Friday, April 2, 2010

Urban Vision Trip to Glasgow

This Tuesday and Wednesday I was lucky enough to be selected for the Urban Vision Learning Journey visit to Glasgow. The theme of this trip was 'Creative Communities.'
We met at 8am at the Kings Hall in Stoke-on-Trent.There were 14 people on the trip - a selection of artists, cultural and urban developers, architects planners. The journey was around 5 hours long. Our first stop on arrival in Glasgow was at the Hidden Gardens - somewhere I have wanted to visit for a long time.
Plants for sale in the Hidden Garden - an honesty box where you pay - something I have never seen in a city before.
I first heard about the project back in 2008 - when attending a conference in Accrington on 'Creative Regeneration'. Clare Hunter and Rolf Roscher from NVA were speaking about the process which saw the development of the Hidden Gardens. The space at the back of the Tramway arts centre was a post-industrial waste ground, surrounded by fragmenting communities on both sides. James Yamada - Our Starry Night, sculpture in the Hidden Garden (taken from Tramway)
They described the context - on one side a residential area that had traditionally been for newcomers - recent immigrants - while the other side had been a very working class area, but both sides were a little down on their luck, and the recent influx of 'young middle class workers' to both areas was causing an even greater feeling of disintegration. NVA engaged in a major consultation project to find out what the communities living on both sides would like to do with the space.
"Our design process for the Hidden Gardens started with three questions:
What is paradise?
What is missing from this place?
What is specific to this place?

