Exhibition: Architecture as Monument

Anna Lively 21 March 2013

Churchill College is certainly not renowned for the beauty of its architecture. The bold modernist forms and abundance of concrete means it is hardly a tourist hotspot, sitting uncomfortably with the postcard image of the Cambridge idyll. However, Sam Laughlin’s exhibition on ‘Architecture as Monument’, open in the main Churchill concourse until 24th March, encourages us to reconsider before we dismiss Churchill as simply the ‘ugly’ college.

Laughlin’s photographs highlight the complex ideological position of a college intended to be a ‘living’ monument to Sir Winston Churchill. By taking his photos at night using a long exposure time, Laughlin emphasizes the unapologetic shapes and monumentality of form. The buildings project an image of uncompromised strength, perhaps intended to reflect Churchill’s role as a ‘great man’ in our national history.

Yet, as Laughlin shows, Churchill College was also very much a product of its 1950s modernist context. Industrial shapes, such as the power-plant like tower depicted in one of Laughlin’s photographs, demonstrate a desire to bolster Britain’s technological strength at a time of Cold War tension and declining empire. Laughlin’s inclusion of the chapel in the exhibition is provocative and shows the ambiguous position of a chapel in a supposed bastion of scientific secularism.

Laughlin’s photos are successful because of their subtlety. His compositions have a sharp angularity but there is also intricacy in the shadows of the branches and the alien glints of light. The photographs reflect Laughlin’s wider interest in architectural structures and skeletons of form, which will form the basis of his next solo exhibition in Milan.

What is notably absent from his pictures is students. Indeed, as Laughlin explained, the pictures were taken in the Christmas holidays as part of a conscious effort to ‘let the architecture speak for itself’. Yet even if they are not in the photographs, Laughlin’s photographs clearly have something to say to students about their university and its foundations.

Anna Lively