Text by Rebecca Travis
Contemporary city regeneration projects often revolve around pieces of iconic statement architecture, rendering it as some kind of divine means by which to elevate the profile of a city. The trend started in the late 90s with the ‘Bilbao effect’, in which the global attention and tourist attendance of Bilbao was raised via the architectural prowess of the Guggenheim. Since then, a sea of shimmering architectural visions has appeared in cities throughout the world, hoping to offer the same kind of symbolism associated with modernity, progress and growth. The notion that buildings could offer so much in sensibility, not just in physical presence is a key idea to the works of Eleanor Wright, whose BxNU residency in Newcastle (a city much applauded for its cultural regeneration, including the elliptical Millennium Bridge and Norman Foster’s Sage) sees her response to the surrounding architecture, in parallel with her research into digital visionary architect Zaha Hadid.
Much of the work in the show is informed by Hadid’s use of computer-aided design to create flawless contemporary icons, in particular the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan. Wright uses an array of corporate man-made materials to respond to these immaculate constructions, creating sculptural interventions that not only echo the architecture of Gallery North, but the 1960s Civic Centre opposite. Two works entitled FlatMatt (2013) occupy the expansive floor space. The first, made from shimmering PVC, pools on the ground and seductively glitters under the gallery lighting. It is made up of thin strips of waved plastic, meticulously hand cut and layered together to create a woven design. The second is formed with sheet rubber, fantastically matt in comparison to its PVC partner. Its terracotta colour is reminiscent of tiles, and the interlocking design of arrowheads and archways reflects traditional geometric forms. That the process towards creating these sculptural mats is so physically labour intensive, offsets the design process of Hadid made via digital platform, yet the strive for apparent beauty and ‘perfection’ runs concurrently through both.
However, the aim for visual perfection and its realistic placement in a hazard-ridden world is not necessarily reconcilable. Shortly after opening, Hadid’s Baku Cultural Centre suffered superficial damage in a fire. Although in a physical sense the damage was only skin-deep, the integral iconic perception was tainted. Wright has incorporated this into her presentation via a film comprised of edited YouTube videos of the fire as it happened. By consequence of the viral internet phenomena, the harming visuals of the blaze were shared worldwide in minutes, documenting the damage and permanently sealing it on the web.
As if to confirm this, the front and back windows of the gallery have been clad in one-way reflective vinyl, depicting the flames in large-scale. More often used in advertising display, in this case the vinyl reveals and disappears depending on your placement inside or outside the building, marking your position and relationship to the architecture at that particular time.
A final addition to the exhibition is a pair of heraldic seahorse sculptures, an emblem taken from the Newcastle City coat of arms and repeated atop the tower of the Civic Centre. Detached from their original settings, rendered in block colour and devoid of features, they appear like glossy corporate symbols, perhaps acting as a metaphor for the brand infused architecture seen in current developments.
Wright’s sensitive use of the gallery space and connective research into both her immediate surroundings and in the wider world of iconographic architecture, results in an exhibition that combines meticulous attention to materials and place, with an emphasis on the physical process of making. The accumulative feeling permeating THIN CITIES is that with numerous developments relying on a similar style of architecture by which to launch a new cultural campaign, the overall effect is one of a globalised style, as opposed to an individual and considered urban cityscape.
Eleanor Wright: THIN CITIES is on display at Gallery North, Northumbria University until 17 October 2013.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.