Birmingham Architecture Festival 2013

BAF2013 ran last weekend: four days of celebrating Birmingham’s beautiful (or blasted) buildings in glorious sunshine, narrowly avoiding the drizzle and hail that has characterised the season so far. Kick yourself if you didn’t manage to attend any of the films, workshops, exhibitions or guided tours… or better still make sure you attend next time.

Perhaps this first outing of the festival will go some way towards laying to rest the myth that Birmingham’s buildings are a bore. I hear this claim a lot – from residents as often as strangers to the city. When pressed, they describe the slick, commercial spaces or the run down parts of town but seem not to know about the beautiful terracotta wonders, sandstone castles, mediaeval manors, decorative high-scapes or gothic industrial buildings of the city. We only ever see anything because we’ve been shown or because we found out for ourselves – if we’re not expecting to find anything, we probably won’t go looking.

“Take a Second Look” is the festival’s canny motto, and perhaps for many it was even “Take a First Look”.

For me, a festival highlight was the Re-awakening Lea Village tour by George Chiswell. For many Brummies, this is the station of Lea Hall, on the slow train back from London. For George, it is the home he has lived in for 74 years. Over that time, he has watched it alter beyond recognition. Lea Village is directly on the flightpath to Elmdon Airport and the tour was regularly punctuated by low flying 747s. George has never flown, and was perhaps the only local to still look up each time something huge soared overhead… perhaps a reflex learnt in wartime. I hadn’t been to Lea Village before and I’m always keen to explore unfamiliar neighbourhoods, looking for traces of the past. But despite its mediaeval origins, Lea Village has changed utterly. I’m always wary of creating a guided tour that is entirely about what used to be there, with nothing visible to still connect to it. Other than exercise, it may as well be a slideshow. Sometimes even a street name or a boundary hedge can be enough to open an aperture into the past; one that can be even more resonant than a perfectly preserved Georgian Square.

On Re-awakening Lea Village, George’s village was invisible but for his lucid recollections of school sports days, sweet selling scams and post-war rebuilding programmes. But something unexpected was happening all around: the village was manifestly still there in the people who would stop to say hello to George (he seemed to know everyone by name); the village bobbies astride mountain bikes, keeping the quad-biking duo in check with a well-aimed nod, and a well-attended village green fete, complete with revolving maypole and potter’s wheel. The local councillor and his daughter were also amongst our small group of walkers. I don’t like to isolate an area’s past from what is happening there now, and try to make visible this link visible. Making the village visible, past and present, worked effortlessly and as such was a triumph.

The village ambience, and local constabulary, came off worse in that evening’s screening of You’ve Been Trumped: the story of Scottish Highlanders being squeezed out of their homes and lives by the evil golf tyrant tycoon Donald Trump as he seeks to build the world’s best (= most expensive) golf course. Dunes were bulldozed, electricity was cut and tears were shed – on screen and in the audience. The film clearly demonstrated the true cost of this billion dollar development.

My favourite event of the festival was the Wild Walls tour by Ellen Pisolkar. A small group gathered on the green side of Saint Martins in the Bullring, where they were equipped with tiny lenses, instructed not to eat anything and then set off into the city’s mossy underworld. I marvel at how people see the world differently, and BAF has seen witnessed people being introduced to the various layers of the urban fabric: buildings, ornamentation, construction materials and, here, microworlds. We could have spent the entire afternoon exploring just the first car park we encountered: a levelled industrial area on Park Street. Any number of curious plants thrived amongst the rubble and empty Frosty Jacks bottles. Gesturing across the devastated landscape, Ellen made a bold challenge: “Is there a plant here you would like to know about?” – certainly she knows her stuff. Occasionally she would cross the road or double back, having spotted something that wasn’t there just a few weeks ago, including species new to the island. Many plants proved to be edible such as the omnipresent nettle, others seriously poisonous like the hemlock adjoining the new city park. Others went unrecognised: perhaps a new hybrid? Everywhere, unnoticed, tiny copses of trees pushed up through roadside crofts. I had fun with my tiny lens: propped in front of my iPhone camera, an Instagram-like filter framed the minuscule forms.

This tour is unique in the sense that each time it runs, different plants are in season. Wild Walls runs a second time for Still Walking on Sun 2 June.

