In Birmingham’s near past if you bought a bus ticket to the centre it said Paradise, the name taken from the civic centre location Paradise Forum. Like all cities Birmingham exists in a state of continued unrest, what is no longer seen as part of its desired fabric is to be removed, scraped back to its core and remade. It is not a coincidence that the motto of the city of is Forward, and that through its redevelopment Paradise Forum is now transformed simply into Paradise. The public space of John Madin’s Central Library sold to build a new Birmingham Library, and now private space for a mixed-use development.
As Birmingham’s Central Library was demolished, hoardings were erected to direct pedestrians through space that made bold proclamations of “History in the making” and “Let’s be sociable”. As the site was developed further the hoardings were renewed, imagery appeared that was aspirational, glossy and disconnected from the population walking through it. The renders depict: excited alfresco dinner dates; curious shoppers looking enraptured by chefs constructing complex dishes; professionals dashing from place to place to steal moments on their mobile phones to plan their business meetings. The sun shines permanently on what is absent. Oliver Wainwright describes such visualisations as presenting “an almost entirely monocultural society of white thirtysomethings”. The more you look at these visualisations the more they become utterly discordant with the populations that pass by them. In this space urban leisure remains gendered. The use of imagery speaks of the male gaze, the dinner date is beaming out from the hoarding at you, the pedestrian, in an echo of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. In the offices, the women depicted sit behind desks welcoming men to meetings. Nobody has a visible disability; the elderly, the impoverished, the parents pushing prams have vanished, its an eerie and vacuous vision of the near future.
A city is a place of flux, with gentrification and blight existing next to each other. Yet who is the city made for? The language of urban design makes assumptions, that have implications for us all. In 1988 Heather Powell made “Paradise Circus” a film in which women discuss their lived experience of Birmingham, a city predominantly designed by men for the driver, not the pedestrian. This preference for the car embedded deep within the fabric of cities design as a love affair by Jonathan Meades in the BBC2 1998 programme “Heart by-pass: Jonathan Meades motors through Birmingham”. Writing in the Guardian in 2018 Christine Murray’s article asks “What would cities look like if they were designed by mothers?” revealing how thirty years on the same issues problematise access to the urban centre. Still as our cities develop there is little sense of equity in how they are designed and made in the spaces they provide for the citizens. As we pass through we experience these layers of conflicting messages and complex information in which the past, present, and promised future sit together with wayfinding, commerce, culture, leisure, shopping and transportation.
The language of our cities and urban spaces is chaotic. Art placed within this context cannot simply shrug it off, public artworks are subject to these changes and are part of this fabric of the shifting everyday. No single work will ever be permanent, a commonality held with the shopping centre and the bus station. Here consideration is needed as to how existing works are treated once they become defunct. In Hungary, Memento Park provides a resting place for Communist monuments now seen as part of a totalitarian system. In Berlin one public work that has survived a number of relocations and decades of political upheaval is Marx-Engels Forum. The sculpture is a consistent site for vandalism. During the 1990’s the work had the legend “We Are Blameless” painted on it and was fondly referred to as “The Pensioners”. The sculpture has been relocated from a tourist spot to a sleepy part of a park in Mitte. I went to visit the work this summer, after reading about it in Owen Hatherley’s book “Across the Plaza”. Removed from its original context I thought it would have come adrift, but there’s something at play that activates it still. Over the decades, bronze sculptures oxidize unless they are touched. Marx and Engels’ hands were golden and brassy, evidence of a series of gestures and connections with living citizens which proved its continued meaning in the present.
When the language of a city’s development renders its citizens invisible; public art should be as useful as a bus stop, as vital as free access to drinking water and able to inspire the joy a fountain or skate park does. It should be adept at coping with performativity and exploratory practices and speak to legacies of work, leisure, protest, renewal and commerce. The work placed in our cities lives with us, at a time in which access to space is contested and the lives of its residents often left undescribed we need works that can communicate across the multilayers we experience in the everyday.