Some lines of thought arising from being researcher-in-residence

During the researcher-in-residence sessions at Grand Union gallery’s Im Bau exhibition (Artist: Aideen Doran, 2015) a set of recurring threads of thinking were revisited over and over.

Also thrown into the mix was a visit to New York, midway through the researcher-in-residence period. Although I had gone for other reasons, connections to the emerging thoughts from my sessions at Grand Union were uppermost in my mind as I wandered around that city so that the visit became yet another researcher session.

These interconnecting, and at times repeating, elements formed a loose framework that allowed for some reflexive thinking on cities, change, development, progress, decision-making, planning, style, art, the contemporary, memories etc.

Acting as researcher-in-residence took my thinking far and wide: moving across ideas, circling round and round (like some armature of connectivities), sometimes getting the wide overview and sometimes homing in on a detail.

The focus was always on the content of the Im Bau exhibition, and the lines of thought that could be spun out from that; and on my own interest in cities, urban issues and decision-making.

The sessions extended understandings, appropriated ideas from elsewhere and made links between previously separate considerations.

What follows is an attempt to corral some of those swirls of thought under a small number of relevant headings, knowing that not everything can be tidied up in that way.

Artistry, design, engineering and planning,

Im Bau drew on aspects of the past whilst acting as a form of present day research. At the same time the activity was about looking forward, about the building of futures, and about the imagining of potentials that could have been. It was about the constant making and remaking of things.

Throughout the exhibition a recurring strand related to ways of thinking about planners, makers and doers; and about designers, architects and artists – and the crossovers between these.

One puzzle was the extent to which a city might be imagined, designed or constructed through the individual professional activity of engineers or designer-planners, and the artistic or professional freedoms they may have within which to do this. Counteracting any absolute such freedom is the extent to which ideological or economic factors determine what is built (eg via subsidies for high rise; relative low costs of prefabricating; need for economies of scale; private vs social investment in development; dominant schools of thought at the time).

The exhibition was in Birmingham. The 1950-1970 reshaping of that city was informed by two different approaches, personified by Herbert Manzoni as Public Works City Engineer and by Alwyn Sheppard Fidler as the City Architect. The engineer and the architect had very public differences in their approaches to imagining the future. One contentious manifestation of this was their head-to-head designs for a large peripheral housing development: contoured garden neighbourhoods versus linear spines of high-rise constructions.

Appropriately, the two supporting figures in Birmingham’s coat of arms are the artist and the engineer. These symbolise approaches to constantly putting the city in its place: creating the new from the old; taking an idea and making it concrete; having an idea and playing with it.

Throughout the exhibition were examples of other varying perspectives and different imaginings. Some examples were:

  • Dualities in designing post-war buildings with one approach based on possibilities talked through with users, based on a flexible modular use of prefabricated parts, with cladding to give a particular gloss; and another based on symmetry, the ‘thingness of things’ without needing to dress them up as something else.
  • Alternative ways of thinking and doing ‘urban’: Use of the imagination and what is imaginable; the power of stories, of linguistics and of human endeavour; the objects from a city used to tell stories; in comparison to the functional materialism of cities getting created and constructed
  • Creating and recreating spatial relations through symbolisms, complexities and contradictions. The valuing of everyday buildings compared with those that are much more showy.
  • Setting out a considered body of evidence to inform plan-making, rather than focusing on finalising the plan. Bringing together disparate information for a very wide audience, with well-presented facts, rather than limited-circulation professional-speak documents.

Cities can be viewed as immense laboratories of trial and error; places to test failure as well as success in city building and city design. This stands in contradiction to those urban planning approaches that simply assume themselves as offering the best ways forward. Both approaches have an eye to the future and both can, to various degrees, take account of histories and heritages.

The archives drawn on for the exhibition described planning that rested on professionally-driven changes. This approach determined what was in people’s best interests. Manzoni was the key actor in this. He was dismissive of heritage and was certain in his plans – plans that were later to be regarded as flawed in a number of ways.

This was opposed to more dialogic approaches that could have been taken. These would have been based around mutual exploring; asking questions; and exploring narratives of lives and cultures.

