Sarah Hardacre: Penthouse and Pavement Exhibition at The Modernist
Until Saturday 21st March 2020
That’s funny I thought, during a quick Instagram scroll. I don’t remember so much modernist architecture being in the top-shelf magazines of my 1970s youth. Not that I was buying them of course. No need. Finding them scattered behind the bike shed was mandatory back then.
Scrolling back to double-check I learnt it was The Modernist announcing its latest exhibition by Sarah Hardacre: ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ – a series of paper collages and prints that use architectural photographs from local 1970s archives, alongside clippings from vintage pin-up magazines of the same time.
The backgrounds of the artworks are bold and blocky blues, oranges and purples. The pin-ups are in their full-colour glory and the urban landscapes are black and white photos of newly built residential and civic buildings such as police stations, shopping parades, libraries, council housing and bus stations.
Both the buildings and the pin-ups are in their absolute youthful prime.
It’s an era we’re nostalgic about, a more optimistic time in which post-war Britain really believed that there could be some kind of modernist-based social utopia with ‘homes fit for heroes’, (indeed homes fit for everyone), a well-supported welfare state and a thriving National Health Service.
It’s a time before digital enhancement and the age of ‘modified beauty’. The women in the artwork look very…… real. Grooming was certainly more achievable and relatable back then, less homogenised. Not for no reason are we seeing stretch-marks and diversity having a bit of a renaissance in advertising and social media – we’re nostalgic for this bygone era, when women were portrayed as being well, women – dimples and all. No pressure.
It’s no coincidence that the pin-ups and the urban landscapes are from the same decade, it was a considered decision by Sarah Hardacre. It anchors both subjects in an identical place and atmosphere so as to make various like-for-like comparisons and contrasts.
The artworks highlight the difference between the relationship the pin-up has with the public space in the picture, and the actual reality.
In the artwork, the pin-up comfortably inhabits the space. Indeed, dominates it – her scale is impressive and her technicolor glory makes the black and white architecture seem unchallenging, almost subservient. Sort of ‘we’ll-just-quietly-sit-here-in-the-background-while-you-take-the-lead’. The overall aesthetic is reminiscent of the poster for the 1958 B-Movie, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, in which said 50-Foot Woman stands Colossus-like, astride an urban landscape, taking no shit, throwing cars around as though Dinkie toys.
In reality, the women who inhabited these modernist, 1970s spaces often struggled with them and definitely did not take the leading role. The space instead dominating and suppressing her. Sarah points out that being the late ‘60s and ‘70s the architecture was designed by predominantly-male run practices and as such, there wasn’t a lot of time spent thinking about a woman’s day to day use of the public space – pushing a pram around it, lugging the shopping around. Back then, men just didn’t really do that stuff. Not in any way male bashing here, it’s just the way it was.
As a consequence, within the designs, there are often too many steep steps, lifts that stop lifting and sharp angles that are an absolute arse to drag a petulant, screaming toddler with a Raleigh Chopper around.
Sarah sent me a great resource book that considers the urban landscape from the point of view of the women living within it: Making Space: Women and the Built Environment. It’s got some great black and white photographs of urban landscapes that look straight out of a punk fanzine.
Sure enough, there’s photographic evidence of women struggling up flights of steps with both the pram, the baby and the shopping.
Sadly, no Choppers though.
The artworks also show a striking visual contrast between the two subjects themselves:
‘…the often stark ‘phallic uprising’ of male dominated modernist architecture as counter to the sensuousness of the female body…’
The architecture is formal, angular and clinical; the pin-ups, soft and curved, irregular.
Phallic and sensual they both definitely were but it’s now 50 years later and the viewer therefore, realises both subjects have aged exponentially.
This highlights an inequality between the two subjects: the public demand for them as the years have passed. We admire 1970’s brutalist architecture more as the years roll by. But we don’t see the same increase in demand for pin-ups as their years roll by.
One thing they both do share however, is a certain vulnerability. We now know that some of the buildings didn’t make it, they were demolished. And we can guess that sadly, some of the women didn’t make it either.
(And if they have, they’ll be in their mid 70s by now and probably still struggling up those damn stairs.)
I suspect the life stories of the two subjects probably ran in parallel and I wonder whether or not their youthful optimism was ever fully realized and how their lives panned out.
The buildings we can easily track down but where are the women now?
Or is that just me being nosey….
They won’t be easy to find, which Sarah confirms, as they often used 1970s, pin-up-appropriate aliases, such as Candy and Bunny, and even these would change from issue to issue.
Sarah also sent me a promotional film from the BFI archive – Prospect of Skelmersdale, a 1971 documentary about the mostly male planners and architects as they consider the new town’s housing, transport and amenities. Sarah tells me to watch out for the moment in the film where scantily clad pin-ups can be seen pinned to the walls in their offices.
Pictures of pin-ups and modernist architecture in the same frame – very appropriate. Life imitating art, 50 years earlier.
Ideally, go see the artwork in the (literal) flesh but if a trip to Manchester is not possible, a selection of the artwork is included here.
And please do shout if you recognise, or know the whereabouts of any of the women featured.
Thanks for your time on the phone, Sarah – and happy Wally Dog and Gossip Mirror spotting (possibly more about those later, in future works).