Exhibition: Concrete Monstrosity
Described as soulless, heavy, and imposing, Brutalist architecture is frequently linked with totalitarianism. This raises the question: are these concrete beasts that define our urban landscape merely cruel, cold mistresses? Or is there a softer side to béton brut? Concrete Monstrosity, a photography exhibition by Nick Gascoine and David Morris, unveils the beauty in brutality.
Their journey, born from a fascination with iconic architect Harry Seidler, has led them to explore the enigmatic allure of Brutalism. Concrete Monstrosity wasn't initially intended to be an exhibition; it's a project that naturally evolved from their shared passion for architectural aesthetics and unconventional beauty.
Through their lens, they've crafted a body of work that challenges conventions, embraces imperfections, and reignites an appreciation for this divisive architectural style. In anticipation of the opening night, we caught up with Nick and David to discuss Concrete Monstrosity, their affection for brutalist buildings, and, of course, photography.
GOOD CHAT: NICK GASCOINE AND DAVID MORRIS
Guys, great to connect and congratulations on the show. Where are you both based at the moment?
Nick: I'm based in sunny Sydney.
David: And I'm based down in grey Melbourne.
Tell us a bit more about yourself and your creative background...
Nick: I'm a photographer and gaffer. It started as shooting BMX and skate photos in high school and has morphed into a career in commercial photography and lighting. I feel very grateful to have had a life of creative expression and endless opportunities at the hands of a camera.
David: Bit of a roundabout route for me. I kicked off my career in foreign policy research and, for a minute, looked like I would end up as a career public servant. Ended up in the Swiss watch industry as an editor and cut my teeth writing, shooting, and filming content on watches. But once you go down that route of creating something out of nothing, it's only a matter of time before you start doing your own thing.
Before we get into it, where did your love for Brutalism originate from?
Nick: Hard to pinpoint, but what do you reckon, David? It was probably through Harry Seidler.
David: Yeah, totally. We both gravitated to his work independently. Seidler is remembered more as a Modernist than a Brutalist, but the two are heavily intertwined.
Nick: Seidler brought a whole new school of thought to Australia; he's indelibly impacted the architectural landscape.
David: And in some circles, he's hated for it. But you'll never please everyone if you want to move the needle.
How did you come up with the idea for Concrete Monstrosity?
David: We like to call it the exhibition that wasn't meant to be an exhibition.
Nick: We both started out shooting Seidler and discovered other Brutalist structures and didn't think much of it.
David: And just took it from there. Seidler was the tip of the Brutalist iceberg for us.
Nick: And film was the Titanic!
David: An inevitable collision course. But jokes aside, there's always been a logic behind it.
Nick: The tonality and grain of black and white film just work so well with our chosen subject matter.
David: We're both deeply inspired by the Japanese principles of wabi-sabi – the perfection of imperfection. And it just seemed like a natural fit. Concrete Monstrosity was born out of a desire to show some love to arguably the most divisive style of architecture.
Nick: Yeah, we fully tapped into the infamy of Brutalism in naming the exhibition. For years politicians have labelled Brutalist structures as concrete monstrosities. There's the almost cliché scene of a politician dissing these structures in front of the media as the bulldozers and wrecking balls roll up.
David: Only for the same politicians to build some prefabricated flammable-clad garbage in its place.
Nick: That's doomed to be demolished again decades later. It's a vicious cycle.
What do you specifically look for in a frame when your shooting architecture? You must have a strong love for leading lines, ha.
Nick: Leading lines, for sure. Both of us have a particular obsession with composition and contrast.
David: Trying to convey the softness evident in some of these creations takes time. We approach each building differently. Often, we're limited in our viewpoint. So, we make do and improvise.
Nick: We've used reflections, embraced the Dutch angle, and used forced perspectives.
In some of your frames from the show, I noticed some double exposures of Brutalist architecture and the ocean. Why the juxtaposition?
Nick: Concrete and water couldn't be more different, right. The contrast between the two creates a captivating tension.
David: One's assertive, inflexible, and the other is, well, water. But then again, concrete can take on literally any form.
Nick: And the same with water. Water can be both serene and tranquil or devastatingly destructive.
David: There's beauty and brutality to both.
What is your go-to camera setup when shooting Brutalist?
David: Most of my images for Concrete Monstrosity were shot on my Pentax 67 with a buttery smooth SMC Pentax 105mm lens. The rest were shot using an SMC Pentax 200mm f4 lens I picked up in the Ginza earlier in the year for $55 – an absolute steal for 900 grams of metal and glass.
