Shifting Birmingham: 900 Years Drawn & Erased (2017)
An Arts Council Funded project.
As part of ‘Shifting Birmingham’, Particle Physicist Dr. Joseph Lilley was commissioned to write an essay about Nita Newman’s work entitled ‘Shifting Birmingham: 900 Years Drawn & Erased.’
The Progress Train- Essay by Joseph Lilley
Some words in response to Nita Newman – Shifting Birmingham: 900 Years Drawn and Erased, by Joseph Lilley.
In my initial thinking about Nita’s work for this exhibition I was drawn to the impending demise of the site of the wholesale markets, which is spread out before our eyes in a fading sequence at the centre of the flip-book.The flip-book, and the larger project in which it is situated (including an animated video sequence of the maps) adds the missing dimension which the printed map has never successfully included – time.The sequence can be read or interpreted as a history in itself, or moreover as a parallel to that other aspect which a map contains, but does not directly render – the human stories, people, neighbourhoods, communities and their web of interrelationships.The wholesale markets provide a poignant and constant focal point for Nita’s tracings, where we can follow the spatio-temporal position of the site directly forward from the first map dated 1553, which is only a fraction of the 900 or so years that mercantile activities are thought to have taken place at this site.
I infer that the hidden, psychogeographical aspects of maps hold a particular poignancy for Nita, and act as motivation for her work. By laying out a chronological sequence of maps, one can (indirectly) access information which would otherwise be shrouded, and when used in addition to other historical sources can crystalise or clarify, and ground, something which otherwise may appear disconnected from our experience when viewing textual sources in isolation.
In the field of particle physics, Feynman Diagrams are used as representations, or maps, of physical interactions between fundamental particles (forces).These diagrams were invented by Richard Feynman in the 1960’s to help simplify the theoretical calculations of particle interactions.The diagrams are read from left to right with the direction of time, and the constituent lines and vertices of the diagrams provide an astonishingly elegant and useful shorthand for the complex calculations required to make usable predictions of observable outcomes.The visual language of these diagrams is incredibly intuitive in comparison to the undiluted algebra they represent.
Example Feynman Diagram
Geographical maps, like Feynman diagrams, are abbreviations of the the real world, and with familiarity with their language comes the ability to see beyond the marks on the page, just as in Nita’s sketchings. It is interesting to note that not all cultures map in a two- dimensional plane, for example Inuit cartographers produce three-dimensional tactile wooden maps, instruments which represent the geography and topography of the land through the grooves, notches and protrusions carved into their form.
The course which the maps in Nita’s book follow over time are guided by a complex system of many variables; socio-political, economical, technological, geographical. A tussle between rival factions, with emergent characteristics, at times deliberate, at times accidental. We must be aware of, and acknowledge the struggles of the people that have gone before us, people who have suffered great indignities and hardships at the hands of the agents of power.Their histories are tied up in the maps. Indeed, Nita’s maps should be thought about against the backdrop of a 500 year power struggle between the landowners, the state, and the people.
For brevity’s sake (and because I am no historian), let me just mention some key events of the period: the English Civil War (1640’s), the American Revolution (1783) and the French Revolution (1789), the Industrial Revolution (~1760 – ~1820),The British Empire,Trade wars, Slavery, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,The Enlightenment,Women’s Suffrage, Communism, the World Wars,Trade Unions, Strikes, freedom of the press, climate change, the illegal war in Iraq, immigration and refugee crises.
Birmingham held a special position at the very heart of the industrial revolution. It was widely known as the workshop of the world, and the city of a thousand trades.This had obvious and profound effects on the regional infrastructure, and corresponding maps – the building of the canals, railways, bridges, reservoirs, factories, and mines. Later on, the demise of the large-scale industrialisation of the region throughout the twentieth century led to isolated, desolate wastelands, islands of slum housing and disconnected sprawls of victorian terraces.
During the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe dropped a large number of explosive bombs on to Birmingham, in what is termed the Birmingham Blitz; 12,391 houses, 302 factories and 239 other buildings were destroyed, with many more damaged. Despite this setback, post-war Birmingham was booming, unemployment in the region between 1948 and 1961 rarely exceeded 1% (today it is almost 6%, the worst performing region in the UK), this was the best performing region outside of London.
This growth was declared a “threatening situation” by the government of the day, and in 1946 the West Midlands Plan was commissioned by the Minister for Town and Country Planning, this set Birmingham a target population for 1960 of 990,000, which was far less than its actual 1951 population of 1,113,000. Later, in 1965 the existing Control of Office Employment Act was extended to include the Birmingham conurbation, effectively banning the development of office accommodation for the next two decades.These were government instantiated initiatives designed to reduce Birmingham’s national standing, and to directly harm it’s people.
After the Birmingham Blitz, Herbert Manzoni was responsible for instigating major developments to the municipal architecture of the city – unfortunately for future generations, he didn’t appear to see the value in the many of the day’s landmarks:
“I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past.They are often more sentimental than valuable… As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture. Its replacement should be an improvement… As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.”
