“Skyscraper” fishermen’s sheds, the Stade, Hastings, East Sussex, 1956. Photo: Eric de Maré/RIBA Library Photographs Collection
I finally got along to the RIBA on Saturday to see The Exploring Eye: The Photography of Eric de Maré. It’s a truly wonderful show, featuring hundreds of works by one of my favourite architectural photographers. There’s a mix of modern and vintage prints, drawn from the RIBA’s own extensive collection.
De Maré was born in London to Swedish parents, and was always interested in the humanity of Scandinavian modernism compared to its more austere international/continental counterparts. His work for the Architectural Press makes you long for the days when magazines had a real message to sell, in this case looking to Britain’s industrial and vernacular structures as an influence on modern architecture.
He found beauty where it was least expected, in canal locks, viaducts, worn steps and boat sheds. These were utility structures with efficient design that appealed to many modern architects. His monochrome prints reveal textures that makes you want to reach out and grab the subjects of his images. The photos also presage the work of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who made it their life work to chart the intricate differences and stark beauty of largely-ignored industrial architecture.
Looking at de Maré’s photos from the 1950s and 1960s, it is particularly moving when you realise that many of the subjects no longer exist, swept away by the modernisation and “improvement” works of the following decades. Others have been neutered; for example, the warehouses at Gloucester Docks are now an antiques market and designer outlet.
De Maré captured the last gasps of industrial Britain, with images softened by smoke and smog. It’s an unmissable trip down memory lane that has much to say for our present and future, particularly in terms of townscape and human-scale design. It also holds a loupe up to contemporary architectural media and representation, and makes you wonder whether the move to full colour, followed by the proliferation of new channels such as the world wide web and latterly iPad magazines have actually resulted in fundamentally better and more worthwhile publications.
Now I need to get my hands on his 1958 book The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings.
The exhibition runs until 24 November, so bunk off work and get there quick.