Stephen Willats

Brentford Towers, 1990


Throughout our culture the tower block has come to symbolize the conflicts of modern living. Whether or not a person actually lives in a tower block is not crucial to the power this symbol exerts. Proliferating in the optimistic and paternalistic 1960s, the tower block was to express externally a monumentality; a vertical icon. In contrast the internal physicality of the block exerts enormous pressure on residents, moulding their psychology of themselves, their relationship to other residents and to society, and consequently it represents the social consciousness of those authoritative institutions that were its creators. Passivity, segmentation, isolation, distancing from external reality are some of the reductive forces working against those caught living inside the tower block.
In the conceptual model from which Brentford Towers was derived, the tower block is seen as a commonly available symbol that denotes the wider social fabric in which we are all locked. There was to be a complete binding between the reality embodied in the work, the context in which it was presented, and the primary audience of the work. The work was to state a dynamic relationship between the internal reality of life within the tower block, and the culturally idealized symbols that featured in the world outside. In doing so the work uncovered the means by which the residents expressed their resistance to the particularly repressive environment that surrounded them in the tower block. The work was to climb up the inside of the block, floor by floor, gradually building its own conceptual tower. This conceptual tower contrasted personal objects owned by the residents that held a significance for their lives outside their flat, with something that they could see from their living room windows in the surrounding landscape to which they attached a special meaning. The work was to be made as a collaboration between myself and the residents of the tower block. I would provide the framework for the work, and residents would load that framework with their own conceptualizations of the relationship between objects on either side of their living room windows.
When I first came across the Green Dragon Lane Estate in Brentford, West London, I immediately saw it as a powerful symbol of the New Reality. The estate, of six tower blocks, dated from the late 1960s and, unlike most similar estates, was still intact and operational. Some three months before the work was to be presented I selected the middle tower block, Harvey House, as the one in which I would initiate the work. I then set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the making of the work. The caretaker, the Chief Housing Officer and the leader of the Tenants’ Association were all contacted to discuss the idea of my work. I set myself a three-week period in which to meet residents, and to discuss with them the possibility of their participation in the work. There would be as many parts to the conceptual tower as the number of residents agreeing to take part during this three week period, each residents making one part of the total model. The Tenants’ Association organized a small meeting for me to talk with some residents, and from this three people agreed to participate, and they subsequently introduced me to other people and so on. Eventually a group of fifteen residents were interested to participate and I then set about a procedure that was the same with each resident. First of all I made a photographic documentation, under their control, of the objects they considered were very special to their flat life, and then an object or something they could identify in the panoramic view from their living room window. Next I made a tape-recording in which the resident discussed the relationship between the objects they had selected. A series of public display boards made up of the photographs and texts represent the different aspects of the total model – the Conceptual Tower – and these were to be positioned on the various landings in Harvey House. Each participant would make one display board from the documentation, selecting the photographs to be used and a quotation from the transcribed recording. This quotation was then written directly onto the display boards by the participant in their own handwriting, the whole artwork on the display board being made within the same living room that was represented on the display.
The series of display boards were presented in a sequence, starting from the first floor on 6th October, and moving up with the next floor to another landing every two days, until the top twenty-second floor of Harvey House had been reached. The effect of this sequencing of the presentation on different floors was to change residents’ behaviour, so that they would travel to those on different floors and in so doing meet other residents. The work could thus affect life in the tower block, not only conceptually, but also actually to stimulate new relationships countering the isolating physicality of the block. I asked residents of each floor of Harvey House whether they would accept a display board on their landing, and they were only subsequently positioned on a floor when everyone was in agreement. Thus for the work to operate it had to be based on people’s acceptance, it was also important that residents could identify with the conceptualisations being made, and for them to recognise the people in the displays, even if they just knew them by sight. This acceptance was demonstrated by the fact that, over the four weeks of the installation, with the displays in very vulnerable positions, in a volatile environment, not a single display was defaced. The only way the work could be viewed was if people lived in or travelled to, Harvey House, as the actual physicality of the tower was an integral part of the work and had to be experienced at first hand.

Brentford Towers
From Society Through Art, Stephen Willats, Haags Centrum voor Aktuele Kunst, 1990