For Lithuanian artist Marija Nemčenko, the link between her birthplace of Kaunas and her adopted home of Glasgow manifests itself in the towering concrete buildings that line inner-city neighbourhoods.
While Brutalist tower blocks have become almost synonymous with Soviet architecture, in the West they once also provided an symbol of post-war aspiration: “streets in the sky” that could provide affordable housing for cities ravaged by the Blitz and infested with outdated Victorian slums. Working primarily with two propaganda videos — Lazdynai. Architektų Gatvė by Vytenis Imbrasas in Vilnius, and Glasgow 1980 by Oscar Manzaroli in Glasgow — as well as posters and archive photos, Nemčenko’s latest exhibition, BRUT, explores the shared history of these concrete sculptures across very different political and cultural climates.
“Often these constructions tend to have negative connotations attached to them”, says Nemčenko, charting each building's fall from “vision of future” to widely-condemned “mistake of the past”. “In Lithuania they are seen as totems of the Soviet past, while in Glasgow [they are a] reminder of poor city planning, perilous concrete corridors, crime and anti-social behaviour.”
But while a growing movement is now trying save Brutalist architecture from annihilation, Nemčenko is keen to stress that these controversial tower blocks in Glasgow and abroad are much more than an architectural aesthetic. As more Brutalist buildings are turned into art spaces or luxury flats, they lose what made them quite so revolutionary in the first place: their egalitarian spirit.
As well as hinting at the French word for concrete where Brutalism found its name, the title of Nemčenko’s exhibition, BRUT, also warns that these once aspirational structures could become nothing more than objects of desire for contemporary “champagne socialists”.
“It is often the case that these Modernist constructions, stripped of their radical ideas and the class for which they were built, stand as gutted carcasses”, she says. So, If preservation is the answer, then one must find a way to preserve the revolutionary spirit that these buildings possess. And affordable housing, in these times of cuts and austerity, seems to be a revolutionary immediacy.”
BRUT is showing as part of Glasgow International 2018 at Fairfield Heritage in Glasgow until 7 May. Nemčenko will also be presenting BRUT Europe at city's Art School, Glasgow, on 7 May, 3pm - 9pm, for a day of talks, screenings and workshops exploring the complexities of Modernist architecture across Europe. The event is free to attend, with confirmed speakers including Owen Hatherley, Edward Hollis, Chris Leslie and Evelina Simkute. To reserve your place, visit the website here.