The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Category: Landscape, Architecture, Architectural Prototypes, Visual Arts, Exhibition, Events

My Blue Heaven

My Blue Heaven, The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, May 2019

The artist John Christie recently completed a new project – a hut built from century-old corrugated iron- now fashioned into a major artwork and currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. After seeing some of the photographs and related pieces at the North House Gallery in Manningtree with Christie recently, he asked if I would be interested in writing a short introduction to the catalogue he has just produced. I was more than happy to do so; it is enchanting. The combined works share the title My Blue Heaven.

The main piece is the hut, the structure of which informs all the other pieces. After construction it was sawn in two, mounted on legs, and lit from within by blue LED lights. Instead of concentrating on the form’s powerful and dark interiority – the usual stuff of hut dreams and forebodings (think of Derek Mahon’s unsettling narrative poem, A Disused Shed in Co.Wexford) – Christie has opened his hut up to the starry skies above.

In this work, and the related acrylic paintings, he evokes the social history and emotional resonance of corrugated iron itself. Primarily a cheap building material, it was developed in the first half of the nineteenth century, soon becoming closely identified with the fervent religious revival which swept Victorian Britain and the rapidly expanding membership of proselytising sects such as the Primitive Methodists, the Independent Baptists and the Wesleyans. These were particularly strong in nonconformist East Anglia, where the chapels still hold their own in the landscape.

The easy prefabrication, assembly and portability of the ‘tin tabernacles’ also caused them to be known as ‘mission’ churches or even ‘gypsy’ churches (just one architectural step up from ‘tent religion’). In his definitive history and gazetteer, Tin Tabernacles, enthusiast Ian Smith asserted that ‘Iron churches were the perfect synthesis of industrial ability and social and spiritual need.’ Flat-packed sheets of corrugated iron, together with pre-cut lengths of timber framing could be delivered almost anywhere in the country at short notice and at little cost.

Puritanical, plain, and lacking all material splendour or decorative excess, the galvanized tin chapels were nevertheless high on spiritual and devotional meaning. They have also become an object of fascination, if not desire, for many artists, though Christie’s hut eschews sentimentality in its pictorial representation, if not in its lyrical associations.

New Constellation (detail) May 2018

My Blue Heaven evokes forms of transcendental longing. Once the shed had been severed in two, he realized that a song that had been going round in his head for some time – New Orleans pianist Fats Domino’s upbeat version of My Blue Heaven – unlocked a series of correspondences between this elemental tin shed and dreams of worlds lost and perhaps still to come. This imaginative projection is further developed in the gallery work, ‘New Constellation’, a combination of treated corrugated iron, acrylic paint and panels of LED lights, which ‘discovers’ the essential hut form as a familiar constellation in the night sky, an example of what philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space defined as ‘transcendental geometry’.

The essentialism of the hut rests on its archetypal architectural symmetry. Just as the Acropolis has columns, entablature and pedimented roof, so Christie’s deconstructed iron shed has its uprights, cross-pieces (lintels) and roof diagonals. It is an ideal form in the Platonic sense, and Christie’s brilliant axiometric conceit of finding the cheap tin shed forming its own constellation in the distant heavens, provides this common or garden structure of everyday use with an elemental presence in the world, beautifully so.

Ken Worpole

My Blue Heaven is currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, from 10 May to 1 September 2019 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. For further information: https://scva.ac.uk/art-and-artists/exhibitions/john-christie-my-blue-heaven

An illustrated catalogue of the works included in My Blue Heaven, with an introductory essay by Ken, ‘Hut Symmetries’, can be purchased at £6 (including p&p) from John Christie directly. More details: christie.phb@gmail.com

Before or after the Flood?

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Flood House, Thames Estuary. Drawing by Jason Coe

On Monday, 18 April, 2016, designer Matthew Butcher, will launch ‘Flood House’, an architectural prototype, at the Dauntless Boatyard in Benfleet, Essex, on the Thames Estuary. ‘Flood House’ is, in the words of Butcher, ‘a practical and poetic investigation into the living conditions of a seasonally flooded landscape.’

On first impression the proposed structure looks unwieldy, but for those aware of what often gets built on the fragile inter-tidal zone between land and sea – fishing sheds, pill-boxes, pontoons, houseboats – then the structure begins to make sense. It is also a gestural corrective to the old adage that architecture and water don’t mix.

Although Flood House will not be inhabited, it is nevertheless designed to test the conditions under which a floating habitat might work in the foreseeable future. This is with regard to ambient estuary conditions, whether in the form of changing weather conditions, tidal stresses, as well as air quality and changes in temperature and humidity inside the structure – all of which will be monitored. Flood House is made of ply and weatherboard and will float on three steel pontoons, all the elements of which will be assembled at the Benfleet boatyard, though much of it was pre-fabricated at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, where Butcher teaches.

‘Architecture is usually considered to be a stable, fixed entity where internal temperature and conditions of comfort are heavily controlled,’ Butcher wrote in his prospectus for the project. ‘Flood House seeks to challenge these notions, suggesting instead a nomadic architecture that forms a responsible relationship to its surrounding environmental conditions.’

When I recently met Butcher – along with project curator, Jes Fernie – I said I’d been following the architectural discussion in the UK over how the Dutch are now building on water. Butcher pointed out that admirable though the Dutch schemes are, they are mostly erecting conventional houses on floating foundations, which remain tethered to the shore. ‘Flood House’ is testing a prototype for a nomadic habitat, one that can be moved from one place to another, so in a way it is more boat than bungalow, more ship than shed. Following its launch on 18 April, the house will be towed from Benfleet to a boatyard in Wakering, then moored off Southend Pier, for public viewing.

‘Flood House’ is making more than just an environmental statement. Fernie, along with Focal Point Gallery, have also commissioned artist Ruth Ewan to work on the project. Under the rubric of ‘All Distinctions Levelled’, Ewan has designed a weathervane for the structure, inscribed with the palindrome ‘LEVEL’. ‘Level’ alludes to sea levels certainly, but also to levels of status and inequality, currently the subject of much political concern.

In the same way that the once abandoned canals of inner London have been given new life and public vitality in recent years by the proliferation of houseboat moorings, it would be inspiring to see more life in future around the coast and in the estuary as the result of a resurgence of foreshore or floating communities. Essex has a long tradition of houseboat communities – read Carol Edwards’ excellent little 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, for example – so one hopes that ‘Flood House’ represents an exciting new development in a continuing story of living off-grid, and on water.

‘Flood House’ is part of the larger ‘Radical Essex’ programme led by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, which will be the subject of our next posting.

For more details about ‘Flood House’ visit: http://flood.house

For more details about the ‘Radical Essex’ programme: http://www.focalpoint.org.uk

KW