I attended as many events as I could and led two tours myself. I’d crammed for the John Henry Chamberlain tour, expounding his Civic Gospel approach, having been granted rare public access granted to the postcard-shy School of Art on Margaret Street. In Material World I gathered and shared my favourite pebbles, ironwork, concrete, plastic sheeting, fibre-optic, fossils, bricks and sandstone. The pinhole camera workshop output was exhibited at 6/8 Cafe – some extra-ordinary result for such lo-tech equipment. Later, relaxing in BAF’s Rotunda penthouse, a chance to see the city as a whole as the traffic hummed and the sun dipped behind the Nat West tower.

Here’s looking forward to a second chance to look again!

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Sabbath Day Out

Today’s guest blog is by Capsule’s Sarah Lafford:

Pose outside the Chelsea Hotel a la Patti Smith, visit the home of underground punk, CBGBs, or go to the ‘most famous club in the world’, the Cavern Club. Paying homage to the music we love should surely be an opportunity to display a certain level of coolness. Not so much if you’re a Black Sabbath fan. I don’t think it’s too brazen to state that Sabbath are perhaps Birmingham’s biggest cultural export: the originators of Heavy Metal, they’re adored globally. But the most celebrated music venue from the band’s early days, Mothers in Erdington (John Peel’s favourite club) is long gone, and the four lads from Aston certainly didn’t hang out with beat poets and literary heroes in cool coffee shops and bars. We’re lacking a hip hangout in which to pay homage.

Rob Horrocks’ Crossroads of Sabbath walk through residential Aston might sound an unconventional homage to one of the biggest bands in the world, but it’s perfectly fitting.

Sabbath’s sound is inextricably linked to their upbringing in post-war Aston, and their work in the ‘metal bashing’ industries that dominated the Aston landscape in the 1960s. During the Crossroads of Sabbath we can retrace their footsteps, from their childhood homes, schools and factory jobs with ease, as it becomes clear that not a lot has altered in the area.

After working closely with Rob on Home of Metal I was fortunate enough to be invited on a rehearsal of Crossroads of Sabbath. A small group of us (I should stress, fans and non fans alike) enjoyed the exercise of casting our minds back to our own childhoods. Crucial for me was the exploration of an area quite unfamiliar to me, yet a mere stone’s throw away from the city centre.

I shan’t give too much away, but I’ll share a highlight. Before Ozzy was one of the biggest rock (and reality TV) stars in the world, he was a pretty unsuccessful criminal. Rob shows us the shop he attempted to burgle (which is behind his own house), and the pretty painful looking measures people put in place to attempt to keep the likes of Ozzy off their property!

Crossroads of Sabbath runs on Sunday (naturally) 2nd June at 12pm and tickets can be bought here.

Walk the High Street, Cradley Heath

The Still Walking thing is to reconsider various places and themes as tourist destinations and to create guided tours to explore them. The idea came after being bored once too often by official guided walks – listing every lord mayor the town has had, how many windows there are in the Town Hall – and thinking where I would take people if I was an official guide. What was “my” Birmingham? (and why were those guides “official”?)

Over the last year or so, I’ve been amazed by the popularity of Still Walking tours, with visits to underground tunnels, abandoned cinemas, remote wastelands and lost rivers selling out in a flash. It seems the guided tour needn’t be a threading together of civic bombast, historic dates and economic data. So much of our city seems to sit there waiting to be noticed and I think it’s all worth looking at and talking about.

This year’s microfest visits a couple of outlying spots, though if you live in Aston or Cradley Heath they are of course local. Rob Horrocks will be following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and over in Cradley Heath, Fran Wilde will be walking the High Street. Fran is an artist who settled here recently and quickly became fascinated by the area’s history, atmosphere, traditions and clear difference to Birmingham and indeed anywhere else. I love that everyday experiences such as the local High Street on its busiest day can yield surprising moments, clear traces of history and some cracking stories. The first thing you notice are the chains: they’re everywhere in design like they once did in industry. A famous anchor, now at the bottom of the atlantic, had its origins here. Like most High Streets, Cradley Heath has been adversely affected economically but I discovered a robust independent force still present in the town, with many shops seeming like a museum of my childhood. Even the hulking presence of Tesco Express hasn’t yet finished off the fishmongers, model shops, seamstresses, cafés, bakers, sweetshops, ironmongers…

Fran’s tour simply visits what’s there, looks at some local history, talks to the locals and reports back. Cradley Heath is shown to be a compelling area, still having the outlook of a small industrial village with its own unique and celebrated identity. Tesco carefully mirrors the high street with its in-house selection of chemists, barbers and opticians but will never have the high street’s local newspaper office, Black Country souvenirs, local delicacies or delicious local ales on tap.

