Today I uploaded the last batch of images that make up the Architecture section of the Conway Library to our World Architecture Unlocked project on Zooniverse. This is an incredible milestone for our digitisation project and not one we set ourselves from the start.
As I mentioned in our earlier post on launching World Architecture Unlocked, being able to capture item-level metadata for the Conway Library came as a surprise: we knew we would only have time and resources to capture box and folder level metadata on the premises, and although Zooniverse had been on our radar for a long time, crowdsourcing was something we thought we wouldn’t be able to look into until after we’d delivered the digitised collection online and closed the project.
Yet, the national lockdown meant that we could focus on remote activities and although I had no studio to take new photographs, I had a lot of time and access to thousands of images volunteers had already taken.
Since the launch of World Architecture Unlocked, the response of the public has been quite unimaginable. To this day, almost 8,000 volunteers have participated in the transcription, completing the task 343,239 times. The forum where the project is discussed is lively and participants post their questions, flag items that need to be rotated or appear to be in the wrong box, and chat about their favourite images. Some of our in-person volunteers have become forum moderators and advise new participants on how to best complete the task or refer them to a member of staff.
This project might have unlocked the world of architecture for people in lockdown, allowing them to volunteer and see the world through our images, but it has certainly done the same for us at the Courtauld, by opening our horizons to the enormous potential of crowdsourcing and the wonderful feeling of having put together a global community.
And so it is with amazement and thrill that today I upload the images for the last box in the Architecture section, simply labelled “CON_B04435: Great Britain (Architecture, 21st Century)”, and finish releasing the first section of the Conway Library to the World Architecture Unlocked users.
This last release is a large one, and it will take the volunteers some time to complete. In the meantime, back of house, we are testing new workflows for some of the next sections, so keep your eyes peeled for new updates.
Did you know?
The first section of the Conway Library is dedicated to Architecture and is made of 4435 boxes
The first box in the collection is CON_B00001 and is labelled “Afghanistan: A-Z (Architecture, pre-1800)”
The two sections immediately after Architecture are Architectural Drawings and Architectural Publications
Sculpture is the second largest section of the Conway Library, it is made of 2654 boxes
The third-largest section is Manuscripts, with 1477 boxes
The remaining sections are: Photographic and Video Art, Applied Arts, Mosaics, Panel Paintings and Painted Screens, Wall Paintings, and Stained Glass.
It takes three different transcriptions on Zooniverse for an item to be retired, this allows us to capture data more reliably, but it also means that we triplicate the effort!
The Hop Exchange is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the South Bank/ Southwark area. In fact, Southwark was for centuries associated with hops, breweries and coaching inns with the local area being the centre of London’s brewing industry. All road traffic from Kent, Surrey and Sussex came through Southwark with Borough High Street and Old London Bridge the only land route from the south into the city until as late as 1750. Eventually traffic began to by-pass the Borough as hops were transported by railway to London Bridge Station, or by boat up the River Thames.
The Conway library image CON_B04088_F001_008 draws your attention to the portico and the tympanum, with the hops and malt crop depicted either side of the ‘hop picking’ central scene, indicating the importance of this industry to London. This building was designed by R. H. Moore and built in 1866-67, and although it is neoclassical in design this was not just an idealised vision of ancient agriculture: in reality the same hop picking scene was visible in the fields of Kent until the late 1950s.
Traditionally, the impoverished local population and Londoners would descend on the Kent hop farms. This ritual saw mainly women and children (with male overseers) hop-picking for a few weeks every year to supplement their meagre income.
The tympanum (the decorated area) clearly shows the long hop bine hanging from above, being pulled or cut down for the women to pick the hop flowers. (Hops have ‘bines’ rather than ‘vines’, with ‘hairs’ rather than tendrils to help them climb).
This Pathé newsreel gives an excellent and accurate account of the process of hop-picking and an insight into the so-called ‘holiday spirit’ of the families who travelled to the hop fields to bring the harvest home.
