I’m relatively new to modern console gaming. The first time I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity there was a moment of genuine shock where, seeing the sheer size and detail of the landscape being represented I wondered to myself “do geographers even know about this stuff?”. I laughed out loud when, walking away from a representation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1789, I found the River Seine, exactly where I would have expected it to be from my knowledge of the real city.
As Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017) have discussed, virtual environments are more than just representations, but are intended to do work in the material world. This is something that I’ve been writing about with Tess Osborne in relation to video games. Hopefully that paper should see the light of day shortly, but in the meantime while I’m in Australia I’ve been hit by an odd sensation of familiarity. I have physically been to Australia before, but that was back in 1987 and my memories are somewhat blurred by time. Much more recently, however, I’ve been to a virtual Australia courtesy of Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Horizon 3.
For those unfamiliar with the Forza franchise, these are Xbox exclusive games that come in two flavours. The main Forza series is about creating a minutely detailed racing simulator, with real race tracks laser scanned for maximum accuracy, incredibly careful reproductions not just of the look of different cars, but their driving characteristics. It’s a labour of love, incredibly nerdy and – if you’re anything like me – almost impossible to control unless you turn all of the driver aids and cheats to maximum. Technically these games are fascinating, but perhaps not wildly fun.
Every other year, however, Turn 10 release one of the Forza Horizon games. These are open world – in that you can drive freely rather than being confined to a track – and are very much playful. You can drive a Lamborghini at high speed through a vineyard with cheerful abandon before getting back onto the asphalt and pottering toward a local town without having to call a tow truck because you’ve shattered your transmission into a thousand tiny fragments. The Horizon games are fun and silly, but at least vaguely based on real places. Forza Horizon 2 is set in the south of France and it’s strange to drive through a simplified version of Nice and recognise some of the buildings along the Promenade des Anglais looking across the beach.
Games designers, for practical and ludic reasons, fiddle with the details when real places are being reproduced. So the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 might feature real places, but you certainly can’t drive from the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne to Coober Pedy north of Adelaide in ten minutes as you can in the game (Google Maps suggests it would take about 17 hours). Nonetheless, some of the game landscapes are simply haunting compared to the real thing. On a gravel road up in the hills north of Melbourne at the weekend, I was struck just how much it felt to me like I was in the game – empty roads, beautiful forest.
Of course, I wasn’t in a hyper car and I’m not convinced the hire company would have been impressed that I was out on a dirt track. Similarly, down on the Great Ocean Road, the scenery is uncannily like the game in places, but there was no way I was going to be doing any driving down in the surf when I visited.
The shock of recognition says something about the levels of detail games designers are now using to create a compelling environment in which we can play – partly to keep us wanting to buy the next game, the next expansion pack and so on. But, of course, designers cut out the boring bits. There’s a lot of rather dull urban landscape in material London when moving between the famous bits – but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Similarly, the Great Ocean road is pretty, but the mundane realities of speed limits, heavy traffic and the need to find somewhere for lunch make it a very different experience to hooning along at 250kph in a Koenigsegg before completely losing the back end going into a corner too quickly and ending up crashing into a cliff face. Games landscapes can be consumed in a variety of different ways, but everything about them is encouraging you to have a much more ludic engagement in ways that would be deemed profoundly antisocial in the real world. And, indeed, the gamerly skills needed to engage with the virtual landscape in that way don’t really translate to the material realities of being out on a dusty mountain road, on your own, with somewhat spotty GPS reception and without a clear idea of where you’re going. But it can still be genuinely disturbing when you’re visiting a new place and think to yourself “I feel like I’ve been here before…”
Degen, M., Melhuish, C. and Rose, G. (2017) Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy, Journal of Consumer Culture 17: 3-24.
Last year I was fortunate enough to secure funding from U21 to spend a couple of months as a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne. Leaving behind a cold and snowy UK I'm in Australia working on a series of projects, meeting colleagues and learning about best practice in a number of different areas.
My fellowship has four broad topics: urban studies; map archives; research-led undergraduate fieldwork; and creative methods. I’m excited to be meeting with colleagues from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute to explore how they manage a large, cross-campus and interdisciplinary team. This has particular relevance for practice at Birmingham, as we have just launched a new Urban Initiative seeking to capitalise on interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities examining the future of cities globally. I’ve also been fortunate enough to arrange a series of meetings with colleagues from different Map Libraries in the city of Melbourne and hope to use these contacts to get in touch with other map curators both here and in Sydney. The University of Birmingham’s map collection is in a period of transition and talking to experts here in Melbourne is a chance to help feed into discussions about the future of our collection.
