Dubai

Seher Shah, Flatlands (scrim), 2015, ink on paper, fifteen panels, each 31 1/4 × 43".

Seher Shah, Flatlands (scrim), 2015, ink on paper, fifteen panels, each 31 1/4 × 43".

Seher Shah

Green Art Gallery

Seher Shah, Flatlands (scrim), 2015, ink on paper, fifteen panels, each 31 1/4 × 43".

There is a sense of ambiguous monumentality to Brutalist architecture—for example, structures such as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (Housing Unit), known as “the radiant city,” completed in Marseilles in 1952 and described by the architect as “the first manifestation of an environment suited to modern life.” This three-dimensional béton brut (rough-cast concrete) grid comprises 337 apartments designed to house some sixteen hundred residents alongside shopping areas, a hotel, and a rooftop terrace. Its design has been adapted worldwide since, at times with glorious results: for example, the interlocking concrete blocks that make up the sprawling Barbican Estate, completed in 1982, and developed by architects Joe Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell, and Christoph Bon as an attempt to bring a utopian future to a bombed-out post–World War II London. In other cases, these concrete forms haunt cities like looming specters, habitable sculptures created by men of a bygone era whose ideals would ultimately fail in practice yet whose ideas continue to influence the design of cities worldwide. Take the Robin Hood Gardens complex in East London, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and built in 1972: In 2008, amid a battle for the complex’s future, English Heritage stated that the design had ultimately “failed in its original brief to create a housing development which worked on human terms.”

Prince Charles once suggested that such buildings were more offensive than the Luftwaffe’s rubble. Regardless of how anyone feels about them, these structures represent histories that are—in keeping with the name of the style—brutal. Such was the case of the Palika Kendra, finished in 1983 according to the designs of Kuldip Singh and spawned under Jawaharlal Nehru’s postwar, postindependence project to industrialize India. Nehru was said to have seen industrial structures as “modern temples” of a new nation. The building features in this exhibition, “The Lightness of Mass,” in the graphite drawing Brutalist Traces (NDMC—New Delhi), 2015, in which Seher Shah has rendered the structure as a series of faint lines that recall the thin mechanical marks printed out from a machine with barely any ink left in its cartridge. Part of the series “Brutalist Traces,” 2014–,the work was hung in the gallery along with a line of similar renderings of other buildings, such as the Erno˝ Goldfinger studio’s Glenkerry House in London. Two plinths were positioned nearby, with small cast-iron sculptures placed on them, geometric and modular in form. In Untitled (curved wave), 2015, for instance, an angular swell emerges out of a cast-iron grid that resembles the blueprint of a building’s interior. This abstraction of architectural elements, reflected in the exhibition’s title, points to the artist’s interest in “the ambiguous relationship between landscape and object,” which was grounded by a series of black-and-white photographs she created in collaboration with Randhir Singh in 2014. These show the prehistoric standing stones of Scotland’s Machrie Moor. The images complete a considered spectrum, between nature and modernization, in which an uneasy lightness is produced as a countermeasure to the overbearing histories contained in the historical designs—and traditions—that Shah subverts.

In the fifteen ink-on-paper panels of Flatlands (scrim), 2015, architectural form—or drawing—is broken down, fragmented, and somehow elegantly exploded in order to resemble a graphic score. Here, the urban grid is no longer made up of neatly composed compartments; they burst out of their own forms, and curves are abstracted and freed to dance along a nondescriptive route, liberated from function in the abstract landscape offered by the paper—a space within which form is reimagined.

Stephanie Bailey