The photograph in the Conway library of the Hop Exchange portico is not ‘picture perfect’ in many ways: it is oddly cropped and at something of an uncomfortable angle. However, I chose it as a starting point for this blog for several reasons. Born and bred in Kent, I have fond memories of hop-picking with my grand-mother, with the smell and the beauty of the hops and making mud pies with other children. Almost sadly, within a few years, mechanisation was to spell the end of this labour-intensive tradition. On reflection, it is also an indication of the vast improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Post-war Britain, with food rationing coming to an end, an increase in the social housing building programme and a society who wanted better for the next generation.
It is ironic that this beautiful grade 2 listed building actually had a very short life as a trading floor for the hops and the brewing industry. Some hop firms did rent the offices within the Hop Exchange but it was built too late to be effective or profitable and fell into disuse in the early 1900s. To understand why, we need to understand the industry. The building had eleven storage areas and was intended to be used as a single market centre for dealers (like the Stock Exchange) where trade was conducted on the trading floor. The dried and packed hops travelled to London and were originally intended to be viewed under the gallery roof which provided the natural light needed, even if the hop picking season started in September and inspections took place in February and March. Unfortunately, for the Hop Exchange, the buyers acting on behalf of the growers – called hop factors – now owned their own showrooms and acted very successfully as middlemen. Just a little further south from the Hop Exchange there is still the façade of an original hop factor showroom owned by W.H & H. LeMay (No. 67 Borough High Street). Its frieze also shows a scene of hop picking. Within such showrooms hop merchants would buy on behalf of the brewers.
Selecting CON_B04088_F001_008 was also an excuse to showcase the beauty of the interior of the Hop Exchange. Southwark’s hops came from Kent and the symbol of their origin can be seen in this beautiful interior of the Hop Exchange. The main hall is a vast open atrium with three levels of ornate balustrades with hop plant ironwork decoration. The green of the ironwork contrasts beautifully with the red of Kent’s county arms – Invicta – a white horse on a red background, and the muted cream tones of the paintwork. The interior draws us in, almost envelops us – not merely to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and long-lost memories of childhood, but also inviting us to stand in awe of the Victorian design.
The Hop Exchange building exudes a confidence both with its name and design but what started as a ‘speculative building’ became too great a risk and the venture failed miserably. Originally the Exchange was two stories higher with a glass barrel-vaulted transept for natural light, but a fire in 1920 saw the removal of these damaged levels and the building was then used for offices. Acquired by a private company specialising in property investment, development and management in 1983, this company then restored and transformed the interior, changing the dirt and tarmac flooring (highly suitable for its previous trade) to a Victorian style replica. The building remains a general-purpose office and event venue, and successfully conveys a very functional, business-like environment.
There were many similar floor exchanges across London (originally eleven in total), including the Coal, Metal and Stock exchanges. However, wartime bombing, redevelopment and modernisation have left the Hop Exchange as the last remaining Exchange building in London. It remains a grand Victorian commercial building, gently following the curve of the then newly constructed Southwark Street, which had been laid out by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860 and opened in 1864. Although Grade 2 listed, its future can never be assured given the tide of demolition and facadism within the Borough of Southwark.
‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of nature or been stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows opposite with a copper glow’.
Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate
In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.
Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.
In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration. His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people, a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.
Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half). Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again. However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.
Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.
The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts. Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).
In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.
However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’
Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’, perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.
Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit, while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold,  but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.
In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’. In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’. However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative. The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’
Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!
This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.
For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.
Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.
The purpose of the sculpture
In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.
In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world. Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.
Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere.
Animals in the Medieval imagination
Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:
Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.
These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7].
Animal symbolism and musical instruments
Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:
A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.
Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.
What this carving shows
In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.
What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.
The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.
The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.
He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)
Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!
What is the story?
There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.
Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?
Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.
Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
AF Kersting, 20th Century British photographer, traveled to Turkey at least two times, including in 1963 and 1995, and photographed much of the significant sites of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, the building we see standing today (preceded by two churches and a pagan temple) was rebuilt by the Byzantines under Emperor Justinian in 432 CE. 
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered this area of modern-day Turkey and transformed this church into a mosque; besides some smaller renovations, this was accomplished mostly by adding the minarets. As the complex’s official site notes, “In 1934, the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum,” the condition in which it remains to this day. Ever since 1453, the mosque has been and continues to be an inspiration for the rest of the Turkish Empire mosques.