My School has just secured funding from the University of Birmingham to implement a series of year 3 undergraduate fieldcourses, intending to reinforce our ongoing strategy to focus on students designing and implementing their own research projects. Research-led teaching is now at the heart of our curriculum at Birmingham and my trip to Melbourne allows me to do some planning for a potential fieldcourse based in the city. I’ll be exchanging ideas with colleagues here, particularly with a view to identifying topics that students can develop into field-based projects.
Finally, I’m arranging to meet with a number of different scholars working on novel and innovative arts and technology-based research techniques. There are some fascinating projects happening here in Melbourne and I’m excited to learn more about how researchers working in a range of different disciplines are integrating new techniques into their approaches to data collection. I’ll also be talking about some of my own ‘playful methods’ experiments at seminars that I’m giving during my time here.
In addition to thanking U21 for providing the funding to undertake the fellowship, I am exceedingly grateful to my School and College for giving me research leave to spend an extended amount of time in Australia. I also owe a deep debt to the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne who are hosting me, providing a desk and Visiting Fellow status during my time in Australia. I’m excited to start getting to know and working with my new colleagues over the next couple of months.
Sponsored by the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group & the Higher Education Research Group
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) places at its heart the idea of research-informed teaching (RIT) arguing that ‘The learning environment is enriched by student exposure to and involvement in provision at the forefront of scholarship, research and/or professional practice.’ (DfE, 2017, p25). While TEF can be criticised for advancing the marketization of universities, the emphasis on RIT provides a useful opportunity to reflect on our practice as researchers in the classroom.
RIT covers a range of practices from communicating research findings, through teaching and assessment methods and processes, up to students undertaking research themselves (HEA & UA, 2016). Geographic research into bodies and embodiment is well positioned to engage with RIT approaches because of the emphasis on praxis within feminist and allied scholarship (Staeheli & Lawson 1995). The phenomenological understanding of bodies and worlds being co-constructed produces a range of opportunities for learning-by-doing, creativity and experimentation (Manning, 2014) as do recent reflections on the potential for deploying ‘visceral’ methodologies (Sexton et al. 2017). Likewise, there are opportunities for action learning through research activities where students ‘trouble’ (Butler, 1990) their habitual embodied performances of space and multisensory experience of everyday landscapes. Such approaches also lend themselves to enhancing student skillsets by encouraging communication beyond conventional academic essays.
We are seeking panellists interested in discussing the place of bodies and embodiment research within higher education teaching. The format would be for panellists to provide a five minute pitch about their own teaching practice, followed by an audience Q&A. Themes for panellists could include:
- More-than-content-delivery approaches to teaching the body and embodiment
- Ways of connecting academic theory with everyday life
- Co-researching with students and encouraging students to become independent researchers
- Resisting/working with student instrumentality – “How will this get me a job?”
- Students presenting research findings beyond conventional modes of academic writing
- Research ethics, integrity and student embodiment
- Teaching and assessing the multisensory
If you are interested in taking part, please get in touch with one of the panel organisers: Phil Jones (email@example.com), Jen Lea (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nina Morris (email@example.com)
Butler J (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, London.
DfE (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. Department for Education, London.
HEA & UA (2016) What does research informed teaching look like? Higher Education Academy, London.
Manning, E. (2014) Against method, in Vannini, P. (ed.) Non-representational methodologies. New York: Routledge, pp.52-71
Sexton AE, Hayes-Conroy A, Sweet EL, Miele M and Ash J. 2017 Better than text? Critical reflections on the practices of visceral methodologies in human geography, Geoforum 82;Supplement C 200-1.
