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‘An ideal never fully achieved’: Reflecting on modernism through a non-existent city

A Polish photographer reapplies the ideals of modernism by creating his own “imaginary architecture.”

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Nicolas Grospierre has been actively working in photography since the late 1990s and became renowned for his conceptual works exploring the ideological paradoxes within architecture – mostly modernist – and urban space more generally, as well as possibilities and limitations of photography as an artistic medium. In 2008, together with artist Kobas Laksa Grospierre, he produced works for the Polish Pavilion at the 11th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. The resulting exhibition, curated by Grzegorz Piątek and Jarosław Trybuś and titled The Afterlife of Buildings, was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation.
Throughout the years, Nicolas has also been traveling the world and documenting various modernist structures, some of which no longer exist. When asked about the preservation of modernist heritage, Grospierre replies: “I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is of course quite heartbreaking to see some of the buildings go, but on the other, I cannot restrain to think that it gives my photographs additional value. However, and ultimately, I came to believe that it is a paradoxical yet natural process written in the body of modernism. After all, it’s Louis Sullivan who said that form follows function; if the use of a building disappeared or changed, why keep it? Modernism was once tabula rasa, but if some of the buildings became obsolete nevertheless, it is in the logic of modernism that they should be destroyed.”
His images focus mainly on the interplay of shapes and voids, patterns, colors, and materials, excluding the human presence almost entirely. Form is his primary interest, and here Nicolas shares an interesting observation: “In the former socialist bloc the purpose of modernism was to create buildings primarily for public use – that’s the main difference compared to, for example, American modernism – but their architectural language was very similar. When I was working on my book Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th century architecture (2016), I decided to organize the buildings according to their shape rather than chronologically. This allowed me to discover that structures that were similar in form could have radically different functions. Warsaw Central Station shares many visual characteristics with a bank building in the US, for example. But I, myself, tend to favor architecture that is more open and accessible.

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Peresvetov Gallery

This April, Grospierre opened his first exhibition in Moscow, titled The non-existent city, at the Peresvetov Gallery. The space, housed in a constructivist residential block in the south of Moscow, hosts works from three separate projects conceived by Grospierre – Kolorobloki (2005), W70 (2007), and Axonocity (2018). The author attempts to create his architecture from scratch, using images of different elements and fragments of prefabricated modernist housing as his building materials. Grospierre’s imaginary architecture is not grandiose, opulent, or utopian – it’s created out of the most common, unpretentious, and recognizable material (especially to those who grew up in Soviet and post-Soviet cities) to give us one more glimpse of the elusive modernist ideal. “Even though the images do really exist, their subject matter – modernism – perhaps remained an ideal never fully achieved. Or even if it was, then only for a fleeting moment,” says the artist. This makes his work both slightly futuristic and nostalgic (due to the wear and tear of his “building material”). Subsequently it proves once again a well-known point: as a system, modernism still provides us with limitless possibilities, but as a living environment it never fails to reveal its propensity for aging and the marks and bruises of the ideology that gave birth to it.
The choice of the Peresvetov Gallery and Moscow in general for this exhibition was not accidental, explained curator Daria Kravchuk. “An increased interest in urbanism that we currently see in Russia and the transformations that our cities are going through clearly served as a factor. In this context, a solo show of Nicolas Grospierre, in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Center, seemed like a natural move. His works document the reality from which Poland moved away quite recently, but which continues to influence the current generation and its visual culture. Prefabricated architectural modules are used by him as a raw material for creating works reflecting on the post-Soviet architectural space.”
Strelka Mag took a closer look at these works.
 

THE SENTIMENTAL MONOTONY

In Kolorobloki, Grospierre is using images of panels covered in emalite glass to create a photomontage of made-up facades arranged in a color gradient. He arbitrarily chooses the same height of 5 floors and a multiple of 7 windows for each “building” in this sequence, regardless of the proportions of the original structures that these elements were taken from.

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Courtesy Nicolas Grospierre

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Citing American art critic and curator Rosalind Krauss, Kravchuk says that “the modernist grid proclaims the innovation of contemporary art. It declares the autonomy of the sphere of art and defines the art space as closed and self-sufficient. It is also an emblem of modernism – an art form of pure visuality, that has abandoned the "emotions of life" for the sake of studying its own means of expression.”
In Grospierre’s work, the gradient reflects the sentimentality that the author attaches to the aesthetics of these elements and the environment they used to create them, thus making it easier to appreciate the beauty of repetition rather than its mundanity.
 

POSITIONING THE ORDINARY CENTER STAGE

W70 refers to one the of the most common types of modular structure that was used for mass residential construction in Socialist Poland. For many, it represents the ordinary, the familiar, the insignificant. In his work, Grospierre decided to take a fresher look at this concrete reality and reveal some of its aesthetic qualities. He made over 4,000 photographs of various elements of this system in order to use them in his works.

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In Żory, Grospierre offers us a chromatic arrangement of colored balconies printed and applied as wallpaper on a rectangular-shaped block, thus forming a model of a house.
3D->2D is an anamorphic composition of images showing the same facade but on a different scale: only one particular point in space allows the viewer to see this as a rectangular building.
In Monolith, Grospierre takes one single element – the smallest in the W70 system – representing it on a 1:1 scale and thus drawing attention to its potential as a sculpture and not just a uniform element of a much larger whole.
 

GAMIFICATION OF MODERNISM

In Axonocity, we can see a bird’s eye view of a group of large apartment blocks set in an urban townscape. The fact is, none of these buildings exist in reality, however convincing they may look. Instead, they were all “built” by Grospierre.

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The proportions allow the viewer to rearrange these houses while retaining the structural coherence of the block and create his or her own compositions. With the adding of new images — the same in structure but with slightly different details — the game and the neighborhood it creates become endless.
Axonocity is a kind of a visual game, but it also reminds us of the situation in contemporary urban planning, where city planners and developers create from scratch whole segments of cities by simply adding, canceling, or changing what resemble miniature models on a table,” says Grospierre.

Photos: Peresvetov Gallery; Nicolas Grospierre

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