Review: Ethelburga Tower at the Geffrye Museum

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In lauding Prime Minister Thatcher’s proposed ‘right-to-buy’ scheme 30 years ago, Michael Heseltine heralded it as ‘one of the most important social revolutions of this century.’ Thatcher’s stated aim of increasing ‘social responsibility’ has cataclysmically failed, but for ex-council blocks, like Ethelburga Tower in Battersea, the result has been revolutionary in other ways. Namely, an increasingly broad demographic of inhabitants. Ninety percent of the block is now privately owned, with the rent for these properties three times that of the few remaining council-owned maisonettes. Contained in one building is a vast spectrum of London society.

This diversity-in-proximity is the most striking aspect of Mark Cowper’s photographic record of 46 of Ethelburga Tower’s living rooms. The project allegedly began as an investigation into the varied light effects in East and West facing flats. But to assume that subtle contrasts in lighting conditions was all Cowper expected to glean from the collection would be to underestimate him. As he says himself: ‘everyone likes to peek into someone else’s world, don’t they?’ This respectfully voyeuristic aspect is the real draw for the viewer.

Cowper’s no-frills technique (photographing each, architecturally identical, living room from the same viewpoint, naturally lit and with no tidying up) emphasises the personalisation of each flat by its occupant/s. Similar to a previous project by Chris Clunn which documented the tenants of the Brunswick centre, these artists share a fascination with the ways people, particularly people in London, live their lives. However Cowper’s approach is more dispassionate – he makes no judgement on the people (or the reflections of people in their possessions and tastes) that he documents. He merely documents. Often the people themselves do not appear in the frame, although Cowper gave them the option. There is a scientific quality to his method – the control elements in the investigation being the camera angle and the underlying structure of the room itself (a 3m x 5m space with full height glazing at the far end); the variable being the inhabitant, and the aesthetic choices and effort they have invested in this living space.
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This straight visual comparison, together with the short accompanying descriptions, invites the viewer to speculate and draw conclusions. Owned apartments are more carefully and intensively decorated than the more transient rented flats, cultural histories shine through the choice of furnishings and objects.  The living room of the young German professional has a bleached minimalist look, the ageing Indian couple’s is festooned with rich printed silks and tropical plants. For anyone who has ever fabricated backstories about fellow diners in a restaurant, this is the exhibition for you.

But this nosy neighbour quality is not all it offers. It is a lesson in interior design – if you want to find out how to avoid the effects of ‘cramped’, ‘dark’ or ‘unwelcoming’, it’s all here. And there are examples to the contrary. We are not a nation that traditionally aspires to apartment living. But some of the wealthier inhabitants of this ex-council block in Battersea, not least the photographer himself, make it look positively desirable.

Most importantly, it’s a meticulously collected historical social record. To the children of 2050, yes, this really was how we lived in 2009. Which is presumably its real and lasting value to the Geffrye Museum. For an institution concerned with recording the domestic habits and set-up of the middle classes of urban England, this exhibition is a gem of an archive.

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