David Trigg takes us through the eerie ‘Horror in the Modernist Block’ exhibit that shows how modernism can shape our deepest fears
WHEN IT comes to thinking about the relationship between architecture and horror, the trope of the Victorian haunted house is a familiar, if tired, cliché: a turreted neo-Gothic profile set against a stormy sky, replete with flying bats and lightning flashes. We think, perhaps, of the sinister Bates mansion from Hitchcock’s Psycho, or the kooky Addams Family home from Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons and classic TV series. Yet modern architecture, for all its progressivist and utopian claims, is also closely associated with the horror genre. Alienating tower blocks and concrete jungles have provided the backdrop to many nightmarish dystopias in 20th century literature and cinema. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, made the link in his 1971 film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), setting the violent story amid the Brutalist aesthetic of London’s Thamesmead Estate. The author, J G Ballard similarly saw architectural modernism as a haunting presence; its postwar structures becoming a channel for violence and social regression in hard-hitting works such as High- Rise (1975).
The notion of modernist buildings as sites of dread underpins the exhibition ‘Horror in the Modernist Block’ at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, based in the Victorian grade II-listed former Oozells Street School, converted by Levitt Bernstein Architects in 1997. Curated by Melanie Pocock, the show presents work by 20 UK and international contemporary artists that explores the relationship between horror and architectural modernism, examining the troubled history, impact and ambiguous legacies of modernist buildings. For some people, such structures are architectural icons to be celebrated. To others, they are relics of failed utopian projects that haunt the present.
Shezad Dawood The Directorate (2019). Tapestry in teak artist’s frame, wallpaper, frame: 159 x 116 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai and Timothy Taylor, London. Photo credit: Sharjah Art Foundation
In some parts of the world, this architectural style elicits fear and disquiet because of its links to dictatorial regimes. Take the Philippines, for instance, where buildings such as the National Arts Centre in Laguna and the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila were commissioned by Imelda Marcos, the wife of brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 in a violent, authoritarian regime.
One of the exhibition’s catalysts, says Pocock, was the experience of walking through Birmingham during the first Covid lockdown. ‘It was in those times, of walking alone in the city, that I was reminded how important the Brutalist architecture is here,’ she recalls. ‘But, because the city centre was empty of people, it took on quite a ghostly presence, and that got me thinking about this relationship between modernism and horror.’ Pocock wanted to explore the theme through the lens of contemporary art, as opposed to architectural projects ‘because of the way artists engage with buildings and spaces aesthetically’.
Firenze Lai Union (2022). Watercolour and gouache on paper, 31 × 41 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
To that end, ‘Horror in the Modernist Block’ explores architectural modernism’s affective legacy. An eerie journey awaits visitors to Ikon, where film, photography, sculpture, installation, painting and works on paper link the tropes of the horror genre (suspense, darkness, fear) with the conditions and vocabulary of modernist architecture, revealing how such buildings not only influence the way we live, but how they can also shape our deepest fears.
A cornerstone of the exhibition is Maria Taniguchi’s Mies 421 (2010), a short blackand- white film constructed from still images of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion – a building designed for the German section of the 1929 International Exposition. Taniguchi’s lens settles on various details of the iconic structure, recording its horizontal and vertical planes, marble and onyx walls, chrome-plated columns and tinted glass. As each new image appears on screen, we hear the loud click of a metronome; a sense of tension and anticipation starts to build, as if something sinister is about to be unleashed.
For the Filipina artist, who describes the work as a ‘horror film’, the building represents a ground zero of architectural modernism, a progenitor of questionable offspring. But Mies’ original structure was only intended to exist temporarily and, in fact, was torn down in 1930, not even a year after its completion.
Amba Sayal-Bennett Carus (2020). Powder coated mild steel, chemiwood, MDF, resin, velvet, magnets, 133 x 43 x 64cm. Courtesy the artist
The building we see today is the controversial 1980s reconstruction, built using historical drawings and the original’s rediscovered footings. It is, in essence, a doppelganger, an uncanny double that, in Paul Goldberger’s words ‘is not supposed to exist’.
