Last Chance To See: Ethelburga Tower, Geffrye Museum

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 110 months ago
Last Chance To See: Ethelburga Tower, Geffrye Museum

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by Mark Cowper
Between July 2007 and June 2008, photographer Mark Cowper knocked at the front door of 46 masionnetes in Ethelburga Tower, Battersea, where he lives. This wasn't some neighbourly meet 'n greet: with the residents' permission, he took a photograph of the living quarters of each one, from the same angle, capturing the grubby state of undress in which the room found. The result is this show at east London's Geffrye Museum.

July's lethal fire at a Camberwell block has shined the spotlight back on Britain's uncomfortable relationship with high-density tower block living. Yet Cowper's photographs ignore the alarmist headlines and peer uncritically into the individuality that lies behind grey concrete conformity. As a typology of our culturally and ethnically blended city, it is a fascinating study of how people can bend near-identical spaces to their own whim. Roland Barthes could probably spin a slim volume out of the aesthetics of the light fixtures alone, none of which are the same in any one photograph — despite this originally being a council block — and a testament to how far people will shape their home environment. Cultural assumptions are inverted: we spy an architect living in a dreary room furnished by Ikea's finest, a German IT consultant with a flat apparently styled by Wallpaper magazine, and in contrast, the cold loneliness of the unoccupied premises.

Photographs of high-rise interiors inevitably hark back to Richard Billinghman, whose searingly candid family snaps typified for many the worst of council block living. Yet Cowper is interested in the opposite; the placid ordinaryness, the delicate intimacy and personality given to such equal spatial dimensions. Is it too much to hope that high-rise refuseniks in town planning be taken to see this show before it closes?

Ethelburga Tower is on at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, E2 8EA, until August 31st. Entry is free.

Last Updated 18 August 2009