This interview was first published in PETRIe E-Magazine issue #4.
Simon Terrill didn't start out as a photographer. Following his interests in theatre and sculpture to begin, Terrill finally found a way to explore his passion from behind the lens. In an interview with PETRIe Contributing Editor, Katie Aske, Terrill talks about public spaces and his latest project The Brutalist Playground.
Katie Aske: Firstly, can you tell PETRIe a little about your background. How did you get into photography?
Simon Terrill: After leaving school, I joined a travelling theatre collective named Splinters; it was the next best thing to running away with the circus. Then I studied sculpture and only much later began making photographs. It wasn’t a conscious decision to be a photographer; photography just seemed a better way to explore what I was thinking about at the time.
KA: Your images are often of the public and social spaces, particularly your ‘Crowd Theory’ collections. What do you find so interesting about them? How do you choose where and whom to photograph?
ST: I am fascinated by the idea of a crowd; how and why they form, dissolve and remake themselves. Crowds are a kind of unconscious force that exist across cultures as both a challenge to power and expression of joy. I’m drawn to the idea of being in a crowd as a kind of ultimate social space where barriers between people fall away and some other kind of sociability comes into being. Along with crowd, I am always looking for signs of how different spaces affects our idea of place. The ‘Crowd Theory’ works are about people marking their place simply by choosing to be there, by choosing to be in an image. In researching a picture, I look for spaces that naturally work like theatre backdrops, where the city becomes a stage set.
KA: Talking of public spaces, you have recently been involved with The Brutalist Playground at the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] with Assemble [a collective based in London who work across the fields of art, architecture and design]. How did you get involved with the project?
ST: I had been in conversation with a curator named Catherine Putz at RIBA about a possible show of photographs in RIBA’s architecture gallery. I knew Assemble and loved what they do, so after Catherine had left RIBA and, wondering how to take the conversation forward, I approached Assemble and asked if they would like to work on a project together. They said yes straight away and we came up with the title of The Brutalist Playground. The title became our starting point.
KA: Can you tell us more about your contribution and the designs? What sort of research did you conduct in the process?
ST: The first thing we did involved four of us spending a day travelling around London looking at what remained of these [post-war] playgrounds. All except the playground at Balfron Tower have been replaced by generic play structures or disappeared completely. Then we began looking through the RIBA archive for examples of what used to exist and found an image that jumped out at us - the concrete flying saucer at Churchill Gardens in Pimlico. This image was so strange and completely different to anything we see today that it just stuck. We also found the original architect’s drawings in the archive that Assemble then used to extract the designs at 1:1 scale.
KA: What drew you to the concrete playgrounds of post-war Britain?
ST: They are so rough and unlike anything remotely acceptable in today’s safety-obsessed culture. What were the architects thinking making these surreal bush-hammered concrete shapes that will slice the skin off your knees and elbows? So many questions about how and why the architects chose to make these mini fortresses are left unanswered. Also, the serious purpose behind Brutalism, the ambition to remake the world through new architecture, is worth remembering in our time that has all but rejected this kind of high-minded thinking.
KA: What was the process for choosing which playgrounds to recreate?
ST: The focus was on London, but in the end it was what we found in the RIBA archive. Although playgrounds have been largely overlooked in favour of the main story of the tower blocks that loom over them, there was enough material in the archive to work with. The examples we picked were the most distinctive forms that told the story the most clearly.
KA: The exhibition explores these designs in foam - can you tell me a little more about this design choice, and how you worked with Assemble to achieve the final results?
ST: Concrete was rejected at the outset. It was Assemble’s inspired idea to consider using foam. This foam is the cheapest low-grade material found inside furniture and has a speckled look uncannily similar to bush-hammered concrete. The different colours relate to different densities, making many of the design choices - form follows function. In the spirit of Brutalism’s truth to materials, truth to concrete, the playground is made as truth to foam.
KA: Finally, do you have a favourite playground?
ST: It would have to be the flying saucer from Churchill Gardens, for the way it is frozen mid-flight, about to either crash or take off, and that you could lay back on it at night and look up at the stars.
Words: Katie Aske
Photography: Simon Terrill