These questions opened our dialogue with the community and our attempt to create a space that would have a contemporary resonance." Click here for full design history.
Spring Daffs and the tree planting with the original Tramway building remember the various layers of history of the site, both Industrial (tram buildings) and pre-industrial (tree and plant nursery).
The Garden's were developed with and by the communities that would be using them. Lots of different activities and events happen within the gardens all year around, and now NVA have moved out of the management of the Gardens completely, and have handed over to the community (though they are still part of the steering group.) The hidden garden looks to me like a fantastic example of good practice in sustainable urban development. We arrived in sleety rain and bone jangling cold - which made the visit difficult to record (photographically) and I am sure I would have loved to see it in sunshine, but still it was great to explore the various 'rooms' of the garden and hidden secrets. We enjoyed the xylotheque (library of native woodlands) and other art works to discover within the garden - some permanent and some temporary.The weather pushed us all inside, which was great, as we got a chance to have a look at the Tramway while we were there. The original transport building has been left to speak for itself - creating a fantastically functional, working feeling. The mixed use of the space points to its success. The Scottish Ballet rehearse here, there is a visual arts studio where arts classes are held, there is exhibition and community space, and a cafe (with great cake.) The examples of successful functioning creative spaces that we have seen over the trips with Urban Vision and the trips I have done independently all point to the success of creative spaces being in this multi-functional approach.Arriving at the School of Art.
We piled back on the bus and drove across town to The Glasgow School of Art, to see a true Glaswegian classic - the Rennie Mackintosh building. We were taken on a tour of the building with a third year architecture student, we were not permitted to take photos inside the building, but it was an interesting visit. I enjoyed the attention to detail evidenced in the design - but can imagine that Mackintosh must have been a really difficult man to work for - really pushing for perfection, the longevity and sustaining appeal of his design is testament to that.
The last stop of the day was to see a very special gift - given to Glasgow by Stoke back in 1888. The gift was from Sir Henry Doulton, and was first unveiled at the Empire Exhibition held at Kelvingrove Park. The fountain was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria's empire and shows figurative groups representing Australia, South Africa, Canada and India.This is the largest terracotta fountain in the world - and is now unique. There used to be two like this - in fact there was one in Stoke (in Shelton/Cauldon Park) which is rumoured to have been destroyed at some point by Stoke council. Whatever happened to it, it looks like yet another missed opportunity for Stoke-on-Trent, and got us all talking again about Stoke's missing Antony Gormley sculpture.The interesting thing for me was to think about all the Potters that may have worked on this major project. They would have just worked on pieces, and would probably never have seen the full sculpture assembled in all its glory. We had a very good tour guide, who walked us around each side of the fountain, pointing to the various characters, but the rain and sleet made photography difficult, and hands numb. Still, it was fantastic to see this link between our cities.
The evening was an important time for us all to talk about the day, have a few beers, win a quiz and sing some karaoke, before a well earned sleep.
Next morning we were all up bright and early to meet Gerry Henaughen, Masterplanner for the award winning Queen Elizabeth Square Project, at Crown Street in the Gorbals. First stop was the Homes For The Future developments. Urban Vision's Executive Director, Mick Downs took us on a tour of the scheme, which is East of Glasgow city centre, and across the road from the park we visited the day before. Phase One of the scheme was complete in 1999, previously the site had been a derelict industrial area. The interesting thing about the site is the way that a number of different styles, materials and techniques have been employed in various ways in the buildings. The Glasgow architecture website describes the scheme as
'a veritable pot-pourri of great contemporary architects. Like Stuttgart's Weissenhofseidlung back in the 30's, you have to ask yourself 'is this a model for the future, or a zoo for preening architects?'
There was something odd about the development, and parts of it are weathering worse than others. In particular Mick pointed out the Ushida Findlay building above, which has really been built the wrong way around. Its cascading balconies face north, so instead of overlooking the park, the plants will not flourish and owners of the flats will not feel like lazing about in the sunshine there (as there will not be any.) We discussed that it might be interesting for various different architects to work on one scheme, and how this can create a really interesting space, that goes against the usual homogenised housing in many modern schemes, but that there is also a lot to be said for such a scheme to have an over-arching design code - which provides a level of uniformity. The code may cover materials, sizes, heights and colours among other things - and I really feel that there is a lack of this here - it feels like a hotch-potch of ideas that do not sit in harmony together, but rub up against each other in an uncomfortable way.
Next we headed over to the Gorbals. I was very interested in this part of the trip. I have the really fantastic book Arcade - Artists and Placemaking, which details part of the implementation of the per cent for art scheme in the Gorbals, but is interesting for any practitioners or developers working within the public realm, and concerned with art.
Gerry started by sketching out the history of the Gorbals, talking about the overpopulated tenements of the 30's - leading to a sink estate until the 60's development. The masterplan of the 60's ignored the grid pattern, which encouraged the 'life of the street'.
The tenements and the grids themselves were the lifeblood of the area, and the Basil Spence tower blocks of the 60's and new street patterns ignored this, with disastrous effect. It was not simply the fact that the concrete structures were damp and cold - but also that there was no considerable outdoor street space for people to meet in. There is an interesting discussion of the flats (for and against) on the joy of concrete site - where people who actually lived in the flats discuss what life was like.
The development of the area aimed to bring back the tenemental feel, and also to bring back owner occupiers. The developments were major, but each one set out that 1% of the money available should be spent on intregrated art works, and the cost should be met by the commercial developers.
In the early stages the art works seem to be after thoughts, bolted onto the outside of the buildings, to varying degrees of success. I quite like the fir cones in one particular Close, each one with a different cone, but really this is not art, but decoration, which is no bad thing.
But due to the hit and miss nature of some of the approaches it was decided that a separate Masterplan for art works was needed. Dan Dubowitz and Matt Baker (known as Heisenberg) were employed to look after the implementation of this. The very interesting part of this is that for the first time, a per cent for art scheme was truly artist led. I think that this seems to have been the turning point for the art works for the Gorbals. The works since then may have included sculptural forms added to buildings, but were not confined to them, there have also been sound pieces, clockwork birds, large scale photographic works, and most excitingly (I think) an orchard. The important difference here is that the works now seem to be site specific, rather than irrelevant after thoughts.
One of the most popular pieces was the Gorbals boys playing in the street in high heeled shoes, the relevance is that they were based on a found photograph of boys playing on the Gorbals street. The other piece which has recieved a lot of press marks the entrance way top the Gorbals, and the developments which Gerry actually designed. The two pieces there are by Baker and Dubowitz. The hanging woman,made of bronze, and said to be the only suspended sculpture in Britain, has made headlines due to claims that her palms have been leaking blood like stigmata. This has earned her the local title of The Angel.
She hangs above Dubowitz's photographic piece. Together they are known as the Gatekeeper. I was pleased about the inclusion of photographic works within the scheme, but the clunky frame actually works against the poetry of the angel above, and actually seems to bar entry to the Gorbals, rather than welcoming you in.
I was very interested to hear that maintenance and upkeep of the art works within the scheme have been considered. Gerry told us that the 1% is not just about the physical art works, but is money paid into a 'Sinking Fund' which looks after the art works, replacing and repairing them, and also ensuring new art works appear - this money is topped up by the Glasgow development agency. Gerry also described a 'factoring process' which he said is a Scottish word, - a fund which owners pay into which keeps the arts programee going. I am pleased to hear that the arts programme is ongoing, and is adding to the identity of the place in a long term, committed way. I enjoyed looking at the scheme, and thought there were some parts which I loved, and others which I was not so keen on, I really feel that the Gorbals was a good example to explore, I only wish there had been time to stop and ask people living there what they make of it, and what difference, if any, it makes to their every day lives.
Finally, we had a last stop at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, to soak up some high art, look at some stuffed animals and have a spot of lunch before climbing back on the coach to Stoke. It was a very informative few days away, highlights for me being The trip to The Hidden Gardens, and the Trip to The Gorbals - certainly looking at two approaches to creative communities; one community focused and participatory, and the other artist led.
This was the last in the series of learning journeys, and now we should be working towards putting all that we have picked up along the way into some coherent plan or at least make sense of it in some way. We all feel that the way to do this is not to attempt to graft onto Stoke those things which were successful elsewhere, but instead perhaps to use the learning to inform the directions that we take - that the processes which worked might tell us something about what to do, and what to avoid. We hope to implement the final learning journey in the series in our own city - to look at what is working here in Stoke, and what is not.

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