It’s worth making the short train journey and having a guide to hand affords a rare opportunity. Recommended to anyone who has yet to visit the Black Country and also to those that have!

Fran’s tour starts at Cradley Heath Train Station at 10am on Sat 1st June. Tickets cost £4 and must be booked in advance, which can be done here.

Architectura Victoriana: The JH Chamberlain tours

Looking at Victorian Architecture can be like seeing evidence from an ancient civilisation, one far in advance of our own. Their buildings were designed to allow adaption and extension without spoiling an intrinsic harmony, but so often when we do, it is with an insensitive eye and clumsy hand. The new bricks don’t quite match in size or colour, ornamentation is courser, tiles and glazes duller and flatter. A gothic window may be filled in like an eyepatch, or a new entrance cut through a wall with none of the theatre or sense of occasion beloved by the Victorians.

It’s fun to watch tastes in architecture come and go, almost like watching a carousel. Arts and crafts touches are almost tidal in their acceptance and rejection. Times of austerity can have an effect on design but we have never quite ever dared to revisit the outrageous opulence of the 1890s. But we can reappraise our take on it: a tiled surprise beneath the hall carpet or intricate wood work laying dormant below a thin veneer of plywood.

I’ve always loved witnessing the playfulness that Victorian designers had, the fun the architects had is more obvious than any time before or since. I love seeing their treatment of factories and warehouses: many times presenting them as palaces or civic buildings. The Tolkien-inspiring Waterworks tower in Edgbaston is essentially a chimney disguised as an richly ornamented Italianate tower. Sometimes these disguises are to appease the residents of well-to-do areas but often it is for the fun of designing something wonderful. John Henry Chamberlain (who designed the waterworks tower) is surely the most flamboyant of Birmingham’s Victorian architects, continually surpassing his own benchmarks of decorative design, whether for industrial works, hospitals, churches or homes.

I was very pleased to be commissioned by Birmingham Architecture Festival to create a guided tour about Chamberlain. I regularly meet people (including residents) who express surprise that Birmingham can yield an architecture tour, yet the streets I walk down in the city centre are lined with astonishing work of a calibre to rival any other English city. And not lone examples, but entire blocks of beautiful brick and moulded terracotta. The Birmingham I picture is rich and red. We have been fortunate to be granted access to Margaret Street School of Art and visitors will see the careful detail present at every level, from stair posts to hand-shaped bricks to light wells. The tour will end at Ikon gallery and indeed take in all the Chamberlain work in the city centre.

Two tours are running at 3pm that afternoon (Sun 26th May) : Joe Holyoak will lead Architectura Victoriana: Brick and portray Chamberlain through an architect’s eyes, I will lead Architectura Victoriana: Art from the perspective of an artist. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance from Ikon.

Bloye’s Zone

There’s something of Sherlock Holmes about Neil Holland’s tour for Still Walking: Hidden in Plain Sight – The Sculpture of William Bloye. Bloye is surely Birmingham’s most prolific sculptor and the city centre contains dozens of examples of his work. But few among us would be able to identify his work if prompted. How is it we have largely forgotten one of the city’s great artists, who for three decades in the twentieth century was a highly sought after sculptor? Neil was hired by Still Walking to investigate the mystery.

Being personally introduced to Bloye’s work, as I was a few weeks ago by Neil, certainly helped throw light on this enduring enigma. I was able to join the dots between the work I knew about (Queen Victoria, the Golden Boys) and the curious figures I’d spotted peering down from plaques and elevated positions around the city. Bloye’s work appears across the city as sculptures in public squares, private courtyards, commemorative plaques and foundation stones, decorative panels, architectural embellishments and even bas-relief signs for insurance companies and pubs. Perhaps the sheer range makes it difficult to recognise as the work of one man.

Yet his style, once you start to recognise it, is certainly distinctive. Stylised, streamlined and slightly cartoon-like but with real depth, fluidity and rhythm. The ball of a thumb is carved as richly and as memorably as a face. Some of Bloye’s work is not really in plain sight at all: exquisitely rendered panels in the upper reaches of buildings are at a level noticed only by window cleaners. My feeling is that people used to do a lot more looking around them, and maybe that’s why we don’t see this sort of decoration on buildings anymore.