If a city is not simply to be grand-planned then maybe one can think of a city supporting itself through language, narratives, texts and inscriptions. Each city thus actively narrates its own future through the ways it imagines itself, the ways it constructs itself and the lived experiences of its residents.

This raises questions: Who writes the city? What stories do people rely on to make sense of the city? What stories emanate from the planner, the artist, the engineer, the resident?

Local government planners were recently to think in terms of the story that was carrying their locality along and to see themselves as people who were, through their everyday decision-makings, writing that story as it rolled forward. If they thought about it, could their daily actions start to write a different ending to the story? Could the future be rewritten?

 

Differences and similarities across types of cities – variously labelled

There have been many ways of categorising cities. Within recent documents and books there have been references to invisible, hidden, impossible, planned, anxious, ephemeral, radiant, lonely, secret, liveable, walking, gridded, decent, human, world, and superdiverse cities. Planners are sketching ways forward towards various other types of cities: Smart; Learning; Sustainable; Global; Resilient; Walkable. Are these labels of value or simple slogans?

Any city has a potential to develop in different ways. There are, at any one time, underlying grids and networks of different kinds. These allow for different types of cities to be built up via varying options. There is the accumulated city (with layerings of related grids over time); the superimposed city (with a new grid layered upon an older more random historical centre); the discrete city (with its urban grid laid out as an exercise in symmetry); the infinite city (with its regular repetition of grid as edge developments, that can be large enough to be seen as edge cities in their own right).

Whilst there seem to be recurring features (some real; some intangible) that may get applied across all cities, each city is uniquely different. One gets a quite different feeling being in Birmingham than, say, being in Manchester or Leeds or Bristol or Barcelona or Copenhagen or Vancouver. Does the interplay between physical and social create a personality for a city – or is that personality ‘stamped’ from above, through the governance, political and economic planning decisions made on behalf of the city?

A city can develop a uniqueness through its own planned, or aspired, combinations of trends towards through-flows, destination-points, private exclusions, civic spaces, themed quarters, flagships, urban villages, techno-hubs and waterfront areas.

 

Views of the city: seeing it as it might be.

Whilst a place can be referred to as if it were a singular entity, cities may simply be too large and too fluid for visitors and residents to take in. We may talk of ‘a city’ or ‘the city’ but, in each instance, there may be a multitude of cities: a host of ways of thinking and representing that city through impressions, hunches, maps, plans, street art, and so on.

Cities are places of dreams and hopes and fears. They are open to debate and interpretation, with ambiguities around what is truth and what is fiction, what is real and what is unreal.

One exhibition visitor sensed the city as a set of parts that rubbed up against each other, as bits jiggling around, maybe not having quite settled on which direction it might go in. To another the city represented the unified outcome of rational planning and central decision-making.

There may only ever be fragmented and fractured views of places, seen from different vantage points. In addition to these partial views, there will always be invisibilities, things overlooked, unremarked details, secret folds and hidden corners.

The exhibition, in content and in layout, itself offered different views of cities. Practically, it acted both as a telescope (giving the long view out through one window to a distant tower block, symbol of one stage of city redevelopment) and as a microscope focusing down on specific detail.

Memories, objects and postcards in the exhibition became props through which visitors were able to ascribe meanings.

Similarly, the physical layouts and objects within a city, and the way these are differently used by people in symbolic yet undetermined ways, open up the city as a stage for complex human events. They are not so much fixed props but actively contribute to driving the narrative of the city. The city (with its daily performances and its urban dramas) is a place of everyday engagement for residents, providing some untidy interactions between people and places.

In day-to-day city-life there are overlapping, mistaken or contested memories that get worked and reworked. These remembrances of the city influence the ways in which it gets experienced by people, adding to its ambiguities.

Living partially-structured lives around various kinds of grids and patterns and armatures, people attribute things to a city that, in some ways, doesn’t exist unless people keep reconstituting it.

The city is neither simply an external object nor an internal experience but the relationship binding these together.

We can try to get a clear, fixed view of a city. We can try to discriminate between what feels real and what is imagined. In trying to capture the shapings and reshapings of a place we can use maps, and charts, and statistics to represent realities – but these are never the city.

The city is about flow and change and people and humanity.

 

Armatures, scaffoldings, networks and supports.