Kersting’s View of Istanbul: Historical Preservation as Top Priority
As Kersting wrote, “Anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time might be excused for finding it difficult to realise that this City [sic.] was once the centre of the civilised world, and that under the name of Byzantium it carried on the tradition of Roman culture and learning for close on a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen…”  Kersting’s entire entry on this subject (and other parts of Istanbul) remains largely an objective, informative one. The question of what exactly the early 20th Century Englishman thought of Istanbul himself remains unanswered.
However, something can be gleaned from the fact that he titled the article “Changes in Istanbul” and spends roughly 90% of the paper talking about Istanbul (and the Hagia Sophia’s) history and previous state of being. Consciously or subconsciously, Kersting considered Istanbul’s entire value to be derived from its rich history rather than its condition during his own visits. He seems opposed to any modernization or changes he does mention, excepting of course the restoration of older buildings: “New motor roads are being built and in the process [m]any of the old wooden house[s], formerly such a picturesque feature of the old Turkish City [sic.] are being bulldozed away.”
Did Istanbul residents at that time not view these homes as sacred relics as Kersting did? Or did they value them as such, but did they prioritize progress and modernization as the means of restoring Istanbul to its former glory? Whatever the natives’ view may have been, this English sojourner seemed in favor of restoration and consistency (as opposed to modernization) in the city itself, and probably held the same view about the city’s icon.
Kersting’s Journal Entry: Background on the Hagia Sophia
In his entry about Istanbul, he includes snippets on just two of Istanbul’s mosques, including one about the “Hagia” or “Santa” Sophia: “The first object of pilgrimage of every tourist is probably Santa Sophia. Without doubt this is one of the greatest buildings in the world. Built by Justinian as a church in 532 AD, it was converted to a mosque at the Turkish conquest and is now a museum. Although it has suffered many vicissitudes and has undergone many changes, the remarkable [thing] is that the main fabric of the building has remained relatively intact for some 1400 years. The four minarets were added by the Turks on conversion of the building to a Mosque [sic.]. At the moment these are undergoing repair.”
The domed Santa Sophia served as the inspiration for the Mosques [sic.] built by the Turks after their conquest of Byzantium.
The Hagia Sophia As Seen Through Kersting’s Lens
Even with just this little bit of background information, one can analyze Kersting’s photographs with the naked eye and easily notice the deliberate choices he made when photographing this magnificent house of worship.
The developed photos of the Hagia Sophia we have within the Kersting Archive at the Courtauld comprise about twenty-five different photographs, following Kersting’s careful labeling system. There are at least two photographs printed for the vast majority of each of these different shots Kersting took, but even the ones developed from the same negative can vary slightly in lighting and cropping.
The first deliberate choice one can note is that the majority of the photographs Kersting took were of the interior of the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The majority of his photographs contain either no people at all (over one third of the total shots) or very blurred, obstructed, tiny, or barely visible people (about half of the total shots).
This decision to prioritize the architecture over the people could mean several things: a. He photographed the museum at hours or during a season that was not the peak time or season for tourists to visit. b. Kersting requested, and somehow had the leverage with the museum authorities, to clear the museum (at least mostly) of people. c. The shots in which the people are blurred indicate that Kersting purposefully left the camera shutter open for longer, theoretically for the dual purpose of having the camera focus on the Hagia Sophia building itself (rather than any moving entities) and probably to allow as much light into the camera as possible and capture the interior detail of this rather dark building.
Another common feature one might note is that Kersting typically selects landscape format for his exterior photographs. He does this, most likely, because he chooses to take most of his exterior shots from a distance adequate for capturing the entire rambling width of the mosque complex. We only have one developed shot where he uses portrait mode for the exterior (Fig. 2.). In it, Kersting emphasizes the verticality of the building by shooting from a shorter distance and placing one of the minarets as the focal point (in the middle ground 1/3 from the right). The only other technically exterior shot that is in portrait format is from under a covered colonnade, which actually could be considered as more of a transitional space than an exterior space.