Staeheli L & Lawson,V (1995), Feminism, praxis, and human geography. Geographical Analysis, 27: 321–338
A variety of technologies have emerged in the last decade that make it easier and cheaper than ever before to make representations of everyday mobile embodiment. Increasing numbers of people are quantifying and self-tracking their everyday lives recording behavioural, biological and environmental data (Beer, 2016; Neff & Nafus, 2016) using a variety of technologies, for example:
The emergence of the quantified-self poses both opportunities and dilemmas for geographical thought. We wish to move past simplistic protests that dismiss such technology as offering another take on Haraway’s (1988) ‘god trick’, presenting partial, and highly situated data as objective truth. Instead, this session will build on the potential identified by Delyser and Sui (2013) to take more inventive approaches toward mobile methods. The focus will be on how these technologies can be engaged with by critical geographers to bring new perspectives to their analysis of everyday embodiment. Themes include, but are not limited to:
If you would be interested in submitting a paper or would like to discuss your ideas, please drop us a line informally in advance of the deadline. Full abstracts of no more than 250 words to be submitted by 14 October to the session organisers Phil Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Tess Osborne (email@example.com).
Beer D (2016) Metric power. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
DeLyser D & Sui D (2013) Crossing the qualitative- quantitative divide II: inventive approaches to big data, mobile methods, and rhythmanalysis. Progress in Human Geography 37;2 293-305.
Haraway D (1988). Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14;3 575-599
Neff G & Nafas D (2016) Self-tracking. Cambridge MA., MIT Press.
Next week I’ll be attending the ‘Soundings and Findings’ conference at UEA, intended as a platform for scholars to reflect on the intellectual advances made through engagement with the AHRC’s Connected Communities funding stream. I’m running a panel discussion called ‘Becoming inexpert’ attempting to offer a challenge to the somewhat heroic narrative of interdisciplinary working (“It’s tough but rewarding”).
In thinking about this session I have been pottering about on Google Scholar. Academia is very much about fashions – ideas and methods fall in and out of favour with alarming regularity. Right now we’re in the middle of a digital data revolution that bears an uncanny similarity to the so-called ‘quantitative revolution’ of the 1960s, both in being driven by radical technological change and being accompanied by somewhat contestable claims about what these data can tell us about people’s everyday lives. I’ve only been in the academic game for 15 years or so and even in that short time I’ve seen ideas develop, mature and fall by the wayside in the pursuit of the latest new thing.
As a result, then, it’s remarkable that interdisciplinarity still retains its power and allure, given that it has been part of the academic discourse since at least the 1970s. Twenty years ago, writing in a special issue of the Art Bulletin, James D. Herbert wrote that:
‘Everyone involved in the heated debate over interdisciplinarity, curiously, appears to be on the same side. One would be hard pressed to find an art historian of any methodological stripe who was not, in some basic sense, in favor of it.’ (Herbert, 1995, 537)
The claims for what interdisciplinarity can read like the handbill of a snake oil salesman: it brings new insights to old problems; collaboration is essential for multifaceted, ‘wicked’ issues; it’s essential to creative thinking; by breaking down communication problems between disciplines, the benefits of academic work can be more easily brought to outsiders; it will restore your hair growth and help cut down on belly fat.
There’s actually not much to argue with here in terms of the advantages of collaboration with people who have different kinds of expertise. Perhaps the reason why interdisciplinary modes of working are still so fashionable is because, in practice, it’s really very difficult to do, so there can be an endless academic debate about how to do this thing that we all agree is highly desirable. I actually wrote a piece about this many years ago about a project where I collaborated with a hydrologist on a project looking at the place of sustainable drainage systems in urban planning (Jones & Macdonald, 2007). We ended up with a nice piece of social science looking at these technologies, but in no way was the project interdisciplinary.
One of the things about Connected Communities is that it has always been more than just a funding scheme. There’s a broader philosophical project at play, which has interdisciplinarity at its heart. A group of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities are put into a room together and told to work out what interests they have in common and try to design some projects. Those conversations can be delightful, wonderful and entirely at cross purposes. As Jack Balkin put it:
‘To chance upon a discussion among persons of a different discipline can be like arriving at someone else's family reunion. Each discipline has its own ongoing controversies, its own distinctive debates to rehearse, its own characteristic points to score, and its own private demons to exorcise.’ (Balkin, 1996, 956)
Connected Communities is, in a sense, trying to create a new kind of scholar, but there’s been a Darwinian element to this – those scholars uncomfortable with this mode of working have largely fallen by the wayside. Attending next week’s conference is a hardcore of people who are comfortable working beyond their comfort zones – or at least have found ways to cope with working this way.