In contrast to the flow of ideas and the ever-changing shifts in approaches, we also have the sense of things being fixed in place. Armatures allow creative constructions around a framework. The Birmingham Ring Road was described in terms of being planned as an armature around which to construct the future development of the city. Road layouts were to become scaffoldings for people to structure their lives around. All that was necessary was to add spine roads, urban expressways, and crosslinks to form spider-webs of concrete.

This armature had within it a future imagined in terms of flow of traffic, ease of pedestrian access to shopping centres, and zoned areas. This piece of greatly-praised engineered construction was designed to fix the future in a particular form to allow for the way people move and live, and the way that ideas might flow and interact.

In a more recent example, the book ‘Invisible Cities’ described places constructed as networks (of scaffolding/ of ropes/ of interactions …) which then became an armature (a support/ a buttress) – that could be physical or could be social – around which a city was continually reconstructing itself … with new possibilities always emerging and old ones dying away.

In cities with a grid as structuring feature, there is a sameness that is experienced differently when driving or walking. In a city made up of short blocks, the emphasis may be on going in one direction until the need to turn off – the focus being on linear branching movements. In another city the focus can be on the intersections as meeting places and places of transition (helped where intersections have become places for public parks, public events, public squares or public art). Within both models brutal ring roads preclude walking, remove intersections and focus on getting through things with as little distracting connection as possible.

The lay-outs, the buildings, the flow across locations, the speedings up and slowings down – all support part of who we are in the city; act as frameworks and settings for how we experience urban life and play our roles within that; tied as much to feelings as to rationalities.

 

Layerings: physical, emotional and social

The city offers the opportunities of the new: particularly the chance of employment. The reality may be such opening ups, but can also turn out to be closing offs – of imagery, of lives and of a viable future.

The city offers layered complexities as newer, emergent and agile developments rub up against older, heritage things fixed in stone. For both the established and the newcomer (whether as people, ideas, or art) there are traces and memories; threads of history tying things to their past whilst planning for an uncertain, precarious future. These pasts, overlaying the present, act as bedrock for any future possibilities.

The Im Bau exhibition could itself be read as a set of physical, intellectual and emotional layers through which people moved in different ways, for different reasons, with different outcomes.

Visitors undertook their personal performances in and around artefacts, some bits of which came with strong previous histories. Links across the various content on show allowed visitors to construct layers of understanding in a locality once known for engineering and now known for art.

There were hidden narratives locked in the fabric of the gallery building, in the painted-over brick half-arches of a past layout within the exhibition space itself.

In a parallel way, the city of today (at both a physical level and a social-emotional level) is arrived at through superimpositions, built up as layers that then partially become resistances against change, but which often easily give way to become a platform upon which a new future is layered.

Layering can also be approached as one culture being superimposed on another in the same space: as collages; as various cultures existing in the same location This is often observable in those city areas that are in transition, such as Digbeth – the area where the gallery is situated and which is designated as Birmingham’s developing creative quarter.

Although there can be civic labelling of an area, in order to attempt some unified understanding of the place, these areas can sustain communities squashed next to each other but operating quite separately ie drink in different bars, use different transport, shop in different places, not recognising each other, sometimes even having learnt how not to see each other.

Birmingham is a city of many such layerings. It has strata that can be traced backwards and forwards through its pasts and its presents: The Victorian civic pride of Chamberlain seeing the city as a hub of industry, of art, of engineering; the Garden City concerns of Bournville and of municipal parks; the managed city of energy and enterprise; and the current city of ambitions and uncertainties.

New York was experienced as a layered city:

Layered vertically: up, down, at surface level, in the air above, on water – people, animals, machines moving, standing, lying, creating patterns … generating its own legends (subterranean dwellers who occasionally foray into surface world via service hatches and drainage outlets… walkers on ropes between tall buildings). Sometimes taking pause to preserve an item or two such as the Tenement Block fixed in aspic; conserved, curating the past. Materials layered on core or foundation; styles layered on each other… and taken back down (via basements) to bedrock, with rare remnants of old spikes from setting out the grid-system, and to marshy soil reaching back into a history of Native American trackways and fishing grounds.

Layered horizontally: Signages and bits of art affixed to surfaces; claddings and balconies projecting outwards; forecourt sculptures. As areas undergo renewal, traces of disappeared buildings get left on the sides of neighbouring properties as outlines of where stairs, chimneys and floors had once been: Ghosts of things removed.

Such layerings are multi-dimensional, well beyond the physical vertical and horizontal layers in space. There are layers in time; social layerings; economic layerings; emotional layerings; layerings of memories. There are engineered layers; intellectual layers; artistic layers. There are varieties in the pace and scale of layerings, and differences in the extent to which people are keeping up with change.

In New York, as in most cities, there has always been change: shiftings in the physical and social layers. Recently this has been less about social mobility across layers and more about slices of the population being displaced from one locality to the next.

Change has often occurred alongside projects to push for progress. The grids were laid out by the early city survey engineer, demolishing 600 homesteads as they stood in the way of progress. Since then the city has gone through several stages of regeneration as a succession of plans for slums cleared, roads built and new lifestyles created.

New York’s largest land clearance came not through local planning but through the 9/11 destruction not only of the Twin Towers themselves but of a whole neighbouring area where they fell or buildings were damaged by the event. Most of the upwardly-aspiring new construction was done without any trace of what was there before, except for the 9/11 Memorial site where the two footprints of the Towers have been retained as pools of memory.

Throughout all of these there has been a concern for the physical layout of the city but also for the social welfare of the city residents. Looking to the future there are plans for growth, plans for economy and plans for cohesion – but plans for dignity? for people’s welfare? for playfulness? for decency?

 

Art and City, City and Art: Cities making an exhibition of themselves, putting on a good show.

Both art and city are concerned with production as well as process (Art work and exhibition; city as place, city as place-making). Both, currently, get partly shaped by pressures to create at least an illusion of engaging a very diverse population, of playing their part in fostering social inclusion.

A city can be viewed as a vehicle for artistic expression. Obviously: via its public art; its architecture (with lines between art and architecture blurred); its street art and its galleries. Also in other ways: The city’s particular histories being viewed as a series of narratives that can be appropriated into art-forms, as with Im Bau itself.

The city (with its ballet on the street, its daily performances and its urban dramas) is a place of everyday engagement for residents, as is the gallery. The gallery and the city both act as spaces for ideas, underscoring the possibilities of meaning, of insight, and of progress.

As well as the city being a space for artistic activity it is a space for ideological activity and for economic activity. The city’s institutional frameworks and processes of decision-making allow this to take place as the creative planning of the urban development. Processes are put in place through city decision-making. Developments are set in train. These lead to the fabric of the city making an exhibition of itself, being a public open-air gallery displaying itself as collection, as archive, as memories. Cities become extended works of art: real or conceptual; work that stems from the imagination, producing real physical developments, or imagined cities, or even strived-for impossible cities. Within this, residents can be both observer and participant at the same time.

Looked at in reverse there is the potential that the Art World is itself becoming a self-referencing global city, a walking city (as imagined by Archigram) with the same people moving en-bloc from biennale to biennale, and art fair to art fair: the City of Art.

Beyond that there may be value in the idea not only of building a city but also of curating a city. Curators, once seen as organiser, selector and presenter, are now seen as exhibition-makers, orchestrators and choreographers: creative producers in their own right. Within this, curators are involved in the social and cultural use of space; in place-making. Curating, and artwork in general, often employ many of the same modes of thinking as does research: testing out producing knowledge, creating understandings, proposing hypotheses about various ways of being in the world.

Following the line that anything and everything is open for curating these days leads tentatively to the idea that planners, designers, architects, etc have collective curating responsibilities for a city’s changes, bringing urban concerns to the fore, acknowledging the past and projecting into potential futures with some reference to a narrative about how to move on from where things are: Curating the Changing City.

An over-stretching of meaning is potentially happening with the concept of ‘layered’. The more cultural work it is expected to do the more exhausted in value it becomes. Maybe it has reached the stage of becoming in danger of being one of those notions that, itself, has accumulated multi-layered meanings. In such cases these useful concepts end up being judged to be meaningless unless the various fragments (and the ways these are structured into chains of meaning) are delineated.

