March 07, 2005

A Town That Shall Remain Nameless

A satellite of the City and a northern Metropolitan borough, the town has been a regeneration priority attracting government development funds for more than a decade. Early on when local government had little idea of how to regenerate the funds were spent on clearance and highway improvements; so the first phase was manifest with amble parking and empty plots. Later the landscape architects got their drawing boards on it so that new spaces were created with the human interest of walking through a diagram. I remember a great visiting sculptor commenting that the town landscape architect designed in two dimensions rather than three. As the years of urban banality carpeted the town, a separate thread was pursued through the arts; major and minor public art works were commissioned around the town. There came a point where the town was a neatly laid out as it was going to be and the real question of what the town was for as its manufacturing base declined became increasingly obvious. In the context of globalised culture, there is no reason (except lack of imagination) why any town can’t generate its own 21st Century identity and purpose. This town had already works by some significant international artists and had a working relationship with one of the leading figures of international architecture. There had been the opportunity to commission a radically new type of cultural facility and with it work had been done to create a new concept of social cultural provision, but the inertia of bureaucracy and lack of imagination allowed the chance to slip through the town’s fingers. So only the new school was left as a possibility. It would probably be the only public building erected in the town within the foreseeable future and it would influence the social development and educational achievement of generations of the town’s children. As private developers became increasingly attracted to the town, a high quality 21st Century school, architecturally ambitious, would be a landmark symbol of the level of town’s aspiration. There had been a proud history and there could be a new future; local councillors appreciated the argument without necessarily knowing how to think about their town as more significant than in their experience of it declining. Despite the Education Department’s promises of pursuing models of best practice, there was an obvious and ominous silence about the process by which an architect would be engaged with the project. Then at a meeting of Officers last week, a ‘design team’ was mentioned - in passing quickly on to the subject of the importance of laying out the new playing fields. A Design Team? Who are they? They are … we were given names of individuals. What was the company? Something and something Partners. They had built a sixth form college somewhere nearby. It was noted that this hardly excited the prospect of the project being delivered to the previous commitment for a landmark building. The Education Department’s defence was that these architects had been recommended by the Direct Works Department! Hilariously at this point said Department declared that the criticism of these architects was unfair - they were “reputable”. Reputable. Not exciting, innovative, ground-breaking, contemporary, or award-winning even. The new school’s architects are reputable; interchangeable with the other words you can use for the town’s municipal efforts – neat and banal and off-the-shelf.

I will never live in this town which will remain nameless (in every sense) and will never have children go to its school. If I did the quality of my life would be diminished – the more so since but for laziness, inertia and limited imagination it could have been so much better.

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