I’ve never been the kind of scholar who wants to become the world expert on, for example, the governance of harvesting timber for biofuels. I’ve too much of a butterfly mind to become so narrowly focussed. In many ways this makes me well suited for Connected Communities style research – I’m genuinely interested in the wildly different interests and ways of thinking I’ve been exposed to since I got involved with the programme. It does however raise important questions about what scholarship means if you aren’t really bringing specific expertise to any discussion, but instead know a little bit about a lot of things. Does this make you a dilettante? Does it hold back your career? Does it help or hinder knowledge production? Big issues, which we’ll be getting our teeth into next week.
Balkin JM 1996 Interdisciplinarity as colonization Washington & Lee Law Review 53 949-970
Jones P and Macdonald N 2007 Getting it wrong first time: building an interdisciplinary research relationship Area 39 490-498
Mitchell WJT 1995 Interdisciplinarity and visual culture The Art Bulletin 77 540-544
REF 2014 is dead, long live REF 2020...
For those working outside the febrile atmosphere of the higher education sector, the REF is unlikely to mean very much. Perhaps the most eagle-eyed will have spotted some headlines around about Christmas claiming that x-percentage of UK research had been determined 'world leading'. An even closer look might have revealed how different institutions/departments found ways of claiming that they were in the 'top 10' according to some measure or other. To outsiders, it matters little, but to insiders the REF brings with it the same kind of paranoia and bullying that an Ofsted inspection does for UK teachers, or an external audit of Swiss accounts might for senior managers in a global bank.
It's not my intention to get into the politics and procedures of the REF here except to note that 'impact' has become an ever more important part of what we do. Impact can be loosely defined as making some kind of change out in the 'real world' as a result of the research, whether this be through shaping policy, coming up with a new industrial process, facilitating the work of a charity or community group and so on.
On one level, this is a pretty noble aim. Why should academics spend their days only really talking to each other and doing research that makes no difference to the world outside the ivory tower? What's interesting, however, is the extent to which these demands for having more of a real world impact are coming at the same time as there is a wider assault upon the infrastructure of society in pursuit of short term goals.
I'm (re)reading some things at the moment looking at how we can conceptualise time, including a piece by Noel Castree (paywall link here). Castree gives a neat summary of how David Harvey sees two roles for time in capitalism. The first is the short term, where time is used to create a constant present, as capitalism seeks to generate surplus value through exchange. The second, more interesting, is where a proportion of capital that might otherwise be used for immediate production has to be diverted for medium/long-term investment. A practical example of this is re-investing some of your profits on new plant that will enable you to produce goods more efficiently in the medium/longer term even if it means your balance sheet takes a hit in the short term.
The state does - or rather did - this sort of long term spending all the time. You invest heavily building roads, airports, docks that provide the infrastructure for capitalists to make money doing other things - if you don't have this infrastructure in your country, capital will shift its activity to countries that do because they can make more money there.
If you want to take a reductive reading of human relations you can argue that things like education, art, caring/community work etc. can be seen as part of the infrastructure of society - necessary to the long term reproduction of capitalism, but not generating profit directly. Unfortunately contemporary capitalism seems to find the notion of medium/longer term investments problematic in a culture of short-term returns based on maximising share price by cutting costs. Thus those working in sectors that do not generate unambiguous fiscal earnings find themselves increasingly pressured to demonstrate how they 'add value'. Indeed, my colleague Dave O'Brien has been at the sharp end of thinking through how this 'value' can and should be measured within the cultural sector.
Both higher education and the arts thus get told "if you are receiving all this public money we want a concrete return for it". By assessing impact, the REF makes us complicit in a neoliberal agenda hostile to public spending that seeks to narrow the realm of justifiable long term investment to that which can be seen to show a clear return. In a nutshell, academia can't easily show us the money, so to justify its value it has to show us the impact. Longer term things around building an intellectual environment, creating a culture in which ideas can thrive etc. do not generate immediate value and are thus seen as problematic.
Knowing this makes me a little uncomfortable about the kind of work I'm engaged with at the moment, where we're trying to examine new ways of having communities determine priorities for public spending on arts/cultural investment. We were funded under a somewhat controversial funding stream, which was accused (somewhat unfairly) in the media of being politically motivated as it emerged in 2010. The allegation was that the funding call responded to a Conservative policy agenda relating to the 'big society', divesting local authorities of power and finding ways of managing a variety of complex issues at the 'community' scale (i.e. requiring people to solve their own problems rather than asking the state to step in to deal with inequality). Thus in doing this work I have to ask whether I'm complicit in a neoliberal agenda of short term shrinkage of legitimate public spending, hacking away at the infrastructures that are fundamental to keeping society going in the long term.
