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The holy other of regeneration

How can art and design contribute meaningfully to urban regeneration? Jay Merrick hears impassioned and ambitious debate at the Liverpool Future City Forum conference

Anfield Football Stadium is a seven-minute cab ride north-west of the centre of Liverpool. Fifty metres away from the stands, on Oakfield Road, is the old Mitchell’s bakery – ‘Hot Drinks 3p A Cup In Machine Round Corner’ – which is being resurrected and partly remodelled as an art space. Homebaked is a 2014 Liverpool Biennial project (AJ 29.10.12) designed to inject art and local involvement into the regeneration of a part of the city that is necrotic with urban blight.

There’s a distinct 1970s agitprop vibe to Homebaked, commissioned by Liverpool Biennial’s project producer, Maria Brewster, and conceived by Dutch artist-activist Jeanne van Heeswijk. The initiative has some civic support, but on the whole Liverpool City Council is ambivalent.  

This daunting urban landscape has been damned by three decades of ‘managed’ decline

No wonder. This daunting urban landscape has been damned by three decades of ‘managed’ decline. About 100m west of the bakery, past a wall poster announcing ‘A New Dawn For Lotto’, a street runs west for 50m and stops dead at a high security fence. Beyond it lie several hectares of blasted heath – a wasteland of cleared 19th-century terraces and demolished house fronts. Two hundred metres further west, beyond the rubble, a small Lego estate of new houses resembles a painted stage flat, dropped into a swathe of Anfield and Everton, whose atmosphere conflates both defeat and obduracy.  

An hour earlier at the Future City Forum, sponsored by Qatar UK 2013, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art and Liverpool Biennial, Saskia Sassen had spoken of the erosion of the sense of citizenship and people’s involvement with places. There was, said the Columbia University professor of sociology, too much centrally controlled socio-urban determinacy and not enough publicly driven indeterminacy.

‘Most of us in the middle class consume the social,’ she admitted. ‘We don’t make the social.’ Sassen sees the ‘digital nexus’ as one of the key tools for constructive indeterminacy in the face of places currently demarcated by various kinds of ‘rightful membership’. Her co-panellist Irit Rogoff, professor of visual cultures at Goldsmiths College, spoke of ‘gathering in time and space, an ontological community… being in common, rather than having in common.’

‘I’m not sure I understood any of those presentations this morning,’ says Lindsey Ashworth, development director of The Peel Group. ‘I’m from Oldham and I grew up in a terraced house. What I want to explain is best explained in pictures.’ The lad from Oldham has become a master of the universe in Liverpool. Peel aims to create £10 billion-worth of mixed-use gateway developments on both sides of the mouth of the river Mersey: ‘A world-class, mixed-use, iconic waterfront development of unrivalled quality’.

The visualisations are banal – a developer’s pattern book of shiny medium and high-rise Clonecorp forms

The visualisations of the proposals are banal – a developer’s pattern book of shiny medium and high-rise Clonecorp forms, ‘creating new pretty buildings that don’t have to be expensive… different buildings, and the like’. Some will be the product of architectural competitions in which leading architects will gild the bow-wave of hype, and then act out whipped-cur novation operettas.

But there will be culture – ‘two huge buildings in the schemes for cultural occupants’. Creative bunkers, as seen through the graticule of a developer’s value-addition bombsight. Ashworth says most of the funding for Liverpool Waters is likely to come from Chinese investors. Guangzhou on the Mersey beckons.

‘Regeneration is not just about buildings,’ says Claire McColgan, Liverpool City Council’s assistant director of culture and tourism. ‘It’s about the stories of the people who make up the city.’ Liverpool’s commitment to cultural activities is unique: it spends several quanta more on arts-based initiatives than any other city council in Britain. But McColgan’s department’s strategies must vector mainly towards established – and marketable – cultural offers.

One of those mainstream offers is Tate Liverpool, but its artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, offers an off-piste vision: ‘Museums should deliver emancipation, rather than regeneration that is quantifiable by numbers. How do you convert legal ownership of art into emotional [public] ownership? Museums should be places for the co-production and the making of knowledge, places for people to think, turning the museum into a street, conceptually.’

Or, at city scale, into new forms of utopian urbanism, according to Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at MIT. These novel forms were as much about unmaking as making, he says, and the dismantling of ‘chronicles of urban nostalgia’, not to mention the ‘fantasy architecture’ of the Gulf, or the legendary status of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1958 ‘naïvely referential’ plan for Greater Baghdad. And for architects, there had to be an unmaking of craven passivity – ‘which translates into a political opinion’.

Rabbat’s sophisticated humanism injected an edge into the Future City Forum that recalls Theodor Adorno’s stiletto-thrust: ‘The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than ever. People are not only falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them… Without admitting it, they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.’ [Culture Industry Reconsidered, 1963]

And nothing to do with citizenship – Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, foresees a socio-urban future based on surveillance, which would ultimately make citizens (AKA threat-profiles) generic rather than specific to countries – people as bundles of factoids and imagery assessed by algorithms: ‘My humanity is no longer the defining factor.’

This morphing of human agency into Orwellian science suggests Walter Benjamin’s visions in an eerie way: humanoid commodities, atomised by data, wandering through the endless high-definition ruins of arcades; and, perhaps, in 20 years’ time, through the whirring, faintly humming remains of the Teletubbyish landscape of periscopic gizmos in the 68ha Gateway Park in Taichung, Taiwan, proposed by Philippe Rahm architectes.

The French architect saw no satire in the fact that his techno-microclimates, complete with determined areas of ‘indeterminate’ climates, would produce an environmental theme park in which nature was as falsified and somatic as the environments in Taichung’s subsurface malls. Nevertheless, the session’s kindly moderator, Joseph Grima, suggested that Rahm personified the future of ‘atmospheric design’.

The critical subtlety of Payam Sharifi, of the Slavs and Tartars art collective, brought us looping back to Sassen’s and Nasser Rabbat’s realms of making and unmaking. ‘How to forget,’ mused Sharifi. ‘How to rebuild facts.’ And do so with a fusion of cognitive dissonance, the numinous, non-rational ‘holy other’ proposed in 1917 by the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto, and new relationships with words and meanings.

The Future City Forum could not deliver the holy other, but its breadth of subject matter, its flashes of passion and insight, demonstrated the possibilities of multicultural involvements in urban regeneration processes that, in Liverpool, are implicit in the bold ambitions of the Biennial and its director, Sally Tallant.

  • Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent

Conference

Future City Forum, John Lennon Art & Design Building, 2 Duckinfield Street, Liverpool, L3 5RD
27 September 2013
www.liverpoolbiennial.co.uk


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