A True Commonwealth

chimberley Jordan Baseman’s excellent art piece which was displayed at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh earlier this year tiptoes cleverly around some of the aesthetic and political issues that surround Britain’s civic modernist heritage.

The main work is an elegaic piece, called A Hypnotic Effect, which follows a lifelong gym user, Ian Colquhon, who lost his legs in a fire at the age of 24.  Colquhon is unable to swim but works out in the nearby weights room and spends time watching the water. ‘You’ve got a lot of good memories down there,’ he ways at one point. ‘I’ve only ever been able-bodied in one dream,’ at another. Baseman is a clever documentarist who listens closely to what his interviews are saying. Instead of representing, this beautiful hymn to the role of the has played in the life of one man, and by extension, the city itself with lingering shots of concrete stairwells, he has thought hard not about what the building gives him but about what the building gives to his subjec. Beautiful but bewildering ripples play on the screen, over which Colquhon’s wise words skirt the edges of melancholy. 

What the Commonwealth Pool gives is space and an unassuming architecture upon which can be grafted the needs of Edinburgh’s citizens. When I was a child, the dramatic mezzanine, which thrust out over the submerged pools contained a café, which served chips that could be smelt from the entrance. Today it is a kids soft play area. I remember when they put the flumes in which snaked outside the building and briefly into the wild landscape of Holyrood Park. I remember when they took them down again. In the room were the weights room now stand, I did judo. Badly. For a month. This space was designed to be used and reused and changed. It will close soon for a full refurbishment and reopen in time for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. A civic space for Scotland as well as Edinburgh. 

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Almost as telling and certainly a companion piece to Baseman’s langorous, touching piece about Colquhon is an adjacent interview with Euan Colam, the project architect from RMJM for the building. It’s a fascinating encoungter. Here you have a London-based artist who says that he ‘loves modernism’ interviewing an architect who can’t really understand how anyone can ‘love’ something that is so self-evidently the right way of approaching architecture. ‘I don’t quite know what you mean about the experiment of Modernism,’ he says at another point. A dour Scot schooled in the tradition of High Modernism with very little time for contemporary attitudes, which sees Modernism as a thing, a fetish relational object in itself, to be protected at all costs, indeed to be totemised in order to somehow conjur up again the political relationships which allowed it to flourish in the first place. (If only this were true.)

Baseman is smarter than that: more of an artist. He’s captured the importance of civic Modernism by encouraging us to remember that Modernism is about the play of space and light; a considered act by a designer rather than a fashionable aesthetic or a banner to wave in order to re-invoke a more familiar political relationship between state and individual.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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