The notion of the double was central to Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay The Uncanny, in which he describes a strange feeling ‘that undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’.
Richard Hughes If Socks Aren’t Pulled Up Heads Will Roll (2009). Glass reinforced polyester, iron powder, polyurethane and acrylic, 301 x 62.5 x 28 cm. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow. Photo credit: Nils Stærk
Uncanny doubles are prevalent in cinematic horror: terrifying reflections, sinister shadows, creepy clones and troubling twins. A prime example of the latter is found in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977), in which an eerie hotel is haunted by murder victims – doubles whose number include the terrifying Grady girls with their matching powder blue dresses and vacant stares. In his article, ‘Mies Van Der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries,’ Robin Evans refers to the original Barcelona Pavilion as a ‘phantom’, a building whose reputation was based on a few grainy black-and- white photographs. Abandoned and damaged, it became what Rem Koolhaas describes as ‘the first modern ruin’. In Taniguchi’s film, the resurrected pavilion is haunted by a sense of unease. Even the raised arms of Georg Kolbe’s slightly larger-than-life bronze statue, Dawn – placed by Mies at one end of a shallow pool in the pavilion – seem to be shielding the figure from some sort of horror.
‘I’ve always been a fan of J G Ballard’s literature, especially works like High-Rise and Concrete Island,’ says Pocock. ‘So much of what we refer to as Ballardian – dystopian modernity and the psychological effects of social environments – come from what he was seeing in postwar Britain as this monstrous iteration of early modernism.’ The tower blocks that were built in cities in the United Kingdom after the Second World War symbolised an extraordinary period of optimism and determination to use architecture to transform society. The reality, however, was that these high-density housing projects, promoted as utopian ‘streets in the sky,’ became cold, imposing and dehumanising environments that attracted crime and fostered social isolation.
Ola Hassanain The Line That Follows (2022) An Early Road Before a Modern One (2022) Installation still from Hassanain’s studio at the Rijksakademie. 4K video with archival footage montage, duration 11:52 minutes. Beech wood embroidery hoop with black and white print on fabric, 150 x 200cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Sander van Wettum
In Ballard’s High-Rise, which was turned into a 2016 feature film directed by Ben Wheatley, the building’s residents descend into wanton violence and depravity, drawing a link between Brutalist structures and brutal mindsets. The novel is often associated with the notorious 31-storey Trellick Tower on the Cheltenham Estate in northwest London. Designed by the Hungarian-born architect Ern Goldfinger (1902–1987), the block became a breeding ground for illicit activity and some especially nasty incidents of violent crime, earning it the nickname ‘The Tower of Terror’. A preoccupation with the dehumanising aspects of Brutalist architecture is seen in the work of Seher Shah, a Pakistani artist who trained as an architect at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her drawing series Brutalist Traces (2015), transforms buildings, including the New Delhi Municipal Council and London’s Barbican Centre, into ghostly apparitions, dissolving the materiality of these imposing structures through the use of horizontal graphite lines. At Ikon, she is exhibiting Notes from a City Unknown (2021), a portfolio of 32 screenprints that render the Brutalist architecture of New Delhi as a series of geometric abstractions, accompanied by poetic reflections inspired by her unsettled relationship with the city. Brutalism arrived in India in 1950 with Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex in Chandigarh. Designed as Punjab’s new state capital following the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, its grid street pattern, European-style boulevards and raw concrete buildings were a distillation of ideas formed across his career and inspired many similar constructions. Though there is a formal elegance to Shah’s prints, they have been created against a backdrop of violent nationalism, sectarian unrest, religious turmoil and pervasive surveillance – horrors reflected by her disquieting texts. The latent horror of urban decay is familiar to many people living in neglected inner city areas. It is a theme addressed by several artists in the exhibition, such as Richard Hughes, whose sculpture If Socks Aren’t Pulled Up Heads Will Roll (2009), transforms a sad, discarded football into a menacing skull. Hughes’s new work, Lithobolia Happy Meal (2022), made especially for the exhibition, is a large-scale mobile constructed from what appears to be sections of broken concrete suspended from the gallery ceiling; defying gravity, the fragments drift in gentle rotation at odds with their seeming weight. Something similar was at play in the artist’s uncanny work Community Fun Day (2012), presented at Glasgow’s Tramway Gallery in 2012, in which an entire building – a grubby looking community centre with boarded-up windows and doors – balanced mysteriously in the air, seemingly teetering on one edge. Other artists at Ikon concerned with the impact of urban landscapes on communities include the enigmatic filmmaker NT, whose short film BRUTAL (2022) was shot at night in Druids Heath and Aston New Town in Birmingham’s inner city housing estates. Elsewhere, paintings and drawings by Firenze Lai, showing figures corralled and stifled by their surroundings, meditate on the alienating concrete urbanism of her native Hong Kong.
