I am really pleased to host Josh Knowles’ post this month including the lovely artwork he created during a recent creative histories session (details below).
I think the arts define the history of housing and buildings. The art (and therefore) cultural ideas of a place are the lens through which we build and define the times they are born into.
In the same way science fiction says more about the present of the culture in which it’s written so too architecture captures and holds a moment in time, looking to the next. If art is about ideas then it is not simply hung on the walls but also defines the walls themselves.
Whether it’s the functions of imposing scales for emphasising and amplifying religious power in gothic architecture, the kleptomaniac and romantic impulses towards arcadian and heroic myth and empire building reflected in Neo-Classicism, or the clean lines of industrial progress, utility and equality upheld by the movement of Modernism. The walls around us bear the art and ideas of their day in their render.
The way to honour the history of an area or building is to recognise the ideas and hopes of the times in which it was designed. That’s where the arts of a place acts as a psycho-geographical mapping and signposting system; wayfinding through the collective imagery and imagination marking the space through which we travel.
Sometimes that means examining darker chapters of shared history but it is surely healthier these things should be acknowledged, discussed and dealt with publicly, openly and democratically.
Colston Hall (now renamed The Beacon) in Bristol is a good example of that. The name and statue of Colston that was put up in the city as art to celebrate his philanthropy (and vanity?). The act of pulling it down in protest was also a creative act, as were the responses in the aftermath of the process. It was right to change the name and the function of the concert hall named after him but important to keep the timeline intact and tell the history. Art and architecture does this better for culture than anything else.
This intersectionality of time, space, building and decay is shared with the idea that art and architecture are defined by in part by the continual flux state of creation and destruction in reflection of the universe itself. Preservation is good but inertia and a lack of responsiveness is bad. The only constant is change.
My neighbourhood of Hackney in London is run down in places – artists famously (and arguably) brought it back to life precisely because it was neglected and (in places) a ruin. There was space to build and grow in the rubble and ashes of its previous incarnations.
Artists need cheap affordable spaces to work and live.
Forgotten and neglected spaces are an asset and inspiration for the artist.
The artists presence and endeavours bring life and love back to a building or neighbourhood. Access, affordability and art made our neighbourhood thrive.
Then it became a catwalk of artisanal creativity and high concept design.
Now it has been upsold and ringfenced by profiteers and every spare corner redeveloped, whilst older more (sometimes makeshift or low profile) business and cultural models such as car mechanics or nightclubs have been shooed or spirited away. People who made a life and impact on the area before gentrification have gone and so has the balance in the conversation between buildings, areas and users. The optic was 80/20 now it’s 20/80. The original 80% are mostly still around but locked out of the conversation (and the benefits) of the new development.
It’s up to artists to be the medium that keeps that conversation alive in space. Sometimes destroying a place (like Gordon Matta-Clark’s artworks in 1970’s New York), sometimes preserving (refreshing buried architectural details such as old shop signs and civic oddities), sometimes confusing or angering through interventions (e.g. Rachel Whiteread’s house sculpture in Mile End) and sometimes protesting and celebrating through murals, archives or re-imagined spaces such as community gardens on brownfield sites.
It’s the artists job to make visible platforms for non-visible voices and show the ideas of an areas residents, just as it’s architects job to dream them.
Keeping an areas character and historical context makes it meaningful and richer in heritage. It is a joy to recognise the value in something forgotten, neglected or overlooked and rebuild or reinvent around it with care and sensitivity to the history and the people who live and work there.
It’s always been the way with any estate; a conversation between the user, designer, the geography, the money; and the artist is between all of that.
The creative power of the pen; It can sign a cheque, write a proclamation or testimony, draw a dream, or design a space. Much like a building or a piece of land a pen is a tool or medium- it’s up to the users to decide how to use it. The best outcome we can look for is to share the tools we have at our disposal and give everyone the chance to add their piece to the puzzle which becomes the instructions for an area/a building/a community/a life.
The thing we must be wary of is buildings with a lack of art or ideas, except profit generation for the producers. They don’t ask anything of the locals or the locality.
They don’t offer scope for potential growth and imagination but nullify them, leaving the place and the people poorer for it.
When new builds make boring and generic spaces the character they lack is because they have no historical and cultural specificity, which equates as the power and function of the arts.
If we want to make new buildings with a real sense of place and contribute to future histories, we must support the voice of local people through art to help guide design ideas, and let art amplify the message. Art tells us what we need, who we are and where we are right now.
Josh Knowles 2023
With thanks to Liverpool John Moores University for permission to use the image created for this event by Josh Knowles: Creative History in the Classroom Workshops, September 2022-January 2023. (Online) – Lucinda Matthews-Jones (lucindamatthewsjones.com).