The Broader Picture: Home on the road

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUMMER, the photographer Alistair Ruff set off to walk around the North Circular - the busy arterial road which snakes through London's northern suburbs. The houses which line the road had awoken his curiosity, and he wanted to photograph them. The scenes he depicts will be familiar to most people, for almost everyone, at one time or another, has found themselves stuck in a traffic jam on the edge of London. Stalled on the North Circular, or the A1, or the A40 - in Hendon or Enfield or Acton - there is little to do but breathe the fumes and stare at the houses that line the road; what must it be like to live here, on the hard shoulder of an urban expressway, no more than 10 yards from the endless ragged chain of cars and lorries that grind down the road?

Ruff travelled on foot, but his photographs freeze the commuter's perspective - the point of view of the passing motorist who surveys, from the comfort of his car, the roadside homes of the inhabitants of London's suburbs. There are no people in Ruff's pictures: only houses and roads. His stark compositions track the evolution of London's landscape in the 20th century. The arterial roads which he photographed - and the houses beside them - were built between the wars, during a bonanza of house-building which transformed the landscape of Britain. Between 1921 and 1936, more than a million people moved into new houses on London's periphery. After the Second World War another phase of urban reconstruction began, as flyovers and underpasses were built to ease the car's movement through the city - immense concrete structures which dwarfed the houses that stood beside or beneath them.

Ruff's photographs depict suburban homes in urban settings: a white-washed semi overhung by a motorway viaduct at Hendon; the mock-Tudor facade of a Thirties villa glimpsed behind a sheltering concrete wall; or a row of terraced houses bisected by a steel bridge. The intimate details of domestic architecture are contrasted with the patterns of roadside markings: in one photograph, a bank of arrows deflects oncoming traffic from the bedroom windows of a row of houses overlooking the North Circular.

`Leadville - A Biography of the A40', by Edward Platt, will be published by Picador in June 2000