Living In The Modern World
Until March 4; City Art Centre, Edinburgh

With the second half of the 20th century came a brave new world of modern living. Over four million council houses were built in the UK between 1945 and 1969, many of them in futuristic multi-storey buildings; Glasgow’s were the highest of them all. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s vision of the mass-produced home, enthusiasts flattened Victorian slums and threw up multi-storeys as fast as they could manage, using off-the-peg solutions to a pressing housing crisis.

The age of optimism didn’t last long. By the 1970s this brave new world was showing cracks. Decrepit and vandalised, many of the towering monuments had become isolated ghettos. A new wave of architectural psychologists bemoaned the buildings’ failure to meet the diverse needs of their occupants; now seen as eye-sores, their preservation was low on everybody’s agenda.

A generation later, Scotland’s contemporary artists are fascinated. They look back with hindsight not only on the optimism of the mid 20th century, but also on the disillusionment of the following decades. With unprecedented emotional detachment, they excavate the gaps between the utopian dream and its human reality.

I’ve commented before on the frequency of shows about the built environment and those who inhabit it. Noticing this strong trend in contemporary art, Edinburgh’s City Art Centre has made it the basis for their new collecting strategy. Living In The Modern World is the result: a clutch of new acquisitions on show for the first time, along with existing works from the city’s collection.

The exhibition is something like a city in itself. You must pick your way unguided through bravura post-modern creations and dull peripheral sprawl, historical glamour and cheap schemes. It is a sometimes disjointed agglomeration, confused particularly by the inclusion of a handful of irrelevant works, chief among which is an Exposed Painting by Callum Innes.

One inspired pairing is that of Toby Paterson’s Citrus Fruit Market with Jock McFadyen’s Great Junction Street. Both depict remarkable early 20th century buildings, devoid of people. But the similarities stop there. While Paterson’s clean lines and virginal flat planes suggest an architect’s fantasy, McFadyen’s old cinema is scarred with the ravages of time in a world where pure planes don’t exist. The walls are dirty and stained with damp. Light fittings trail flexes across the façade and aerials interfere with the profile. The two paintings seen together speak volumes about the dreams of early modernism and its subsequent fall from grace.

While many remain transfixed by such town centre dramas, the cultural spotlight is trained increasingly on suburban sprawl. In his essay for the current Lighthouse show, art historian Richard Williams is unusually positive about the suburbs. For him, bland, urban peripheries are the most revealing, most truly modern, place to be. He argues that the Impressionists, painters of modern life, painted on the edges of Paris, and it is certainly the case that many artists today are fascinated by the anonymous hinterlands of our big cities.

Kenny Hunter captures two such nowhere lands in screenprints full of concrete; flyovers, buildings and lampposts are drenched in cold sun. The superimposed texts recall Allen Ginsberg’s rage against the cold, stony Moloch, a symbol of authority and oppression. But there is a hint of softness, too, in the greenery, which in the end seems to win out over the grey.

David Forster’s watercolour picks out a very different suburban scene, casting a rainbow over a row of typical Edinburgh bungalows. The title, at first sight, suggests a land of desperate housewives among the perfectly pruned shrubs: “For the thorns and bushes lay hold of them as it were with hands, and there they stuck fast and died miserably.” But the line is from Briar Rose, a version of Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the artist’s vision is of magical goings-on inside the sleepy sandstone walls.

While 1930s bungalows age gracefully, everyone loves to hate the new-build private estates which are creeping ever further out of our towns and cities. Jumbled casually as if dropped from the sky, these new off-the-peg solutions are a cross between lego and some vague, southern English notion of the picturesque. Philosopher Alain de Botton has condemned such “pastiche” architecture, pining for a return to modernist ideals. Only then, he thinks, will urban dwellers be truly happy.

Nathan Coley may well agree. His deadpan slide-show, Villa Savoye, contrasts bland details from a typical show home with the ecstasies of a woman waxing lyrical about the poetry of every line and curve. She is, in fact, describing Le Corbusier’s renowned “machine for living” in France. With sound and image dislocated, the walls and windows of the 1990s show home start to look like a flimsy sham. If this is the architecture that defines our age, no wonder we’re starting to yearn for the grand schemes of our forebears.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 21.01.07