Text Terri Whitehead
Photos Sylvia Borda
Vancouver artist Sylvia Grace Borda’s photographic studies of Modernist schools in East Kilbride, Scotland, document striking, multi-level concrete institutions resembling leafy university campuses more than unwanted primary and secondary schools slated for demolition and redevelopment. Sited on spacious vistas around the city and characterized by pure, geometric concrete forms, ribbon windows, roof lights, and large playing fields, these schools would seem to be aging rather well. Moreover, they allow children to walk to neighbourhood schools rather than being bussed to larger institutions. This was one of the founding principles of the utopic, postwar “new town”–a walkable yet car-friendly planned urban centre with plentiful housing, schools and gardens.
Incredibly, it has been decided that in the New Town of East Kilbride, now the sixth-largest city in Scotland, every one of the city’s 17 schools will be demolished or refurbished in the next two years. Even Duncanrig Secondary School, designed by renowned Scottish modernist Sir Basil Spence will soon be gone. Hunter Secondary School, built in the early 1960s, cost well over 500,000 when it was built–a fortune in today’s economy–but it will also go. A great many secondary schools in the city are being knocked down and students will be bussed to new “super schools.” Sadly, this extreme program of “modernization” is not limited to East Kilbride. Nearly every Modernist school in Scotland is being replaced as part of a public-private initiative that will lead to the complete erasure of this country’s Modern heritage. “People like the idea of new schools and they see Modernism as a failure,” Borda laments, “But I don’t think they realize how much this will change the way the city functions.”
Borda is a curator and digital artist, whose work is often concerned with architecture and urbanism. She lectures at the University of British Columbia and the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, and has done substantial international artist residencies and community- centred projects. She spent last summer in residence at East Kilbride Arts Centre meticulously documenting and recording the final days of these doomed buildings. Upon arriving in the city, she was initially interested in researching the distinctive roundabout traffic systems (as her work often relates to the relationship between transport grids and culture) but was immediately struck by the spectacular Modernist schools, and their unfortunate fate. With a sense of urgency, she visited each building and took over 3,000 images of the schools. “I wanted to create a living archive of East Kilbride Modernism,” Borda explains.
Her photos record the buildings in their last days, condemned and devoid of inhabitants. There is something sad about the burned-out guitar she found abandoned in the old music room at St. Brides. “I thought it looked like a Picasso,” she says. In her sensitive portrayal of the photos, it is clear she appreciates the architecture and utopian spirit behind the buildings’ design. She photographed details of the faades, the elaborate tile murals, the hand-fired bricks, and the light cannons with the eye of an architectural enthusiast. The schools look like grand institutions worthy of respect and awe. In her images there is a stillness, a calm. Sometimes her steps are the last to traverse a space.
“Vancouver Modernism in the 1950s has potential links to the utopic ideologies as considered by New Town architects,” Borda explains, drawing links between her experiences in Scotland and her hometown of Vancouver. “In particular the functionality and adornment of the buildings with public art features seem to be a direct link between the two locations.”
Borda relishes the idea of mapping space, documenting culture and landscape, and categorizing seemingly mundane typologies. In a recent project, she documented every bus stop in Surrey, the second-largest city in British Columbia. In each image, the same standard bus-stop sign is shown but each shot captures the changing landscape and urban development. “It’s the biggest transit grid in Canada,” she adds, “370 square kilometres is an abstract number until you walk it.” Her pilgrimage took months and she photographed 1,400 bus stops. This series, shown at the Surrey Art Gallery last year as a film loop, is provocative exactly because of the repetition, not in spite of it. The bus stop is redefined as an anchor in this rapidly changing social and environmental context. It is amazing how diverse Surrey has become, and Borda highlights this in such a way that the viewer feels a part of discovering the city. In one photograph, the play of light and shadow makes a row of mailboxes seem noble and elegant. Compositions with trees and clouds contrast images of sprawling suburbia. The community became involved in the project, as people sent in their own images to contribute to this art archive.
Borda’s fascination with transportation grids developed in her “Capital Cities” photographic series, a study of the urban transit systems in London, Tokyo and Taipei. “Entering into the Taipei metro, you feel like you are in a European city,” Borda explains, “The lighting grid is so European, and there are little touches like granite and rose quartz staircases, which are remarkable. It’s dislocating and it becomes decontextualized. It’s the crowd around you that makes you realize where you are.”
When exhibited in Vancouver at the Centre Art Gallery in 2002 as a series of 180 prints arranged in a grid, people debated and questioned the images, struggling to identify if the middle-aged Japanese man in a suit was reading his newspaper on a train platform in Japan, Taipei or London. “Capital Cities” reflects on the globalization of urban design and suggests it is not such a new urban phenomenon after all.
“In art and in society, we are looking for information systems to help consolidate information,” Borda explains. “Sometimes an ‘abstract or random’ system can be more revealing than one would gather. Hence, my projects like ‘every bus stop’ or ‘every school’ in East Kilbride–if time allows I hope to be able to chronicle all of these public institutes–follow serial typologies and have precedence to other artworks.”
Terri Whitehead is a designer and journalist based in London, England.