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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