Nick: The entire show, for me, is shot on a Hasselblad 500cm with an 80mm cb 2.8 lens. It's really what got this whole thing going for me. I owned a Hassy back in the day and then picked one up from a mate for shooting his wedding, and you could say that's what started the love affair again.
Who would you say are your favourite Brutalist architects? Any other sources of inspiration?
Nick: Seidler stands out; Roy Grounds Shine Dome and Col Madigan's National Gallery have always been ever-present inspirations.
David: Ernö Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun & Harry Seidler. We've got stacks of left-of-field non-architect inspirations as well.
Nick: Like 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (TV Movie 2011).
David: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.
Nick: Yves Klein.
David: Fan Ho & Wayne Thom.
Nick: Architecture is mainly for public consumption. So, we draw on a lot of inspiration.
What role does photography play in Brutalism?
David: Huge. Architectural film photography was at its zenith just as the public sentiment started to shift away from Brutalism.
Nick: Ironically, during the iPhone and social media age, Brutalism is making a comeback.
Why do you think brutalist architecture is so misunderstood?
Nick: Well, to the uninformed, it just looks like concrete. Brutalism doesn't attempt to win your favour.
David: It's like if tough love was a style of architecture. For most of us, it takes time to appreciate Brutalism. There's also the political angle (which is beyond the scope of this interview). But over the last 50 years, Brutalism has been championed and admonished by differing sides of the political spectrum.
Nick: We dialled back the political narrative and instead looked at it for its aesthetic merits.
David: The divisiveness was definitely part of the appeal for us.
Do you have a favourite Concrete Monstrosity in Sydney you like to shoot, and why?
David: I quite like the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union Building. It's a stout boxy looking space with a lot of funky angles. There's also always great light where it's located, regardless of the weather.
Nick: The Seidler offices in Milsons Point, North Sydney. Harry's Park is a great place to sit and take in the city and all its monstrosities.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 16mm film titled 'Concrete Mistress'. What's it about?
David: The Sisyphean struggle of architects. Brutalism had its moment in the two decades following WWII. By the mid-70s, concrete artistry was losing out, and developers were embracing the material instead for its speed and efficiency. In the following decades, the public lumped all concrete together - good and bad.
Nick: This period represented a tipping point of sorts. And exactly right, in the following decades, the quantity of poorly designed garbage overtook the carefully considered works of Brutalism pioneers.
David: And ever since we as a society have concluded that concrete is evil, brutalist structures need to be demolished. Concrete is terrible for the environment, so it's unlikely any of these structures would be built today. But, surely demolishing them and building something in their place isn't ideal.
Nick: The Concrete Mistress encapsulates this tension and represents the public sentiment pushing back against cheap developments. Yves Klein Women in Blue served as a strong inspiration. This film was made in collaboration with a local model and friend. And as for the latex: it looks great on black and white film, and it's flexible and oddly utilitarian in an unconventional way and blew up in the 70s (see: Vivienne Westwood), just like Brutalism.
Nick, the show is taking place at your studio/darkroom, Alchemy. Tell us a little more about Alchemy and how it came to life.
Nick: The darkroom has had a few different iterations over the years, but we've finally found a home at our new studio building in St. Peters.
It started in my living room as a way to get the best results from the film I was shooting for an exhibition, SALT. And from there, friends found the love of film photography again and jumped back into the darkroom, so we needed a space where anyone could come and do work and enjoy it.
So, can anyone hire the darkroom? Do you offer courses too?
Nick: Yes, for both. We've kicked off introductory courses on developing and printing – an entire end-to-end lesson on taking those negs and turning them into prints.
Any plans to take the show on the road?
David: It's coming down to Melbourne next. Concrete Monstrosity will be showing at Revolver Upstairs (affectionately known as Revs) from 6:00 – 9:00pm on Friday, September 22. We're pretty stoked since there aren't many venues known state-wide just by their nickname. Its iconic.
Nick: Asia has a massive catalogue of Brutalist builds, so we're considering taking Concrete Monstrosity international!
Concrete Monstrosity opens on Friday, September 1st, at Alchemy Studios, 90 May Street, St Peters, Sydney.
For those in Melbourne, the beauty of Brutalism awaits your curious gaze on Friday, September 22nd, at Revolver Upstairs, 229 Chapel Street, Prahan. We hope to see you there.