Maybe. Certainly I find myself not knowing what I would be comfortable seeing as policy 'impact' from this project. Does this research legitimise the shrinkage of the state by highlighting inefficiencies and inequalities in spending by the public sector in the arena of culture? This project has all kinds of gains for my career in terms of hitting short term targets on inputs and outputs. Curtailing cultural spend would certainly be a major piece of academic impact that we could boast about in a subsequent REF. But... do I want that as my academic legacy in the medium term?
Castree N (2009) The Spatio-temporality of capitalism Time & Society 18;1 26-61
Over the last five years or so a certain cohort of geographers has been playing with the idea of ‘atmospheres’. Scholars often take words with commonly accepted meanings and then redefine these to something highly technical and not at all intuitively obvious. A good example of this is ‘affect’ (a verb meaning ‘to make a difference to’) which now sits at the heart of a set of debates about how bodies and worlds interact. I like to tell my students that if they understand affect then they probably haven’t read enough…
The idea of atmosphere has been captured by the same guys (and it is mostly guys) who write about affect. This has generated kind of writing that can provoke bafflement and irritation in equal measure – not just from civilians but, frankly, from a lot of my colleagues. For example:
‘Atmospheres are a kind of indeterminate affective ‘excess’ through which intensive space-times can be created.’ (Ben Anderson, 2009, p80)
Sometimes I get excited by this kind of thing, but more often I get frustrated because there’s interesting and useful ideas here, buried beneath a mountain of academic obfuscation. And, yes, it is unfair to take a quote like this out of context because there’s a lot of argument that’s built up to a statement like this, but even still, it’s all pretty hard going.
I’ve long been interested in how you can take some of these quite abstract ideas and use them to unpick how quite ordinary, everyday things work. This is why I’m less attracted to how the “affect boys” talk about ‘atmospheres’ and am becoming more interested in the French notion of ‘ambiances’. Most of the ideas on this have been developed by the team at Cresson (Centre de recherche sur l'espace sonore et l'environnement urbain), working out of the Grenoble school of architecture. Their work is often quite bonkers, but it’s very applied. So by trying to understand the ambiance/atmosphere/feeling of a place they are also interested in how this place-feeling can be manipulated/improved. This might be through changing lighting, altering the soundscape, changing how people move through a neighbourhood, to change how people feel about that neighbourhood.
The idea that a place has an ambiance (or atmosphere if you prefer) makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Ambiances are also something that is shared. We all experience spaces and places differently, but there can be some common feelings experienced by different people at the same time. “This place is crowded”, “I don’t feel safe here”, “This café is warm and cosy” etc. I’m quite interested in exploring this tension between when we as individuals experience places differently and when feelings about a place are shared. Why, for example, do some groups of people feel safe in a place while others don’t?
Which all brings us to the idea of sketchiness. This has come into the headlines recently with a pair of tech entrepreneurs launching their ‘SketchFactor’ iPhone app. The idea is that people should use the app to record the location of different ‘sketchy’ things that they see on the street – the man wandering around with no clothes on, the mugging, the kids hanging around on street corners. The app thus creates a crowdsourced map of ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods within a city where such problematic things happen, presumably to warn visitors to those areas to be on their guard. Although, it has to be asked, if you feel unsafe wandering around a neighbourhood, why on earth would you start fiddling with your expensive iPhone to tell people about the fact?
Sketchiness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the app developers have been accused of fostering a kind of indirect racism. App users are more likely to be white and middle class and the areas that they’re more likely to feel are ‘sketchy’ will be those populated by poorer, ethnic minority groups – particularly in US cities. So we end up creating maps that say “black people are dangerous, say away from them” with the people who live in an area having a middle class reading of their lives imposed upon them.
What this comes from is a shared sense of the atmosphere of a neighbourhood which is shaped by social class and ethnicity. The people who live in that neighbourhood might well read its atmosphere differently. Indeed, some areas can be profoundly sketchy to those who live there, while this can be invisible to those passing through. Youth gang territories would be a good example of this – some kids know that they would be at risk of attack if they cross into a neighbouring area, whereas to an outsider the atmosphere of two neighbourhoods feels exactly the same.