Kihlberg & Henry Slow Violence (2019) HD video, colour, stereo sound, film still. Courtesy of the artists
‘In many ways, the artists in the exhibition evoke the very real violence and horrors of modernism: its social violence, political instrumentalisation, colonial and neo-colonial roots,’ Pocock explains. ‘Yet they also evoke its fictions – how images and films drawing on modernist architecture have stigmatised it.’
A striking example is Espace vaincu, Énergie contrôlée (2022) by French artist Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann. This playful yet sinister installation transforms a 6m-wide niche within the gallery into a domestic interior, disrupting the building’s neo-Gothic features.
Featuring a suspended metal staircase and a faux marble, tomb-like sculpture, the mise-enscene evokes the modernist interiors of horror films where female protagonists are subject to male violence or, as in Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), fall victim to an environmental illness, possibly caused by a recently renovated home.
The domestic realm as a place of threat is a theme of Ho Tzu Nyen’s haunting film The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), in which different characters living in a decaying Singaporean housing block encounter a mysterious ethereal cloud, culminating in terrifying confrontations with hair-raising spectres.
Seher Shah Unit Object (gate) (2014) Etching, 53 x 62.5cm, edition of 20. Courtesy of the artist and Glasgow Print Studio
While many works in this exhibition probe the role of the artistic imaginary, Abbas Zahedi responds to a very real horror: the tragic Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, which killed 72 people – including one of the artist’s friends. ‘You can literally think of that event as a horror in a modernist block,’ says Pocock of the tragedy, which was the worst residential fire in the United Kingdom since the Second World War, the severity of which was attributed to the combustible exterior cladding that had been recklessly installed as a cost-cutting measure. Zahedi’s series Exit Signs (2020–ongoing), is a personal reflection on the Grenfell fire, responding specifically to the Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments that if he had been there that night, he would have used ‘common-sense’ and exited the block. Riffing on the illuminated fire exit signs seen in public and residential buildings, Zahedi subverts their familiar green and white designs or replaces them with alternative motifs, transforming the spaces in which they are installed into places of reflection and even mourning.
‘We have collaborated with Zahedi on a bespoke Exit Sign for the exhibition,’ explains Pocock. ‘It alludes to a very real trauma, which I think is important to include.
Buildings like Grenfell Tower occupy our environment, we live in them and inhabit them, they have a certain agency through architects and planners. I realise works like this are a provocation, but it is very important to have that dialogue.’ As Zahedi’s subtle yet powerful work suggests, at the heart of ‘Horror in the Modernist Block’ is a consideration of the psychological and emotional impact of modernist architecture on the people who live with it and in it. As much as the show is an exhilarating journey through the creepy, the uncanny and the unsetting, it is undoubtedly also a call to empathy.