“I’m a little bit concerned about the amount of time this video lingers on King Kong’s butt”
Perhaps isn’t a sort of line you expect to overhear at a gallery opening. But there again the inauguration of Downtown for the People, Modern Gazetteer’s current exhibition at K4 Architects, Warwick Bar, wasn’t a standard first night.
Fittingly, given that the exhibition’s title is drawn from the work of Jane Jacobs, the key way that people will encounter the exhibition (which runs until 17th February) is by glancing it through K4’s window. I have often wondered what lay behind their large plate glass window as I’ve wandered down Fazeley Street so was thrilled to get a chance to find out. Exactly the kind of human scale, street based, creative interaction that the great Greenwich Village advocate of urban sociability extolled and celebrated.
Inside the space, architect’s practice by day, artistic venue by night, attendees were assailed by a multimedia collage celebrating Birmingham’s urban spaces past and present. The centrepiece of the exhibition is more than a dozen CDA crafted, foam molded, cut-outs of John Madin’s long vanished Birmingham Post and Mail Building. These miniature-newspaper offices were created by the Birmingham City University architecture students that comprise the Modern Gazetteer collective as part of a project exploring the city’s “lost spaces”.
The foam models weren’t alone, they were joined on a livestream projector display by digital renderings of the Alpha Tower. Each of these digital versions had been animated in such a way as to allow attendees to move them about by shuffling pieces of paper to which they were anchored around on the table. In a pleasingly rough and ready manner, akin to the animatronic displays at child friendly museums like Thinktank, it provided an entertainingly and dynamic way of thinking about how urban topography is in constant flux. Whilst also setting up a poignant contrast between the still existent modernism of the Alpha Tower and the vanished modernism of the Post and Mail Building, and more prosaically, providing an engaging centerpiece of the event a whole (being conveniently located just in front of the bar).
In addition to the live feed of the Alpha Tower’s and Post and Building’s in their pasture, Downtown is for People also featured rolling video mash-up of the project’s creation and several other iconic lost Birmingham spaces. It was here that King Kong’s butt (currently on display outside the Henry Moore Gallery in Leeds) entered the frame. Using the same computer rendering techniques that produced the foam and digital models, the students were able to recreate in electronic form not just King Kong, but larger vanished structures, like Madin’s Birmingham Central Library.
Taken together reanimating these models raises exciting questions about the continuous nature of cities and the planning and redevelopment processes that serve to shape them. On the most basic level the modelling and mash-up techniques show that the memory of structures, buildings and events linger on in both the physical fabric and the psyche of the city. Such ghosts have a tendency to emerge from time to time, not to rattle their chains wailing, but rather with the capacity to provoke thought and frequently with the ability to shape future decisions. In providing a highly visual, real time, illustration of how these patterns of thought and memory work Downtown for the People is a small triumph.
Befitting the title Downtown is for People also stirred suitably Jacobian thoughts. Although given that her project rested upon antipathy towards modernistic conceptions of the city, urban design and civic planning, I imagine she’d have had characteristically hard words to say about that.
The exhibition flyer incorporated the following quote from Jacob’s The Exploding Metropolis:
“Urban planning should leave room for the incongruous, the vulgar, or the strange.”
Downtown is for People took up this challenge by showcasing how the ghosts of Birmingham’s past architectural formations remain amongst us and haunt our present. It also, much like Jacob’s plea to save old New York from Robert Moses’ grandiose dreams and wrecking balls, provides a warning against the planner and the developer’s preference for tabula rasa over urban texture.
As shown in Jacob’s formations, such drives for homogeneity whilst realising the potential for short-term profit, invariably leads to long-term loss in terms of damage to the social structure and vitality of a city. Indeed, perhaps Downtown is for People’s strongest suite lay in the way in which-like the urban fabric itself-through the accoutrements of different layers, it managed to capture something of the symphony of urban life itself. The combination of tightly packed space, conversational chatter, video displays, foam models, all accompanied by a trippily discordant soundscape from C100 create an event that captured much of the vibrancy and vitality of urban life itself.
“Downtown is for People” can be viewed through the window of K4 Architects, at Warwick Bar, on Fazeley Street, Digbeth until 17th February