 

Complexities and contradictions; uncertainties and intimacies

If places are viewed as the outcome of planners and architects going about their thinking and doing, then cities will continue to want grand planning if this creates some (illusory?) sense of pinning down the future and creating a degree of security.

Manzoni thought of Birmingham in terms of a physical and social structure built around a ring road as an armature. This fixed the city as something determined in plans and set in concrete. People experiencing a city, however, rarely want to feel the weight of too much planning if that seems like a constraint on their own possibilities. Plans are plans for people as much as plans for places.

Grand City Plans can have the habit of turning out to be somewhat less grand when it comes to implementation and bringing about real and sustained change on the ground. There are disjunctions: economic contexts change; key leaders get replaced; national directives change; people resist.

Because of all such uncertainties, long-term strategic plans often become shorter-term tactical intentions, get overtaken by events or simply get abandoned altogether.

One alternative way of thinking about the city is to view it as a process to be inside; to be intimately connected with; to get close to; with all the vulnerabilities that implies

These more flexible approaches would see things as made of parts jostling and brushing against each other, always only partly known and partly understood, always emerging, always in negotiation, with interplays in space and across time: The city not as a predictable machine but as an uncertain, complex organic system.

As such trends continue, getting faster and faster, experiences of the city will get more and more complex – demanding new forms of understanding, new forms of governance and new ways of thinking about its future. All of which contributes further to any existing feelings of uncertainty and precariousness.

Cities are facing all kinds of uncertainties: How do they manage and govern in that uncertainty? How does the urban planner or the urban manager (or urban engineer, or urban artist?) deal with the ambiguities and uncertainties that form the precarious city? What kind of urban leadership is required for contemporary complexities? What is ‘right’ for now, and will that still be so for the future? How would we know? How are things determined as ‘best’ ways forward? Can we be sure of ‘progress’?

A city then is a complex, contradictory and continually changing thing. This is not just the different, changing physical layouts and traces; nor the shifting interplays between the social and the physical; nor the interactions of the city’s Here and Nows with its Pasts and its potential Futures – it is a sense that things are always just about to get out of control.

Work being done on the idea of the Uncertain City reflects something of the fictional Octavia in which the city is a net suspended above a void and lives with the certain uncertainty that the net will give way at some stage.

In all of this, residents are having to adapt and keep a sense of familiarity or intimacy whilst the physical, social and economic aspects of the city shift around them. The common cultural features, with which people used to identify, may no longer be so obvious. People can’t so simply fix their place within the fast-shifting urban flows. Mental maps get disrupted. Life becomes more complicated and systems become more complex as things change quickly. Residents are left to keep up with the scale and pace of change: all the retentions and removals; the permanence and ephemera.

Certainly, the sociologist Richard Sennett maintains that the quality of living in a city is increasingly determined by the residents’ capacity to come to terms with complexity.

Maybe knowing a city, getting close to a city, involves participating in its dramas and imaginings; walking its ways and byways; drifting along but with eyes wide open in close observation. Maybe it is about forms of planning and constructing that allow people to feel a sense of closeness to ‘their’ city and an intimacy with its ways.

 

Elites and Inequalities. Shaping a city: The privatisation of space and the relocation of people.

A relatively new research focus has been on the notion of the Decent City. Within this, ‘decency’ is perceived not as utopian but, pragmatically, as inequalities having been significantly reduced. On this scale, decency is unlikely to exist in a place that results from unrestrained market processes. Decency is as much a process as a set of characteristics. It is connected to ways of being in the city. Can it be designed-in? Probably, if there is a focus on how the city works not how the city looks, and all done with an understanding of spatial economics and politics.

It arose out of reflections on why poverty and injustices get clustered in specific areas. In this context it asks: What does it take for a city to be decent? To be good enough? How does ‘progress towards that planned future’ get discussed?

Urban environments are always works in progress: trying to evolve and be designed to meet human aspirations (‘Whose aspirations?’ is a key question in understanding decency). There are processes in place within contemporary cities that can move things nearer to, or further from, this sense of decency. This is not unique to today.

The working-class dense communities (surveyed in Birmingham’s 1940s ‘When we Build Again’) were the kinds displaced by the construction of ring roads and urban expressways, later to be replaced by inner-city flat-dwelling as a lifestyle and the idea of renovating Digbeth (the area in which the Grand Union gallery is situated) by encouraging creative density and by planning Digbeth as a Creative Quarter with uncertain impacts on the area in view outside gallery window.

