Review: The Belt 01.05.09

words William Wiles

Photographer Neil Montier’s The Belt, showing at New London Architecture, is a series of slightly altered images of London’s periphery. It’s a small exhibition and perhaps we should be thankful for that, as the pictures are unforgivingly harsh. Montier’s images are a frontal assault on modernist architecture, in particular social housing, placing it at the heart of a shattered, dystopian landscape.

This landscape – depopulated, choked with weeds – brings to mind the apocalyptic “Zone” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science-fiction film Stalker. The sense of contamination and abandonment spreads beyond the black-and-white prints themselves to their frames, which are rusting iron. The modernist tower blocks that loom over the puddles, shipping containers and half-bricks of Montier’s zone are made malignly proprietorial, as if responsible for the desolation around them.

The Belt makes some familiar buildings quite unfamiliar, alienating the viewer. A couple of the shots feature an unsettlingly tall and thin building. It appears to be Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, only viewed exactly side-on, skewing its proportions and turning it into a disturbing caricature, like a training tower used by firefighters. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens – which, like Goldfinger’s tower, is in Poplar, east London – also appears more than once. In one instance it rises alone behind a concrete embankment, ennobled by isolation and monumental setting. Montier’s intent was clearly somewhat hostile, but in fact he has done Robin Hood Gardens something of a favour, freeing this fine brutalist experiment from its squalid surroundings and giving it a kind of majesty.

In some ways, however, this beauty is the undoing of The Belt. We are familiar, thanks to decades of libel against modernist housing experiments, with how these concrete towers can be traduced by photographers with black-and-white stock and careful framing. Montier has not done this, and has instead mixed and matched buildings and setting for aesthetic effect. The result is fantastical and powerful, but comment or fiction rather than documentary. This effect is much clearer in the latter set of images in the exhibition, which are together titled In Arcania. In these older pictures, the arcadian modernist idea of the tower in the park is subverted. Modernist blocks perch on ridges and hillsides of what could be the Scottish Highlands – equally desolate, but this time natural rather than man-made. The result is undeniably sinister, but the blocks also look, in a way, strangely inviting – islands of settlement in an inhospitable landscape.

Montier promises that The Belt is an ongoing project, and hopefully he will persist with it. It’s a provocative series, one that neatly plays to both sides of the gallery. Modernism’s detractors will get their kinky thrills, and its fans will get a delicious dose of the Ballardian sublime in all its terror and glory.

The Belt is at New London Architecture, the Building Centre, London WC1, until 16 May

top image An image from The Belt

images Neil Montier

image An image from The Belt

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