There’s a joyful moment in recognising a pattern – we’re always looking to make sense of our world. Hidden in Plain Sight not only highlights Bloye’s wonderful sculptures but also provides this sense of having a veil lifted from the world, that we’ve been fortunate to glimpse something valuable that was there all along. Neil leaves plenty more still to be discovered.

The tour runs at 5 30pm on Friday 31st May. Meet at the Golden Boys sculpture on Broad Street, opposite Centenary Square. Tickets are selling well but for the moment can still be bought here.

Living in a Material World

I like to introduce some of my guided walks with the observation that every square foot of our built environment is there deliberately. Someone has drawn, designed and created all of it (not the same person). It all has a job to do and the right – or adequate – materials have been chosen for the job.

It’s an obvious truth but one that’s so close to our everyday experience that it’s not always recognised. As a mental exercise, I also ask: how far do we have to go to escape the designed world? An area that exists in its unadapted, wild state? The countryside is something of an illusion of nature, largely created for agriculture. Woods and forests too are usually fenced off and manicured to a degree. Even rivers (especially the Rae) are culverted, re-routed and maintained.

Devising the Material World guided tour for Birmingham Architecture Festival gave me an opportunity to explore this one aspect of architecture: the changing use of building material over the years, and the reasons those materials were chosen. I wanted to ask why we rarely used our own local stone but would ship in expensive granites and marbles from around the world, if they had the right look. Architecture is prone to the same changing fashions as our garments: what seems current today can seem dated the next – and charmingly retro and worthy of preservation in the future. Fashions can also depend on availability: terracotta fell out of favour in the twentieth century as tastes for Victorian opulence waned – but also because huge projects like Victorian Law Courts seriously depleted the stock. Timber framed buildings are a rarity in Birmingham and when bricks became the dominant building material, wonky, draughty timber framed building became quickly embarrassing and old fashioned. I think of Birmingham as a “brick city”, but the brick kilns were being fired by the very woods that once provided timber for housing. There was no way to go back, even if we’d wanted to. Today, the city centre is entirely devoid of any timber buildings and those that remain anywhere are listed and command a high price for their cramped, unadaptable interiors.

Meanwhile brick has become a largely decorative feature, no longer structurally supportive in most buildings, but merely forming a “curtain wall” draped over a steel frame. The concrete revolution of the 60s dropped this pretense, with bold new shapes, structures and surfaces. On closer examination, these often revealed gentler pastel shaded pebbles and quartz added to the mix. Concrete had its fans and there will surely one day be the museum of the last concrete building in the city. And several decades on, concrete’s antithesis, the reflective glass skyscraper, still seems to be a classic theme.

I love the fact that buildings won’t stay still, seemingly as whimsical, vain, fashion-conscious and irrational as their human inhabitants. The uniform, logical city of Utopian vision is still, thankfully, a long way off.

Material World runs as part of Birmingham Architecture Festival on Monday 27th May (a bank holiday!) at 3pm. Places are limited and tickets can be bought in advance, which can be done via this link

The Still Walking microfestival is here!

Still Walking returns with a short programme of events to start the summer. What do Black Sabbath, Moss, The Golden Boys and Cradley Heath have in common? Possibly nothing, other than they’re all on the bill between Fri 31st May and Sun 2nd June (although do let us know if you think of a connection).

The festival is twinning with the mighty Birmingham Architecture Festival 2013, who unmistakeably share the eclectic Still Walking outlook: check their amazing programme of derelict buildings tours, pinhole camera workshops, architecture themed screenings, talks and events all celebrating the people, places and buildings of Birmingham. You may even like to back their Kickstarter project to help them on their way.

There certainly seems to be no end of subjects for guided tours in the city: this year we’ve been underground with Flatpack, lost in Selly Oak with Arts Soak and looking hard for Invisible Architecture with Birmingham Museum and Gallery. We’re planning even more events all the time so keep in touch with us on Twitter and with our mailing list and you’ll be the first to find out. Events can sell very quickly, so if there’s something you like the sound of, make sure you snap up a ticket now.

Happy exploring!

Ben Waddington
Director, Still Walking