Urbanism

The New Birmingham

Birmingham’s official motto is ‘Forward’. It is basically impossible to understand the city without grasping the implications of that.

Anyway, the following picture is a page* from a piece of council propaganda (public relations… whatever) from the late 1950s (or was it early 1960s? Can’t remember, but do have it written down somewhere) called ‘The New Birmingham’…

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As you can see, it’s a plan of post-war redevelopment. The five highlighted districts were the locations of the city’s most notorious 19th century slums. The idea was to transform these hellholes into pleasant and self-contained districts (note the use of the word ‘town’) that would be integrated into the wider city without being overwhelmed by it (and, in so doing, return to their original status as low-status housing districts). It was quite overtly Utopian. The planning jargon for all of this was ‘comprehensive redevelopment’.**

Things did not exactly work out as intended (certainly the Utopian dream was never realised), but it is probably important to point out that the really serious damage to the area happened when the economy of Birmingham basically collapsed in the early 1980s. Though there were certainly mistakes made in the planning of the so-called ‘New Towns’ – for instance the Inner Ring Road was supposed to connect them to the rest of the city, but actually did the opposite for reasons that probably count as slightly to obvious to bother with explaining in any detail.

An interesting post-script of sorts concerns the area marked on the map as Lee Bank (née Bath Row). Now there’s a notorious name, at least to people from the Midlands. The area is currently the site of a massive redevelopment project. The jargon being used to describe the approach is… er… comprehensive redevelopment.

*Well most of a page. Apparently it was tricky to get it to line up properly to photocopy or something. It was a while ago now and I don’t remember exactly, so this is just a presumption.

**An interesting detail: Frank Price, the Chairman of the Public Work Committee at the time (and author of ‘The New Birmingham’), grew up in one of these districts (Summer Lane, now Newtown). He’s still alive and lives in Spain.

Luxury waterfront nightmares?

During the past three decades in which finance capital has ruled triumphant above all other things, many dreams have been sold of lifestyles and products that are utterly unaffordable even to most in the affluent ‘West’. Hell, unaffordable even to many comparatively affluent people in the affluent ‘West’. I’ve no interest in pretending that this has been a particularly new phenomenon, as luxury goods have existed since time immemorial and have often played an important role in consumer booms. Probably the only unique thing these luxury dreams is their reach and ubiquity. And, right now at least, I’m really only interested in one specific dream, rather than the whole edifice.

A particularly powerful dream, because it involves property.

I am thinking of one of the defining physical features of our age: the luxury waterfront development. The exclusive riverside flat. The apartment on the (often socially cleansed, and certainly thoroughly re-branded) old dock. The mansion by the river. Etc.

Gross oversimplification follows.

Rich people these days seem to like to live in close proximity to water. Those who are not particularly rich but would like to be dream of being able to do so. In pursuit of this dream, they have been amply aided by the usual suspects in the private sector and by the power of the state. The London Docklands – officially an attempt to ‘regenerate’ a depressed postindustrial district, a fact that tends to be only half remembered now – are emblematic, but other examples abound. And not just in other large cities: many smaller settlements have also seen a great surge in luxury waterfront development.

Now, historically, rich people have tended not to live particularly close to water. In urban areas at least, rivers were literally full of shit until fears of waterborne diseases and the sheer ghastly smell became too much for the new middle classes of the nineteenth century to bear. And even after that they were filthy: watery spaces of industry and wholesale commerce. And then there was the damp. And the risk of flooding. And these were factors outside the city, so even in pretty little river towns, the tendency was the rich to not actually live right by the river. Or at least not on the floodplain. Similar concerns existed with regards to the sea: again pumped full of raw sewage and industrial waste, again the fear of flooding (and a surge from the sea is something like thirty billion times scarier than the average river flood). So when rich people lived by the sea, the tendency was to do so in safe places; away from industry, and in a safe place from the worst of the winter storms.

These days, with clean rivers, with working ports generally miles from the city centre, etc, things are quite different. Frankly all of the above paragraph sounds like something from a past considerably more distant than thirty years ago or so. The dream of the luxury waterfront property is an extremely powerful one, and such developments have mushroomed across the globe.

But I used the word ‘nightmare’ in the title, and not ‘dream’. And I do this for one very, very simple reason: climate change. Sea levels are rising, while extreme and freak weather events are becoming palpably more frequent. The luxury waterfront development becomes vulnerable to flooding. We have seen a bit of this recently in the Thames Valley. It will become ever more common, I suspect. Despite the efforts that rightly go on flood protection in big cities.

I’m making no predictions, but fashions change. Perhaps the luxury waterfront development will remain a compelling dream to the wealthy, but it now seems at least possible that it might be seen rather more as a curious historical mistake.

I place a great deal of emphasis on the word ‘perhaps’, there.

The Bridge as Expressionist Crime Drama – part two

I promised ‘further consideration’ and so ‘further consideration’ is about to be very much forthcoming. There will be pictures, but you’ll have to wade through a fair bit of text to get to them.

Expressionism is infamously difficult to define as an artistic or cultural movement (there were in reality several quite distinct Expressionist movements in the early Twentieth Century, all of which had relations and links with other modernist artistic movements with different priorities and ideologies) , but when it comes to using the word as a descriptive cultural term, matters are much clearer.

Expressionism, in essence, means the prioritisation of emotion, of feeling and of inner lives, inner worlds and inner turmoils, over ‘objective’ reality and of ‘objective’ realities.* It can thus be seen – and often is,  as a rejection of realism in favour of the subjective, but that’s not quite how I would tend to look at it. Rather, it represents a realisation that all art is subjective; that realism for the sake of realism** is the biggest and most self-defeating cultural lie going. Living as we do in an era in which postmodernism dominates the cultural landscape, it is also important (I suspect) to add that the emotions and feelings depicted and represented must also be sincere ones.

Is all of the above true of The Bridge? I believe so, and I believe that it is one reason*** why it is such absolutely compelling viewing. And, naturally, the really fun thing about using terms like ‘Expressionism’ in a generic and descriptive way, is that it doesn’t entirely matter if it is what those who made the programme actually intended (of this I have no idea).

Anyway, I promised pictures. The purpose of the pictures is to show why I started thinking along these lines in the first place…

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Scenes of massive urban and industrial – actually usually firmly post-industrial – massiveness, in which said massive urban postindustrial massiveness appears to have a strange will – or at least firmly sentient character – of its own, and in which humans are very small and almost even incidental are extremely frequent in The Bridge. These are not mere location shots: they are important as scenes in their own right, and play an important role in establishing the emotional tone of the programme. And in some respects they are strikingly similar to shots of massive urban and industrial massiveness in that great Expressionist film Metropolis:

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The influence seems clear enough, and it was this that got me thinking in more general terms about The Bridge and its relationship to Expressionism. I like to think logically and insightfully, but that may just be self-delusion. And on that note, I think I shall finish.

*’Feeling the feeling’, as Philip Marlow put it in The Singing Detective.

**There’s a reason why ‘Abstract Expressionism’ is/was a specific sub-genre of Expressionist Art: Expressionism does not necessarily denote a total abandonment of realism (even in painting), just that other considerations are placed above it.

***And there are plenty of others. Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin are both unbelievably talented actors, for example.