to smaller scales and less audacious visions of the future of urban community. By the end of the 1960s, even architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneers in Britain of the Le Corbusier-inspired residential megastructure, had begun to design for a low-rise (but still high-density) conception of city dwelling. There is nothing monumental, still less ‘iconic’, about Harper Road. It seems, to put it too crudely, essentially English in its scale and its subtle nostalgia for a pre-war, even provincial, sort of Modernism: certain rounded corners remind one of the pallid seaside structures of the 1930s. It exists at the periphery of an architectural culture already unsure of its relation to Corbusian rationalism.
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