Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Old and New... Past and Present... And the Future?

So how should we treat the social and historical markers of our past – namely the architecture and edifices that have made up our urban landscapes over the last centuries ? How should we care for the people who inhabit these spaces today ? These are questions I keep asking myself and yet can never find any appropriate answers.
As restrictions are lifted in line with the lessening of Covid’s grip over our movements, we are once again largely free to travel to towns, cities and other countries, rediscovering or recreating a sense of normality after so many months of limitations.
I would love to believe that the extended period of rigidly-confined geographical boundaries at least enabled us to nurture a new awareness and appreciation to all that is precious in life, past and present, and the world about us.
However, the speed in which we seem to have resumed normal activities – the admirable ones and the less so - with only the slightest backwards glance, appears to dash that hope somewhat.
Last month, I finally made it back to England at great expense and effort and was relieved and yet taken aback to note that everything initially seemed much as it had in the ‘before’ days, barring the face masks, of course. In many respects, this was uplifting albeit a little unsettling…
On closer expectation, the ravages of the economic hardship wrought by the situation soon became apparent, etched on both individuals more down-trodden than ever and the streets around them, with buildings and edifices facing different, yet equally destructive challenges.
Extreme poverty and poor health are nothing new but Covid has underlined these in a vicious, insidious manner. Are we at risk of growing almost ‘accustomed’ to seeing make-shift tents shacked up below overpasses and on wasteland and to encountering beings in unspeakably poor states of physical and mental health ?
In an eerily similar act of stealth, the blight of urban development has been steadily gnawing away at city centres, using the plea of Covid-induced economic necessity as justification to send in the wrecking ball. The building sector seems to have been quietly thriving over these last 18 months.
Perhaps the principles behind the ultra-modern architectural offerings that are thrown up today are no different to those behind the massive, wide-spread generation projects of the last centuries. Architects presumably trust that these changes will bring a bright new future or at least the hope of such a perspective. That was certainly the case for the Birmingham of the 1960s.
Yet try as I might, I just can’t find the wonder or beauty in any of these new buildings, present or past, and nor can I believe that these towering, oppressive constructions just being completed now will contribute to the community or outlive the populations therein. Nor are they intended to in many cases since real estate offers lucrative opportunites that do not necessarily need to address such issues.
It is indisputable that the cramped back-to-back Victorian housing and over-crowded tenement buildings needed to be overhauled. Such accommodation had created insalubrious slums for the poor, especially around the city centre, with no access to gardens or public green spaces. Not surprisingly, they were deemed « unfit for human habitation ». But ultimately, did they all have to be demolished, taking with them the unique spirit of close neighbourhoods? Perhaps this would have been lost anyway, but the new housing, building complexes, roads and fly-overs did nothing to secure it.
From the post-war years, successive waves of modernity have swept away all that is deemed outdated and hence ‘ugly’, so that swathes of the past lay buried beneath this crazy modern-day geological strata. Each generation of developers lays down another layer of progress, leading locals to mourn what has been lost. Even the demise of the Brutalist archictecture of the 60s, with its infamous, iconic Bull Ring shopping centre and concrete noose inner ringroad incites nostalgia for a ‘better time’.
How can we possibly take the measure of a place and its people if there is nothing left but anonymous, soul-less constructions of concrete and glass ? Does a community of buildings shape and enhance the community of the people inhabiting these spaces ?
Sometimes, developers leave a nod to the past, with the choice juxtaposition of state-of-the art modernity next to some remnant that has managed to survive to the present day. The effect is certainly striking but there is an emptiness and cruel irony that makes me sad. From its position as fulcrum of the Industrial Revolution, along with Manchester, this « city of a thousand trades » acting as the workshop of the nation does not seem to take enough civic pride in its past when it comes to maintaining its architectural heritage.
Wandering around Birmingham city centre, I admired the old buildings that have made it through the last few months and earlier decades, and wondered how much longer they can hold on in a state of disrepair before their existence is no longer justifiable and they too just disappear? Surely the architecture of the past reflects our own resilience and ingenuity, a witness to events that have marked our collective and individual histories.
Wiping that out may leave a blank slate to start anew, effectively removing any grimy, shameful secrets. Yet how do we learn where to go if we no longer have any trace of where we have been, and how far we have evolved in the course of that journey? What is left of a Black Country that has been whitewashed and glazed over ? That said, the humour and welcoming ways of today’s Brummies appear to hold fast and are the most lifting aspects of a trip here. And yes, I do love the Brum accent.
Fortunately too, some of the revelopments have fully embraced the cultural and social heritage of the city to success, but if only there were more of these. Old red-brick buildings around the canal waterways, for instance, have been adapted in a manner that does justice to the Brummie past and present and there are many other examples besides. Yet the spectre of bland modernity still looms over the old vestiges, casting a cold, mercenary shadow over their ornate facades.
Ignorance and limited access to information has often left the large majority of populations ill-equipped to fight worldly ills in the past. Today we should know better yet we have so much ‘data’ at our fingertips that we are overwhelmed to the point of complacency. It would seem that everybody is now so busy looking at their screens for distraction, comfort and validation that they are safely blinkered from the 3D reality about them. Are we being encouraged to believe that just as long as we can shop and swipe, we should be content, whatever our surroundings ? We need to look up and around overselves, to reconnect with the places and people that are part of our present and finally to try to retrace the good, the bad and the ugly of the past that built this brave new world. Pouring concrete over the whole lot can surely not be a solution….

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