Similarly, Kersting is more likely to place his focal point in the middle of the frame should the shot be of the exterior elevation. Except for the minaret photo mentioned earlier (Fig. 2), all of his exterior shots again showcase the mosque complex, always placed in the background, with the mosque gardens in the foreground and middle ground. Comparing these shots is especially interesting for viewing the architectural alterations made over time.
For his photos of the interior, Kersting mostly – and ingeniously – chooses one of the chandeliers for his focal points. This focal point doubles as a window of sorts, drawing the viewer initially to itself (the chandelier) and then to the background behind it which, in the case of Fig. 4., is the beautiful Arabic lettering and repurposed Greek Orthodox architecture. Because of this method, the viewer is more likely to notice the entire scene, not merely its focal point. Kersting knew that, had he chosen to focus on a singular solid object, the average viewer would walk away having disregarded the whole scene except for the one focal point.
For his interior photos, Kersting also often uses doorways or columns to frame his scene, again a brilliant technique to provide boundaries for the photo and draw in the eye to the photograph’s central portion. Kersting uses the setting’s ready-made frames to catch the eye immediately from afar, especially if the frame provides a naturally strong contrast between light or dark areas (i.e. the brightly lit west wing popping through the dark frame of two columns and foreground in Fig. 4).
Kersting is creating chiaroscuro: using the extreme contrast of light and darkness to his advantage for the sake of creating depth and dimension. (As he was working in black-and-white, these contrasts were essential in making his photographs readable and interesting.) His framing devices also make this giant museum that is open to the public (and therefore people of all faiths and backgrounds) feel more personal and intimate. In other words, the frames make his photography of this iconic site feel less like the average tourist’s postcard and more like a special access invitation to an exclusive space.
A final observation is that, several times, Kersting chooses to capture the scaffolding and the repairs occurring at the complex, which he also is sure to mention in his journal entry. Why does Kersting choose to photograph and mention elements that others might consider an eyesore? Does he want to emphasize the events occurring contemporaneously to himself – to capture his unique personal experience (as opposed to that of the millions of other visitors who had and would come over the 1400+ years the building had existed and would continue to exist)? Or did he want to document this as history, for the sake of posterity’s knowledge? Or to commend the natives’ or government’s interest in preserving part of their heritage? Regardless, the photographer did intentionally capture this historical preservation of Istanbul’s most treasured site and did not try to crop out or curate his shots to cover up the ongoing preservation, whereas other artists may have considered this element unsightly and distracting.
Despite any of these or other unresolved speculations, we can make one claim with confidence: it was hundreds of deliberate choices like these that characterize Kersting’s architectural photography as superior to that of other photographers, choices that naturally attract the human eye and engage the human mind.
In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.
“The New Towns are no longer new” reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.
Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.
It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.
What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”. It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.
It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.
Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.
If you are accessing this guide online, please note that it is intended to be printed, as Steiner education encourages first-hand engagement. Users of the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art can also find the printed guide in box CON_B04414; the corners have been rounded, in line with Steiner school practice, so that the student can approach from any angle.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian architect, clairvoyant, esotericist and social reformer. Among his projects, he set up the first Waldorf school in 1919, to teach his principles of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded on the belief in an observable spiritual realm which interpenetrates the material world. Waldorf schools use a kinaesthetic, action-loaded approach to intellectual subjects, focusing on art, music, and rhythm. No textbooks are used in Steiner’s philosophy; instead, students make their own educational materials, as I have endeavoured to do here.
Extrapolating from Steiner’s elementary school reforms, anthroposophy, and the initiatives of London’s Rudolf Steiner House, I have created a guide for studying the Steiner archive using his own pedagogy. The library box, ref: CON_B04414_F005 & F006, holds early photographs of both Goetheanum buildings, which cannot be understood without Steiner’s spiritual science.
This textbook is intended for students of the Institute, those involved in Courtauld outreach and public engagement programmes, and any prospective students of Steiner.
“The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.”(Mumford, 1937: 185)
Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.
In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.
However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.
That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.
To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.
A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.
With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.  Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.
Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.
Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”.  The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.
