Walking south along Boulevard Michelot in Marseilles is a monochromatic experience. Concrete is ubiquitous; the expanding hulk of the Stade Vélodrome; slab-block social housing puncturing the surrounding banlieue sky; and it's the material of all the walls, surfaces and details which make up such a post-industrial expanse. Widely considered brash, ugly and aggressive, it has nonetheless become an aesthetic and a material that is a part of our urban experience.
A few minutes walk further south one encounters a shrine which draws visitors from the world over to celebrate its architectural form and audacity. Cité radieuse, the local name given to Unité d'Habitation by Le Corbusier, is the founding-form of brutalism and the initial act from which most post-war urban architecture is derived. It is also much-photographed: there is no perspective on it that has not been captured by the many pilgrims it attracts – architecture since its construction has always been built with half a mind on its pictorial representation.
When Leon Chew took his camera there, he was not looking for formal framing or tried-and-tested viewpoints. Instead, upon written instructions by his collaborator Andrew Curtis, he captured oblique and abstracted arrangements of material, shading and geometric collision. These medium-format film images were then later scanned, digitally manipulated and layered. Similarly, Le Corbusier's design has been the source material for a whole generation of developers and local authorities. Just as Chew and Curtis have been reimagining architecture, the initial concept of Cité radieuse has been expanded and distorted to become the type of large-scale housing block, with all its associated problems, we are all familar with.
The resulting large scale prints are monochromatic abstracts in which the only colour is a single red line running horizontally across – a uniform element running around the entire space, tying each image together. Upon closer inspection, the line is discovered to be a painted introduction on top of the photographic image, its texture and reflectivity an adjunct to the now-visibly dappled surface of the canvas and flatness of the print. Chew and Curtis' work asks us to look closer at both the images they've made – perhaps suggesting a way of looking we could employ in the world beyond and, particularly, at the post-industrial architecture they are thinking about here.
Sculptural objects spread over a table in the middle of the room provide a welcome counterpoint to the flat images on surrounding walls. An array of concrete lumps, made using the same casting techniques employed by Le Corbusier, could easily be material samples from a building project or discarded waste objects, but these pieces also act as a small archive of approaches to how the material is employed. Some pieces have a rough uneven finish like that of brutalism, but alongside these are perfectly flat and smooth surfaces, as favoured by clinical modernism and its sleek finishes.
Presented alongside the sculptural elements and printed works of Cité radieuse is a collaboration from earlier this year, Post Industrial Colour – a series of six photographs of still-life compositions made up of discarded objects, giving new life to that which was redundant, over which waste ink was poured, resulting in coloured layering and an occlusion of the original image. These works were made in an edition of five, though due to the nature of their creation no two images can be exactly the same, questioning the idea of the copy.
There are also five 'editions' of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation around Europe, the initial Marseilles one being the most known and photographed. Without a detailed search or prior knowledge you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was a unique and individual building, rather than the mould from which four similar blocks were constructed. No two things are the same, and this exhibition proposeses we look – carefully look - at the detail of an individual detail or object rather than simplifying to a general sweeping opinion.
Aside from this, Chew and Curtis clearly have a tight and interesting collaborative process which has already resulted in three similar but evolving sets of works, each with a unique style but with ongoing concerns. Their work is simultaneously playful and ordered – it will be interesting to see where their experiments and processes take them, but until then head to Battersea and see what they've made so far.