Under his instruction, the grand Victorian library, New Street station, and the original Bull Ring markets were demolished. Slum clearances were conducted in Duddeston, Nechells, Newtown, Ladywood, Lee Bank and Highgate, areas where anonymous high-rise blocks were subsequently erected in the 1950s. It was perhaps Manzoni’s other large-scale intervention which had the most profound and detrimental effect on the city centre itself; the introduction of the orbital ring roads.The orbital system was constructed between 1957 and 1971, and effectively placed a choke-hold on the city centre, stunting any potential growth and creating an unfriendly and unattractive backdrop for pedestrians. I imagine that Manzoni’s intentions were not knowingly malicious, indeed Birmingham was an early and eager adopter of the automobile, and became the United Kingdom’s de facto Motor City. Birmingham seemingly enjoys a love-love relationship with the motor car, something which is hard for a non-driver like myself to get their head around, and something which ultimately results in a sub-standard and frustrating public transportation network for a city of its scale and and population.
The architecture of this post-war developments was at times bold and exciting.The Birmingham architect John Madin created world-class examples in the Modernist/ Brutalist style in the new Central Library, and NatWest Tower on Colmore Row. Sadly, both the Central Library and NatWest tower are now demolished, and the fact that I am writing this text from a salvaged library desk, designed by Madin himself for the building, is a travesty. In the case of the Central Library, despite the public self-organising to form a resistance movement to the planned demolition, planning consent was rushed through at the eleventh hour, frustratingly before a listed building status could be bestowed, and sense could get in the way of progress.
It seems as though the lessons from Manzoni have not been learnt; today, the buzzword is the Big City Plan.As far as I can work out, the Big City Plan seems to be focused on bringing in investment to the city, in what seems to be a commonplace post-Thatcher free-market capitalist practice. What we end up with is a mixture of identikit bland buildings – an insidious creep of pseudo-public spaces where we are bereft of our democratic rights, subjected instead to the changing wills of developers and investment groups.With the odd exception, these banal blandments of buildings can not be considered to achieve the architectural merits of John Madin’s local masterpieces.
The motto on Birmingham’s coat of arms is “Forward”, which might go somewhat to explain the city’s trend for the continued and wholesale overhauling of its municipal infrastructure. Birmingham is the second city, but seemingly more in name than feeling – a fact which seemingly provokes the need to prove it’s urbanism at every embarrassing opportunity. It is obessed with tacky commercialism and is constantly asserting its urbanity (Urban Coffee, Urban Pie, Urban Style Clothing, Urban Roots, the Urban Kitchen), not wanting to appear parochial, in the fear that it won’t be taken seriously.
I can only speculate about what is in store for the Wholesale Market site, the Council’s own statement in the Smithfield Masterplan is unhelpfully vague:“Birmingham Smithfield will be a once in a generation opportunity to create a truly transformational development that will drive the city’s international standing and reputation”.The opportunity to reimagine 14 hectares of land in the heart of the city is rare but one that this masterplan has been designed to maximise. Unfortunately for the majority of us, the old constant is that money talks; I’m sure that the new development will offer the chance to spend our hard earned money faster than we can earn it, but I fear that local people and communities will not be the beneficiaries of these mercantile activities in the future.
In George Orwell’s dystopian fiction 1984, the party slogan warns “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
We might well propose preservation on the grounds of historical, cultural, or architectural merits, but the final decision is always political. Maintaining a dialogue between the past and present is an imperative to obtaining a sense of identity as a citizen, and as a city.
I will finish by leaving you with the lyrics to a song written by Peggy Seeger, whose best known for her and husband Ewan MacColl’s seminal 1960s work “The Radio Ballads”; a series of pioneering social documentary folk-ballads made for radio (which notably for the first time included field recordings, her being a close friend and collaborator with Alan Lomax). In her song “The Progress Train”, Peggy delivers a stark warning.
The Progress Train- Peggy Seeger
The human brain can’t stand still Even when it gets to the top of the hill Just can’t stop and admire the view Always got to have something new
The human brain’s an intelligent fool Build you a hospital, build you a school You wake up the very next day
The progress train took it all away
The progress train can demolish your town Sells us heaven when we’re hell-bound Hell-bound
Fed by apathy, driven by greed Running at top speed
Going so fast
You won’t notice it till it’s past
It doesn’t give a damn about yesterday And when you forget what it took away
You’ll know the progress train rolled right over you. Juggernaut hurtling down the road
You’re not in control, you’re part of the load Running the lights, won’t slow down
Get in its way and it’ll run you down.
The progress train is on a one-way track It’ll take you there, won’t bring you back
When you start singing “I’m all right, Jack!” All right Jack, all right Jack
You’ll know ..The progress train ran right over you
The girl in the red shoes had to dance The progress train has to advance Tables to turn, money to earn,
Bridges to burn, we never learn
Got no destination, it’ll go anywhere Can’t stop even when it gets there Got no beginning, got no end
Doesn’t even care what’s around the bend
Got to grow, got to change Build up, tear down, rearrange
Got to be move on, dirty or clean
It’s an atom bomb, it’s a washing machine
It’s a love song …………….. it sings Seducing you …….. with things
That ease your heart and please your mind The passengers sleep and the driver’s blind
FIRE IN HIS PANTS HE DON’T DANCE NO ROMANCE
THEYWANTYOU NOW THEYWANTYOU NOW ANDTHEY’LL HAVE YOU NOW!
THAT’S THE PROGRESS TRAIN …. AND IT’S RIGHT OVERYOU
The human race has a fatal knack Of going full speed down a cul-de-sac
After running so fast and working hard There’s a helluva mess in the back yard
The progress train sings sweet and low And every time you hear it you know Something’s wrong .. still you tap your feet
The words don’t matter .. cause the tune’s so sweet The progress train … is singing to you.