The Courtauld’s digitisation project acknowledges that the online world has radically changed who can consume culture, and how they can do so. The collection will no longer be confined to a basement library. By putting the collection online for the public to access for free, its potential reach will span to anyone anywhere, so long as they have internet access. The photographs can be put to more diverse academic purposes, but they can also be browsed recreationally or looked at through a personal viewpoint.
During the time I’ve spent interning at the Courtauld and getting involved in the digitisation process, I’ve been thinking about the digital age and how it has changed the way we both consume and create photographs. Social media means that anyone with access to a smartphone has the ability to take unlimited high-quality photos, a platform to share them, and an audience. I can scroll on Instagram and find endless pictures – it feels like another photographic library, condensed into tiny digital form.
I find a parallel between the Courtauld’s aim of converting older mounted physical photographs into new digital files, and my own aim in compiling this post: to consider the personal photography which now saturates our newsfeeds from family and friends as an accessible new form of artistic expression.
After browsing the Conway library’s many images of London, I went on social media to see how ordinary people today choose to capture the same locations from the collection. As would be expected, the comparisons show how much London has changed. For example, I barely recognised a photo dated 1963-8 of a few gloomy pillars overlooking the Thames, as Instagram is now full of colourful videos and pictures of this space – now the iconic Southbank skate park. In other comparisons, we can also see increased crowds in the background, more modern vehicles, and advanced lighting and technology (particularly prevalent in images of theatres or galleries, or of Oxford Street.)
The comparisons also show changes in what we prioritise in this new medium of photography. Our profiles are intrinsically linked with our identities, so the pictures from social media focus on people to a much greater extent than those from the library. Even if a person isn’t the focal subject of the photo, the image always contains an implicit awareness of the person behind the camera. Unless we post anonymously, no photo is impersonal. What emerges from the pictures in the Conway collection is a series of images of London at a particular time. What emerges in the photos on Instagram is someone experiencing a particular place at the time of posting.
At the same time, however, the impulse to capture and share these London landmarks is felt by both professional and recreational photographers throughout the decades. I spoke to a few Instagram users about their experiences with sharing photography on social media. Responses were varied, but most people shared a feeling that social media has increased, or created, their interest in photography, and inspired them to take pictures of their surroundings. Digitised collections like the Conway library have a similar potential to inspire online viewers.
“There’s so much amazing photography on social media which easily grabs your attention. This definitely made me want to take better photos of my own!”
“I take pictures of the street, the sky… basically I take pictures of all around me. I don’t take many pictures of myself.”
Courts of Law:
“Social media has made me more interested in photography – it’s hard not to get roped into the constant stream of inspiration. I always wanna try out the things I see online.”
“I have over 4000 pictures on my phone’s camera roll, and probably about 5 times that amount on my computer. I only have physical copies of a tiny fraction of these! I think that’s an exciting thing about my generation: that we have so many images of our lives.”
Kings Cross Station:
“When I was younger I was highly influenced by likes, but since 3 years ago I don’t really care. I just post photos that I think are cool and interesting.”
“Taking pictures of myself forces me to look into a mirror and find the qualities that I can love.”
“I post what I want, and pay little attention to the likes, follows and comments. When I do look, I find it interesting rather than introverting. In the past I have deleted a photo due to it not getting many likes. But recently I haven’t done that.”
“I love photography in general. But social media has made me love being in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love being part of movements especially for black women like myself. I want to show their beauty through my own photography and myself.”
“I post pictures of my family and friends and things I love.”
“I both like and dislike that social media has made me take more pictures. I dislike it because when I see something beautiful my first instinct is to take a picture rather than just enjoy it.”
“It has totally changed the way we view photos – the art of capture has become diluted with “clout” chasing.”
Royal Albert Hall:
“I like social media because it feels like I can create my own personal catalogue of things I’ve seen and done. Even without sharing it with other people, I like that I can scroll through and see a highlights reel of memories from my life.”
“I like the idea of capturing my point of view wherever I go and sharing it with the people that I know.”
“I like London’s diversity and how it feels like a busy yet congenial place full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I like how despite its size you can still feel like part of a community.”
“I like London because it feels like anything could happen at any time.”
“You could take interesting photos anywhere in London.”
“It’s a character. I don’t think there is a part of London that isn’t photogenic.”