The Death & Life book on American cities was written in a time of relative income equality. The initial premise was to preserve the walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods; retaining and renovating low-rise dwellings rather than demolishing whole blocks to create urban expressways, or to build high-cost high-rise dwellings, that would displace people and small businesses and create isolated spaces. (‘Fix the buildings; Keep the people’).

Jacobs is celebrated for her approach to local urban change but she also wrote that her ideas needed to be accompanied by concerns around the provision of sufficient housing and not allowing income inequalities to rise. The immediate drama might have been seen in terms of struggles between two key individuals, or a clash of ideas around urban development, but maybe the outcome was shaped by other longer-term influences. For example, the later reversal of the move to suburban life plus the attractiveness of Jacob’s low-rate areas to the growing semi-affluent creative classes led to rapid rises in property prices, created a displacement of some sections of the community, and gentrification of those localities.

Even on the shorter timescale, things are not necessarily clear cut. Striving for modernisation can be accompanied by one-sidedness of what is viewed as ideal. The New York urban planner, Robert Moses, dominated mayors and governors for 44 years, reshaping the city through force of will. He forced through the building of 700 miles of road and giant highways, 20,000 acres of parkland, 7 new bridges etc. He demolished slums, with 500,000 people being displaced. Was this dragging the city into the modern age or was it destroying the humanity of the place? Maybe it was both progressive and regressive at same time. Slum dwellers got better homes. He broke the power of estate owners and opened up areas, but only for middle-income white residents. His image is currently one associated with racism and car-centric thinking – but maybe only because couldn’t imagine a more decent future.

More recently this trend is manifested as concrete towers in London being moved from Local Authority control to Housing Association control, then gaining investment money to refurbish the blocks. Tenants are moved out whilst the work is done but are then unable to afford the newly-imposed rents.

The whole issue of housing costs, rent levels, and resident displacement is now a major trend. Different cities are differently affected, but for World Cities (prime locations favoured by international investments) the commonalities are clear. The globalised demand for housing results in prices rising rapidly and reduced access for poorer local citizens (linked across to other issues of decanting London borough responsibilities to cheaper areas including Birmingham, with an increased segmentation and polarisation of populations; benefit capping; and the so-called bedroom tax).

This has been described as social cleansing. Certainly in 2011, one Brooklyn neighbourhood saw an increase in white residents of over 600% and a rapid massive rise in rents, with the dispersal of the poor, black community elsewhere. Older houses had a new layer of paint applied; the area had a new layer of people settle there.

Paralleling this privatisation of housing is a privatisation of public spaces within urban areas. There are localities with the ambiguous status of being privately-owned-public-spaces in which the public is allowed on conditions set by the private. In an extension of such regulation, the Public Space Protection Orders brought in in 2014 designated behaviours that are no longer legal in designated areas. These may, in turn, get selectively applied to different groups in society – reinforcing who gathers where, for what purposes and in what numbers.

Cities may feel relatively weak in their capacity to change the range of external economic influences that act on them, with arguments for more powers at the level of city-regions. Each city experiences the same forces differently; each presents itself as a set of differences as the importance of space is not eliminated by globalisation but is shaped by it. A few, because of their economies, can become more successful. These successful cities then be emulated by others: the ‘formula’ being something like: creative quarter + microbreweries/artisan bakeries + signature public art/High-Line equivalent + bike lanes and a good food scene.

This urban story has a number of threads: Profit and investment; community; lifestyles; security and fears; the things that are attractive about neighbourhoods ending up destroying the attraction. All of these strong undercurrents add to existing feelings of confusion and isolation that are part of the human condition. And yet is it all indecent? Is there no decency in there at all?

As has already been said: none of this is new. What is new, however, is the recent steep increase in inequality gaps, the detachment of super-elites (able to connect with similar elites in a world of their own) and the use of property as large-scale investment. In many ways this is as applicable to the world of art as it is to the world of urban change.

It is within this context that artists and cultural workers are being expected to do increasing amounts of work to shape those cities.

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