The title here is a phrase I’ve had written on my whiteboard for a while now – generally causing confusion when people walk into my office. Obviously using this title in a blog post runs the risk of getting this site blocked by various overprotective search engines and/or my being put on a mailing list for an online pharmacy. Oh well.
The whiteboard is a place for ideas that aren’t quite ready yet and this is definitely one of them, so please bear with the unfinished thoughts. This posting comes out of trying to think through my reactions to the new Library of Birmingham. Now on many levels, the LoB is a great civic triumph. It’s a fantastic looking building. It’s always busy. It gives views across the city that are free for anyone to enjoy – you’d otherwise need to go to the top of the Cube and buy a ludicrously expensive drink to access a similar viewscape. Public space matters.
So why Viagra architecture? Well, there’s something about projects of this kind that trouble me a little. Accompanying the achingly slow economic recovery in Britain, we’re still undergoing a series of deep and painful cuts to public spending. Projects like LoB are the product of New Labour era (1997-2010) thinking, when public spending was directed towards large infrastructure projects. You see them across Britain – the Sage in Gateshead, Edinburgh’s parliament building, FACT in Liverpool – flashy buildings dropped into urban spaces that declared in a loud voice “We are doing something here! Look at this monument to our interventionist activity!”. The building became, as Jonathan Meades put it, a 3D logo. A statement that something was being done. Of course the problem with such activity is that there’s a real danger the ‘something’ that was done didn’t actually do very much. Middlesborough, for example, is still the site of major economic and social problems, notwithstanding the presence of the MIMA art gallery (opened 2007).
Of course, asking a flashy building to solve deeply rooted structural economic problems is unrealistic. They were baubles, in some cases they were vanity projects, that could never be more than a tiny part of solving a socio-economic puzzle. The creative and cultural economy has been loaded with the expectation that it can solve post-industrial decline; things are rarely this simple. The irony is that these spaces, charged with revitalising local economies, are now in many cases under real threat from the huge cuts in public expenditure that have been imposed under the Coalition Government since 2010. Skilled curators are being replaced by unpaid volunteers. The buildings are still open by and large, but the organisations housed within them are struggling to deliver their core mission. Hence the Viagra metaphor – the edifice is there, but the fundamentals aren’t quite operating properly.
An optimistic spin on this would be that if such organisations can hang in there for a few years, eventually the public sector taps will be turned back on and these spaces will be filled with even more dynamic activity – with the bonus that it’s all happening in a still-relatively-new building. Maybe. Perhaps rather than Viagra as the metaphor, we could talk about the hollowing out of these buildings as the staff and activities designed to animate them are whittled away in order to support the business of keeping the building open. And hopefully at a later date it'll be filled up again. In the meantime, the building becomes almost an end in itself.
And, of course, this doesn’t always work. The death of the Public gallery in West Bromwich happened in part because the council leadership just didn’t feel it could justify continuing to pour money into the organisation to keep the business of art afloat – and given the hostility in some quarters to the arts/cultural sector, it’s not terribly surprising. This means that some other use has to animate that space – and there’s still money for sixth form colleges, at least for the moment.
The New Labour period left us with a great many 3D logos scattered across the country. They still stand up and proud. But they offer a challenging legacy for medium- and long-term management as councils look at their budgets and their core responsibilities and wonder what they will have to cut next. Most of the buildings will still be with us in 10 years’ time, but how many of the organisations?
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer