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Behind Brutalist London: An interview

An interview with artist Charlie Warde

Standing proud and isolated on the fringes of London’s route out to the west is the Trellick Tower – a distinct and imposing monolithic example of both high modernism and brutalism. A creation of famed Architect Ernó Goldfinger, this remarkable structure and its legacy are the sole focus of artist Charlie Warde. Training in Florence as part of a scholarship for 4 years, he soon returned to London to study an MA at City & Guilds of London architecture. We took the opportunity to discover a little about his practise and his focus on the Trellick Tower.

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How important is London to your work?

CW: “I am completely London-centric. The mash up of cultures drives me and the diversity of London’s built environment. Its haphazard planning and broad range of architecture is the stage on which this is played out.”

Would you say leaving florence had an impact on your direction?

CW: “London is the reason I returned from Florence. I missed its edge. When I came back I threw myself into finding it again. As a landscape painter, that involved focusing on elements of the London skyline – in particular the tower blocks that punctuate it. My affiliation with graffiti, grime and street culture provided the necessary language.

Fine art is of course a continually developing platform for expression what with the scope for interpretation, do you see there being limits to what can be perceived as art?

CW: “Fine Art has become such a broad discipline; encompassing an all manner of media. Its open ended in definition; a subject of constant discussion at art schools and institutions. I believe that the limits of what can be perceived as art are set by the individual. One man’s Purism is another man’s poop.”

Has the medium changed due to your circumstance or is it a reflection of your environment?

CW: “My work tends to be researched based. I use a medium that is best suited to the subject in hand. That said, when it comes to painting, I’m a purist – no mixed media, just paint. So, when it comes to making paintings of concrete, I build them like concrete – aggregates and all.”

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What drew you into the Trellick Tower? And was the residency here a goal you set yourself, or was it an opportunity you seized?

CW: “Trellick Tower was the first building to really affect me. It grabbed me in the way that Roland Barthes terms ‘punctum’. It is full-on edifice; you can’t miss it – it’s bigger and badder than anything else for miles around. Architect James Dunnett (Goldfinger’s former collaborator) describes it as having a “delicate sense of terror”, which is spot on. It attracts and repels. It is also a beacon for the success and failures of Postwar social housing and is loaded with potential for psycho-geographic narrative: Everyone has a story about the place. The residency, my second Goldfinger themed gig, is an opportunity to further explore his work and focus on the stuff its built from – the concrete.”

Both Brutalist and Postmodernist buildings often hold a strong sense of community – do you think this has morphed since their build?

CW: “British post war Modernist architecture is defined by its egalitarian idealism. Its architects were literally building for a better world. A sense of community was intrinsic to Modernism’s Utopian vision. However, for all the communal hobby rooms, shared lifts and ‘streets in the sky’ -community is difficult to prescribe. Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road estate is perhaps the most successful Postwar housing scheme as he designed it as a “piece of the city” with incredibly complex arrangement of public, private and shared zones which encourage rather than define community. Neave understood that community is fluid and he built it into every aspect of the estate. Community is changing. Gentrification, Gentrification, Gentrification…”

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Why do you think there seems to be a resurgence and appreciation of Brutalist architecture at the moment, or at least why is it a hot topic of late?

CW: “We live in heightened Neoliberal times with a skyline punctured by the high-tech signature architecture of banks and private equity firms; populated by people who are lucky enough to afford their own homes. Brutalism is part of the Zeitgeist again because it harks from a time when the state provided. It represents a muscular return to strong core values. I think that we’re also coming round to concrete, it’s actually rather beautiful.”

Where in your opinion are the most interesting / exciting examples of Brutalist architecture in London?

CW:”I love the unsung Brutalist buildings in London. They’re not hidden. Brutalism is bombastic, but there are buildings that surprise you; that you encounter unexpectedly. Basil Spence’s Ministry of Justice is one, Lasdun’s Institute of Education is another. You can’t beat the classics though: Trellick and Balfron Towers, The Barbican and the National Theatre. I’ve definitely got a thing for ex Eastern Bloc tower blocks and those weird monuments that feature in coffee table books.”

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Experiences with Grace: As well as teaching at the University of Arts London, Grace works for the Royal Academy, Tate and Central School of Speech & Drama, leading talks and workshops. She also co-founded and co-presents The Art Channel. “I’m fascinated by environments and how we negotiate them,” says Grace, “and by objects, all of which form vast portraits of our lives.’

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See more of Charlie’s work here

Interview and photographs by Michael Drummond.