One evening in late November, as I was walking through the streets of Digbeth with current Grand Union exhibitor Aideen Doran, the artist casually remarked how the area’s architectural profile reminded her of Belfast; specifically, the way in which the hodge-podge of different styles, functions, and levels of upkeep evoked streets damaged by sectarian violence, and then either rebuilt or not, according to various factors. I was struck by this equation, at the level of appearance at least, between the ravages of capitalism and those of armed warfare, though on reflection I don’t really know why I was as surprised as I was. (I’ve since visited Belfast, and the parts I saw reminded me more of the northern mill town in which I grew up than any part of Birmingham I’ve seen, though Doran knows the former city much better than I do.)
Doran’s solo exhibition Im Bau, however, is very much about Beorma’s City. Rummaging through the municipal archives, she came upon a large amount of material relating to the postwar regeneration of Birmingham in the 1960s; her discoveries found their way into the show in the form of posters, photocopied and enlarged newspaper articles and planning documents, books, banners, and so on. Also included is more tangential material related to the connections between Modernist art and architectural Brutalism, and images of work by the big names of the day such as Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller. ‘Im Bau’ means ‘under construction’, an apt title for a show about a city that is, like most cities but each in their own way, perpetually thus.
From her selection of materials for display, Doran seems interested neither in demonstrating how the grand urban designs of the middle of the last century failed to deliver on their promises of a better and more egalitarian city for all, nor in indulging in Modernist nostalgia. Her project also seems to differ from Brian Dillon’s work in identifying so-called ‘ruins of the future’, traces of capitalism’s auto-destruction in the failed architectural utopias of the past. Put differently, she neither chides post-war city planners for their naivety, nor glosses over their complicity, knowing or otherwise, in the colonisation and transformation of cities by global capital to the profit of the few. Rather, the hopes, dreams, and ideas of the era are presented without comment.
This allows a number of questions to emerge, such as: what would it mean to be faithful to the event that was the surge in optimism and social ambition characteristic of post-war urban regeneration? And (more implicitly): how do we respond, critically and practically, to the follies that caused the good intentions of that era to run aground?
Included in the exhibition is a small library of books related to urban planning and architecture. Dipping into Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I was struck by how incisively it critiqued contemporary discourses around urban planning and regeneration, until an off-the-cuff date reference sent me scrambling for the front matter. It was first published in 1961. It seems there’s much we can learn from previous attempts to transform urban environments, and Im Bau brings out some of these lessons in an engaging and non-prescriptive way, as well as presenting some fascinating aspects of the history of Birmingham. It made me wonder how I might participate in the ongoing re-forming and re-shaping of the city in which I live, and what my neighbours might think about the transformations we see ongoing every day. I wonder if our newly-elected and re-elected local councillors have seen it yet?