Monday, March 21, 2011

Brum: a Gem

The Birmingham back-to-backs – Court 15, Inge Street to give them their proper name – are one of the more unusual properties of the National Trust. They are among the few survivors of a type of cheap housing once common in the industrial cities of Mercia and Northumbria. Spruced up by the Trust and furnished to show life in the 1840’s, 1870’s, 1930’s and 1970’s, they appear today as a cosy close just a short walk from the Bull Ring. Originally part of a larger court, when they were home to families with 10 children all sharing the rudimentary sanitation they would have been a much less attractive place. Imagination strains to grasp a reality still within living memory but which is fading fast. Conservation cannot simply convey the prettier parts of the past: critics who would have eradicated every last slum must learn to leave something behind to explain what all the fuss was about.

Normally, visiting is by guided tour but yesterday the back-to-backs were having an open day, themed on the Second World War, complete with Vera Lynn on the concealed CD player, bunting, and ration books, to use at the temporary canteen in the courtyard and the sweet shop on the corner. Court 15 was originally part of the city’s Jewish district and is now in the midst of Chinatown, surrounded by modern office blocks, covered car parks and numerous Chinese restaurants. The last tenant before restoration, a bespoke tailor who shut up shop in 2002, came from the Caribbean and his shop is preserved as he knew it.

Uphill lies Birmingham’s forum, the swirling paving of Victoria Square and Chamberlain Square, dominated by the Town Hall and the Council House, and round the side the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The ensemble remains as exuberant an expression of civic pride as any and puts to shame the modern efforts that embrace and attempt pitifully to compete with it. Here can be seen some of the masterpieces of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including those of Birmingham boy Edward Burne-Jones. Today’s brotherhood and sisterhood of daubers, flickers and makers of unmade beds could usefully look and learn. One small painting in the collection shows a fairy-tale image of Sleep, trailing poppies through the sky, symbols of narcotic oblivion. It was painted in 1912, just before the conflict that turned the poppies of Flanders into a symbol of monumental stupidity. It's a fascinating reminder both of the role played by drugs in Victorian and Edwardian society and of how one generation's perceptions mould another's in ways neither expects to find. It was most likely the chaos of a much earlier war that gave rise to the Staffordshire Hoard, many pieces from which were on display. They are surprisingly, even disappointingly, tiny. Many are scraps of gold and garnet no more than an inch long. Most images show them magnified hugely to bring out the intricate detail. Clearly, the painstaking skill of the craftsmen must have been matched by piercingly good eyesight.

The Inscription Stone in the foyer, unveiled by Richard Chamberlain, Mayor, in 1881 describes the building’s purposes as ‘the Free Public Art Gallery and the Offices of the Corporation Gas Department’. Beneath is the motto, By the gains of Industry we promote Art. Taken together, those two lines encapsulate the public enterprise of late Victorian Birmingham. Gas-and-water socialism long pre-dated the Labour Party. It was the work of Liberal administrations dominated by business men, investing for the ratepayers in municipal monopolies that made money, money that was ploughed back into the development of services or used to lower charges to the barest minimum.

By 1890, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine was describing Birmingham as “the best governed city in the world”. By 1990 there was little left to show for all that effort. Last week, Labour’s Lord Adonis told the Lunar Society that Birmingham needs an elected mayor to drive forward the privatisation of the city’s schools, and no doubt other elements of the common wealth too. It was a Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell, who declared in 1964 that “In the end, the Labour Party could cease to represent labour. Stranger historic ironies have happened than that.” Like him or loathe him, the unintended accuracy of Powell’s predictive powers is unfailingly unnerving. Historians can look forward to much fun discovering who sold Labour out. And how much they got for it.

The rooms at BM&AG that tell the city’s story are closed for redevelopment but the story is also told at another attraction – Thinktank, the Birmingham science museum – on the opposite side of the city centre. Thinktank is part of Millennium Point, one of those nationally-funded regeneration schemes to mark the turn of the century, a clone in fact of At-Bristol. The business model is broadly the same – futuristic architecture, planetarium, IMAX cinema, hands-on science for kids – and though Birmingham’s has fared better than Bristol’s both are depressingly formulaic.

The ground floor of Thinktank re-houses the old Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry and if that’s all you’ve come to see it’s not much to justify the admission charge of £12.25 per adult. It’s not much to justify the huge public investment either. Large exhibits are crammed into tiny spaces that no zoo would tolerate, and which school parties must find infuriating. James Watt’s Smethwick Engine of 1779 – the oldest working steam engine in the world – needs to be in a replica engine house beside a canal for its function to be truly understood. Instead it stands in a frame of girders packed in by other devices and displays. The LMS locomotive City of Birmingham gazes forlornly out of its glass box towards the listed Curzon Street station building (below).

