“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.
The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.
This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.
One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.
There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!
Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).
And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.
I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.
The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.