One of the neighbourhoods we’re working in as part of the @cultintermed project is Balsall Heath here in Birmingham. It’s a fascinating and very lively area of mixed ethnicity, though predominantly Muslim, not far from the city centre. As a white middle class scholar, who lives a broadly white middle class life, Balsall Heath has a particular feel that is quite different to neighbouring Moseley – the epicentre of white, liberal Birmingham. I notice this very strongly in my own behaviours within Balsall Heath – doubtless a manifestation of my own low level racism and fear of difference – that I can feel a little edgy walking along the Moseley Road to the Printworks (a local art venue). Once inside the Printworks, however, I generally feel fairly relaxed. Outside the doors is a working class, broadly Muslim area. Inside the Printworks is a middle class and broadly white space.
One of the interesting things that this throws up is how the presence of an institution like Printworks manipulates the atmosphere of this part of Balsall Heath. It produces a reason for a white middle class person to visit and as such starts to change the nature of the space. A certain kind of arty/educated ambiance is radiated outward from Printworks. This is significant because in manipulating the feel of a location you can set in train other urban processes. There’s a well-established literature (e.g. Sharon Zukin) on how artists and different cultural businesses can be used as agents of gentrification. Artists are attracted into cheap (‘sketchy’) neighbourhoods. Their presence attracts middle class people who are interested to feel like they’re part of an arty/edgy vibe. Eventually the middle class people start to displace the original residents and you end up with a gentrified middle class district.
One of the drivers here is the feel of the place, its atmosphere. Middle class white people by and large don’t live in Balsall Heath and part of this is in the neighbourhood’s sketchiness – a white middle class construction imposed on that space. Reducing an area’s sketchiness in thmeans altering it to suit the white middle classes. If you manipulate the atmosphere/ambiance/feeling of the place, capitalist mechanisms of land and property development can start processes of gentrification. But gentrification begets displacement and thus it becomes a social justice issue to think about how atmospheres are manipulated in urban policy.
But a big warning point to end on. There’s a danger here of saying, don’t try to tackle problems in an area lest the middle classes turn up, kick everyone out and take over. Balsall Heath has all kinds of socio-environmental problems (litter, rats, drug dealing, anti-social behaviour) that comprise some of the many factors that shape the ambiance of the neighbourhood – why should people living there have to put up with these? Similarly, the idea that there are ambiances suitable for middle class white people and those suitable for working class Muslims gets us dangerously close to old fashioned racist divisions. Generating a shared sense of ambiance can be driven by a large number of different factors – gender, taste, fashion, age etc. etc. – what’s interesting is how that shared sense is generated and what would be the consequences for society if you started to manipulate that ambiance.
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?
One of the nice things about being an academic is the diversity of the job. One day you can be crawling around the floor barking and trying to get into the mindset of a dog, the next you’re having a serious meeting with the city council about cultural policy.
On Thursday I was in London for a ‘townhall’ meeting run by the Economic and Social Research Council. They’re the big funder of social science research in the UK and are in the midst of drawing up a new agenda for research on cities. So a bunch of bigwigs connected to research on cities got an invitation in their inbox to come down to a hotel in London to spend a day talking about what the priorities for research should be. I felt a little bit out of place in this august company (which featured a great many grey heads) but the presence of a key player from the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme suggested that I was there because of the large grant I hold out of that call.
Regardless, nice to be invited, makes me feel almost like a grown up (now that I’m 38). The ESRC are at a preliminary stage with their thinking on this new research agenda and we were there to look at a document that their expert panel had drawn up – in particular the six themes that animated it. I’m paraphrasing slightly but these were:
If this sounds bitchy or pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. It’s very interesting to have reached the career stage where you start to see how agendas are formulated rather than just responding to whatever 'they' have set up. It was something I certainly noticed at Connected Communities meetings, where an idea discussed at one forum would suddenly find itself becoming a major theme of the next round of funding. So it’s great to get a chance to take some of the ideas that ESRC are playing with and have a chance to feed in to shape the final call. Aside from resilience (which received an almighty kicking) there was general enthusiasm for the broad topic areas, although a lot of calls for more practical, grounded things to be included (i.e. housing, property, retail, liveability) that practitioners and policymakers (as well as urban communities) could really get their teeth into.