This, the ‘other end’ of the Euston Arch, is itself now marooned in a swathe of land awaiting redevelopment around it. Curzon Street is planned to be the terminus of High Speed Two, a £32 billion project propelling the rich to and from London, pointless at a time when re-opening old lines should take priority. On arrival in Birmingham, passengers will have a half-mile walk to the chronically congested New Street station for their onward journeys, but £400 million has already been committed to a cosmetic redevelopment of New Street that will provide no additional capacity for trains. Far-sighted proposals for a 'Birmingham Grand Central' at Curzon Street have been spiked by city councillors, minding the interests of that same class of penny-pinching, myopic shopkeepers who once stood in Joseph Chamberlain's way. For Adonis, Birmingham is a city living in the past. Perhaps it is. But just now that seems a better place to look for inspiration than among the pygmy politicians of the present day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tides of the March

This morning I was at Blaise Castle House Museum in Bristol, a neo-classical mansion set in a splendid park by Humphry Repton, not far from Blaise Hamlet, the famous Regency assortment of mock-rustic cottages. Bristol’s museums are still run by Bristol, in contrast to many places where the assembled evidence of a common identity is no longer seen as anything to do with the expression of a common voice and will.

One room is hung with pictures, mostly landscapes, including several early 19th century views of Bristol by W.J. Müller. They repay close study, identifying the still-familiar landmarks. There’s the cathedral; there’s the Arnolfini; St. Peter’s, St. Mary-le-Port, Temple Church. St. Mary Redcliffe, before the spire was finished off.

My reason for being there was a talk by Toby Jones, the man from Oregon, in charge of conserving the Newport Mediæval Ship. A story he knows well and tells compellingly. Older than the Vasa, older than the Mary Rose, this is Wales’ own triumph of maritime archæology. She remains nameless but dates from the mid-15th century, a time from which shipping records start to survive and so research is continuing. Warwick the Kingmaker, no less, is thought to have owned such a ship and to have sent her to Newport for repairs. The dendrochronology is clear that she was not originally from the Bristol Channel area; there is some evidence she may have been built at Bayonne in Aquitaine.

Pulled up a pill beside the River Usk, she slipped into the mud and stayed there until 2002, eventually seven metres below ground level. Newport City Council has now built a theatre and arts centre on the site. It was in the final stages of rescue archæology during those building works that the ship was discovered. And nearly lost. Worried about rising costs, the Council thought of abandoning her. Protesters held a vigil on site until minds were changed. The ship was to be excavated and recorded but not preserved. At last the Welsh Assembly Government stepped in with the funds to enable her to be lifted and for conservation work to begin.

Here some practical issues intervened. The concrete piles for the building had already been driven, 13 of them through the ship, nailing her to the bedrock. Lifting her whole being impossible, the only option left was to disassemble her, sawing through countless oak pegs swollen for five centuries. Still digging its heels in, the Council refused to excavate the stern as too difficult a job. Building a “cultural” centre that requires the loss of real, irreplaceable culture is the sort of thing one expects of such folk. Spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

Now the task for conservators is to put back together again the 95% of the surviving timbers recovered – all 1,700 of them. Newport, the council who also managed to demolish half their castle for a road junction and now also deny the public access to the rest, seem at last to be waking up to the huge tourism asset they have done their best to destroy. Should she have taken them by surprise? Core samples were taken ahead of piling – the proof is visible on the ship – and cores with huge quantities of oak in them should have alerted somebody. Surely the Taffia could not have had a hand in maintaining the silence? Honourable men, in Newport, all honourable men…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spa Gazy

My mother recalls when Cheltenham was home to retired Indian Army officers and colonial civil servants. Sikh attendants in turbans. Ayahs wheeling perambulators. Connaught Place, New Delhi, dropped into colder climes.

Connaught Place has been spruced up, for the Commonwealth Games last year, after decades of post-imperial decline. Cheltenham remains shabby. No-one seems that bothered to uphold good taste in its environment. It lacks the badge of World Heritage status that keeps Bath finely balanced between commerce and conservation. Commerce has not had everything entirely its own way; much of central Cheltenham was designated a Conservation Area in 1973 but sadly the horse had already bolted. The concrete cage of the Quadrangle sits brooding on one corner of Imperial Square, while across it the 13 storeys of the Eagle Star building loom over the rooftops like the uncouth guest at a wedding. Among the cream-painted, grey-slated villas and terraces festooned with ironwork, modern blocks of flats poke up like weeds in a once-elegant border. The insensitivities of one generation will take centuries to mend.

In places, small-scale mistakes are being undone. One terrace (left) is a mixture of genuine Georgian and recent replica. One of the tallest houses was the home of Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneer of vaccination, stupidly demolished in 1969 and rebuilt 25 years later. The block to its right carries the date ‘2008’. If it has the advocates of brutal minimalism crying into their beer, so much the better.

What is ‘contemporary’ architecture? Any architecture that happens now, whatever its derivation. Never to copy is never to learn. To see the Strozzi Palace for real it is necessary to go to Florence. Cheltenham has its own (left), a copy in smooth industrial brick that dates from 1900 and started life as an electricity sub-station. It could have been so much less charming.

Regency Cheltenham is overlain on an older town with a mediæval, monastic past. Around the parish church, tall narrow buildings (left) hint at ancient burgage plots. A painting in the town’s museum shows it with timber-framed houses and a coaching inn (long before it became the 20th century’s great coaching interchange). Today's conjunction is a curious one: the orderly regularity of the neo-classical dictates the proportions of windows, doors and roof-lines, yet the buildings must conform to plots defined by the winding back lanes of an Anglo-Saxon ham. Such fragments of townscape are tiny in the context of the town but they need to be treasured. Is it too much to ask that where they have been lost a far-sighted council might make plans to put them back – as an education for architects and a delight for the eye?