A horrifying vision of modernist misery, from Birmingham to Hong Kong

If Socks Aren't Pulled Up Heads Will Roll (2009) by Richard Hughes - Nils Stark
If Socks Aren't Pulled Up Heads Will Roll (2009) by Richard Hughes - Nils Stark

There was a time when modern architecture heralded a happy, healthy future. Straight lines, repetitive forms, industrial materials: all promised a utopian way of life, or so believed the acolytes of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

Yet as Horror in the Modernist Block suggests, the love-in didn’t last. Problems beset many of the experimental housing estates erected during that idealistic phase of post-war reconstruction, and high-rise living became synonymous with isolation and soullessness. Too much concrete; excessive crime. Brutalism, it seemed, lived up to its name.

Our collective disillusionment with modern architecture is the starting point for this new exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, which features 20 contemporary artists, and was inspired by the city’s vexed history with its Brutalist buildings. (Curator Melanie Pocock came up with the idea while walking through the empty city-centre during lockdown.)

In 2016, for instance, after inciting controversy for four decades, Brum’s main public library, an inverted ziggurat made of concrete, was demolished. Local artist Richard Hughes remembers skateboarding beneath it in his youth, and one of his sculptures here, a facsimile of a deflated football on top of a rusting lamp-post, like a skull attached as a trophy to a pole, greets visitors in the foyer. It establishes an atmosphere of unease and misrule from the off.

Upstairs, this mood only thickens, made denser by Karim Kal’s large photographs of down-at-heel concrete passageways and underpasses in Lyon, captured at night; beyond those spaces, there’s nothing but an ambiguous expanse of black. An inverted exit sign, seemingly charred by London-based artist Abbas Zahedi, and trailing steel chains that refer to Islamic rituals of lamentation, summons the Grenfell Tower fire, and proves a small but distressingly powerful intervention.

Elsewhere, Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s misshapen, painted-steel sculpture Tower (2019), which alludes to Soviet architecture and resembles Sputnik’s mangled armature or a smashed-up fairground ride, offers a stark, frightening symbol of urban desolation.

Union (2022) by Firenze Lai - The artist/Vitamin Creative Space
Union (2022) by Firenze Lai - The artist/Vitamin Creative Space

Having worked in Singapore, Pocock seamlessly integrates artists and stories from Asia and elsewhere. The Directorate (2019), an eerie tapestry by Shezad Dawood, evokes an empty modernist swimming pool in the former US embassy in Karachi, while Firenze Lai’s pictures of alienated figures hemmed in by (sometimes surprisingly fleshy) structures, like visual remixes of Henry Moore’s wartime “Shelter” drawings, recall the high urban density of Hong Kong, where she was born.

When I visited, several works had yet to be installed, so it was hard to be certain about the overall atmosphere and pace. But Pocock surely missed a trick by not including, even as a scene-setter, any of Peter Doig’s celebrated and disquieting paintings of Le Corbusier’s abandoned Unité d’habitation building in Briey, north-east France, viewed, through a tangle of branches, from deep within a dark forest.

Still, I saw enough to sense that the show should avoid the principal pitfall for this sort of exhibition: feeling too essayistic, like a chapter from an earnest book. While it may lack a horror flick’s cheap thrills, Horror in the Modernist Block offers something more thought-provoking – while being equally, insidiously unsettling.

Until May 1 2023. Info: ikon-gallery.org