I was pretty pleased that a couple of the things I was pushing ended up in the end-of-day summary, in particular the importance of looking at urban planning and the need to consider interdisciplinary datasets that already existed (e.g. pollution data from NERC, transport data from EPSRC, material on communities from AHRC) to do some kind of meta-analysis (to be pretentious).
Otherwise, these events are quite nice in that you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while and meet people who work in similar areas to you – even occasionally people who are fans of your work (yes Jonas, it was really nice to meet you too!). So it was grand to have a gab/debate with Phil Hubbard, who I’ve not seen for ages and is now doing some really interesting work looking at displacement/outmigration caused by gentrification in central London. I was also very impressed with Adam Greenfield’s work on Networked Urbanism. He gave a very compelling critique of the Smart City discourse which neatly undercut a lot of the technofetishism tangled up with debates in this area. It was also very nice to meet Katharine Willis, an architect working out of University of Plymouth, who has being doing some really intriguing things with geocaching as a tool for engaging communities in imagining their neighbourhoods differently – an intriguing parallel to the MapLocal project, which she was already aware of (yes, it’s all terribly incestuous). Likewise it was great to finally meet Mike Batty out of UCL, whose work has impressed me for many years. He led the technology & urban living subtheme of the main report, humanising what can otherwise be a somewhat heroic story of technological progress.
Quite what will happen in terms of a definitive call for funding emerging from this we’ve yet to see, but it’s going to the ESRC’s decision making panel in April, so it’s a case of watch this space. Nonetheless, the fact that urban issues are being taken so seriously is excellent news for Geography at the University of Birmingham as we’ve real strengths in urban research so, wearing my very natty ‘research group leader’ hat, there’s some really exciting opportunities on the horizon.
Sir Frank Price, Lord Mayor of Birmingham 1964-5 and former Chair of the Public Works Committee during the period of the post-war reconstruction, has been demolished. Or, rather the building on the University of Birmingham’s Selly Oak campus that was named after him has been. It was a nondescript design, pulled down earlier this year as part of campus redevelopment. There is a fitting irony that one of the people who saw fit to pull down much of Victorian Birmingham to build its Modernist future has now been a victim of the same fashion that seeks to erase a ‘failed’ past.
Ever since I moved to Birmingham back in 2000 I’ve noticed its deep seated habit of trying to erase its history. You saw the same with the Victorian buildings removed in the 1960s and 1970s – beautiful structures being removed with the same carefree abandon as terrible slums of the same era simply because that period was tainted with the brush of being failed. Many years ago I wrote my PhD on a particular form of 20th century architecture, the high-rise social housing block. Birmingham originally built 464 of these and today a very large proportion of these have been demolished, mostly without tears. But the discourse of mid 20th century buildings being ‘failures’ is very strong, so when nice examples go you do worry slightly for the collective memory of the city. Although, to be fair, in some cases, the experimental building materials pioneered in the mid twentieth century can make it impossible or prohibitively expensive to save them. Still, some can be saved and it’s strange to tear them down without reflection.
Cycling into town last week, I noticed that the Central Synagogue on Pershore Road was being pulled down. This was a source of great sadness for me, as it was one of my favourite buildings in Birmingham for its understated elegance, as well as being a good example of design from the period.
Built in the early 1960s, it had echoes of post office architecture from the time, restrained and simple, with lovely thin banded columns. With new facilities having been built, the site has been handed over to a developer erecting a new care home and the building torn down. While one can’t shed a tear over every building lost (and doubtless the new facilities will be more amenable to the community) it’s always a shame to lose nice examples from the period.
A less clear cut example would be the Holliday Street car park which finally came down this summer A very simple, stark structure, with echoes of Le Corbusier’s Domino House – not a line out of place. But the guard rails between the second and third floors, jutting out like the top of a medieval castle and the wonderful period signage hint at something more playful. No great loss to the city, in many ways, and doubtless expensive to save structurally. Nonetheless, the proposed 18 storey Holliday Inn Express on the site won’t really add anything in its place – another piece of forgettable corporate building.
The Victorian era Central Library was demolished in 1974 shortly after John Madin’s brutalist-style replacement was built over the city’s modernist ring road. Now that Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham has opened, Madin’s building is on borrowed time. The city is determined to demolish this architecturally significant period piece because it’s ‘ugly’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘in the way’ of new development. Will LoB suffer the same indignity in the face of the whims of fashion in thirty or forty years time? Well, trying to erase the past is very much the Birmingham way...
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer