The Treasury Project. Monograph: The Treasury Project (Photoworks 2002) ISBN 1-903796-05-9. Exhibition: The Treasury Project (Zelda Cheatle Gallery, London) 2002
Superstructure, my book following the construction of the Millennium was published in 2000. Shortly afterwards I was approached by the developers Exchequer Partnerships and the architects Foster and Partners to see if I would be interested in embarking on another commission, this time to photograph the refurbishment of the HM Treasury building in London’s Whitehall.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference between what I witnessed at the two sites. The Dome grew, shiny and new, out of a windblown East London wasteland, a bright and brash homage to commercialism. On the other hand the Treasury and its neighbours - the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, the Foreign Office - are the pillars, bricks and mortar of the British establishment. A century old (to be precise, it was originally built in two phases, between 1900 and 1908, and then again from 1912 until 1917), it is a Grade Two listed building, dictating what the developers could, or more often could not, do with it. The aim, essentially, was to transform a claustrophobic labyrinth into a modern democratic space.
These days such opportunities are extremely rare, but in the 19th Century it was considered quite natural for a photographer to follow the progress of the build of a major public building. Photography and architecture share, after all, a preoccupation with space and time. Although, disappointingly, I was unable to find any photographic record of the construction of the Treasury itself, other projects made around the same time were a constant inspiration. To name but a few, Charles Marville’s pictures of the construction of Cologne Cathedral in 1853, Durandelle and Delmaet’s photographs of the Paris Opera in the 1860’s, Philip Henry Delamotte’s wonderful album of the Crystal Palace and my real heroes, the Chevojon family, whose work in and around Paris - the Gare D’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Grande Palais - in the mid-to-late 19th Century, I continue, to marvel at.
So, as with my work at the Dome, I was interested in photographs as history as much as anything else. To think, to believe, that my work might be around for many years was an important driving force behind the work. But this did not mean that the pictures were simply a record of a transformation from ‘that’ to ‘this’. That alone would not have been enough.
Over time, as I watched the destruction of the grand interior, fragments of a more glorious past were revealed as each layer of the building was stripped away. My work became about this, as I drew parallels between what I saw at the Treasury and what we were doing to transform our own house in Brighton, a building of a similar age.
When a building is completed there is usually a ‘topping out’ ceremony. The press are invited, there is a party and congratulations all round for what has been achieved. The Treasury refurbishment hosted a ‘bottoming out’, traditionally a gathering to raise the spirits when a building has been demolished. It is by all accounts a low point in the process of a rebuild, when doubts are raised, the mess is unbearable, and the enormity of the task facing the developers looms all too large. Beyond this I sensed a more complex emotion common to all present. The demolition complete, some of that essential character, the history of the building itself, had been destroyed forever. As a photographer, a non-combatant, this process had been painful to watch, yet the inevitable clash of violence and beauty, the very aesthetics of destruction, had been something to delight in. For different reasons we shared a similar guilt.
The ‘outcomes’ of the project were in the form of an exhibition at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery in Londons’ Mayfair followed by a smaller show in the Treasury itself, together with a monograph, The Treasury Project. This book was published by Photoworks, but entirely funded by Exchequer Partnerships, in a deal in which they received 1000 copies to distribute to their employees and clients, while a further 500 were made available for public sale. Photoworks’ involvement meant that, even though there were only a relatively modest number of copies available, those books found there way to some of the most prestigious museum and gallery outlets across the world, which delighted the developers, of course. Better still was when the book was included Gerry Badger’s and Martin Parr’s highly influential The Photobook: A History (Volume II).
The Treasury Project is now highly hugely collectable, thanks to Badger and Parr, with copies currently available on the internet at around US$500.
Following the success of The Treasury Project I was then commissioned by Airbus to photograph the construction of the world’s largest passenger plane, the A380, which has recently been completed and will be published and exhibited in 2009.
"The book is a creative exploration of a building’s construction – in this case it’s partial demolition and reconstruction… (Power) seems to have been interested in two things: the texture and materiality of building materials, and the building as a system, an almost living organism, with the utilities and communications networks a prominent feature of the imagery. The Treasury Project is about that kind of process, rather in the manner of Lewis Baltz’s Park City (1980) and can perhaps be seen as a successor to this influential work."
(Gerry Badger, The History of the Photobook, Volume 2. Phaidon 2007)
"Power maintains an easy intimacy with these wonders of simple perception, forcing us to explore our fundamental sensory experiences and enjoy the adventures of disinterested seeing… Power’s projects will appeal to trainspotters, but his eyes and intuition make his photographs unexpectedly exhilarating."
(Joanna Pitman, The Times, 31.12.2002)
"One of the greatest photography books of the new century… This is sheer virtuosity, but it is placed in the service of a truly worthy purpose: To capture in still photographs the elegance as well as grandeur of a piece of history… A contemporary masterpiece, this is a 'must-have' title for Mark Power collectors."
(Modern Rare Books, Chicago, USA)