Proposal for Birmingham, 2016
The story of an artwork
When the earth was young and its surface soft it had a collision, turning much of the earth to dust and vapour. Things slowly coalesced into solid matter, but now there were two celestial bodies, the Earth and the Moon, held in a frantic spinning dance with one another. The Moon clung close to the Earth, looming huge in its sky. Days lasted only a few hours before night came again.
But things could not stay like this.
The Earth cooled, its crust to thicken. A small subcontinent formed at the south-pole and in its middle was Birmingham. No city squares yet, no high speed rail stations, no offices, shops, no growing or declining industry, no homes, tower blocks nor slums. No roads or canals, no grassy spaces, not even any plants. No people in fact, no Irish, eastern Europeans or Chinese, no Norman lords, Saxons, Vikings or Romans, no hunter gatherers or even Neanderthals. In fact no life inhabited the desert landscape, and it was bleak. But Birmingham was on the move, heading northwards.
Change was in motion - it would only take 4 billion years to arrive.
At times on its journey Birmingham sank beneath the waves and there came trilobites and sponges, starfish, molluscs and marine plankton. The creatures died and sank into the mud, pressure and time transforming them into slate.
Birmingham continued to move slowly to the north and fish grew jaws.
The first amphibians emerged from the sea. Forests grew in the warm wet swamps, their fallen trunks forming the coal deposits destined to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Iron and hydrogen sulphide came together within the heat and pressure of the slowly compressing matter. A golden mineral form was in the making, its cubic configurations multiplying outwards exponentially to form a perfect colliding geometry beneath the earth.
Meanwhile the Moon played a cunning trick on the Earth. As they span it slowed the Earth little by little. Days grew longer, whist years lost days. The Earth didn't notice, it was too busy rearranging itself. The Moon backed away from the Earth using the energy it had stolen, just a tiny step at a time, no faster than our fingernails will grow. But ever so slowly it began to get a little smaller in the night sky.
Continental plates moved and collided and mountains were made.
Frogs, toads and salamanders evolved. Dinosaurs dominated. Small shrew-like mammals appeared. Ginkgoes, conifers, and ferns evolved, followed by magnolias, poplars, willows, and sycamores.
The super continent broke apart. The dinosaurs became extinct. Mammals evolved.
Floods washed down enormous quantities of fine silt from surrounding mountains forming a layer of red clay hundreds of metres thick. In Birmingham hoofed mammals evolved into horses, tapirs, and rhinoceroses, and into pigs, peccaries, hippopotamuses, camels, llamas, deer, giraffes, sheep, goats, cattle, musk-oxen, antelopes, sabre-toothed cats and giant ground sloths.
The first hominids appeared.
The Moon continued to play its game of reverse grandmas footsteps with the Earth. Deep in the ground, smothered by the blackness of coal, only the young golden cuboid geometry of the mineral noticed it slipping away, felt its pull.
The days slowed.
The clay cracked and when it rained the water flowed along the cracks creating the valleys of the Cole, Rea and Tame. Glaciers buried the land beneath 3,000 metres of ice. It ground the tops from the Welsh Mountains and pushed huge quantities of broken stone across the red clay plain. On the ice above Birmingham large mammals evolved, adapting to freezing conditions, woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, musk ox, moose and reindeer. When the thaw came floods swept down the river valleys, deepening the riverbeds into gorges. Rubble was left strewn over the landscape.
Britain became separated by sea from the mainland.
Gradually the tundra of Birmingham became covered with aspen and birch, subsequently pine and hazel, then alder and oak, then elm and lime, ash, beech, holly, hornbeam and maple, followed by animals which were in turn followed by Neolithic people.
Stone Age people found sandstone pebbles, laid down over 200 million years before, that they could use as tools. The hunters found hares, deer and wild pigs here as well as nuts and berries. Forest trees were used to build houses and to make carts, ploughs and furniture. The red clay was good for making pots and tiles.
People came to Britain from France, Spain and Germany who knew how to melt copper and tin to make bronze. Deforestation began as people grew more crops, kept more cattle. Celtic tribes from Slovakia arrived and showed how charcoal could be used to smelt iron.
The wind and rain and snow had rounded the valley sides, the slopes were gentle and valleys were filled with silt and trickling streams. The alluvial deposits created marshy but fertile black soil for farmers and the long lush grass was good for grazing cattle and the reeds were good for thatching roofs. The rivers gave water for drinking, for fishing, for travelling and later power for the water mills. It was here, at the crossing of the River Rea, in what would later become Digbeth, that the tiny Anglo-Saxon settlement of Birmingham was founded.
The Romans came and went, and the Vikings passed it by.
A run of bad harvests and torrential rains, followed by the Black Death decimated local populations. Large areas of cultivated land reverted to nature. But then something happened. Birmingham had its first big idea. A market, the Bull Ring, was established and the transformation of the medieval village had begun. Its Norman lord encouraged merchants and traders to live and pay rent in the newly laid out town. The new buildings spread from Digbeth up the hill to the Bull Ring and along the High Street and Edgbaston Street.
Within a hundred years Birmingham grew into a thriving market town that attracted merchants, craftsmen, manufacturers and immigrants. At the market vegetables, corn, sheep, cattle and horses were sold, as well as coal, salt and millstones. Exotic items like aniseed, almonds, liquorice, oranges, pomegranates, pottery, prunes, silk, spices, white paper, white soap and wine also found there way to market. Birmingham merchants sold cloth made from local wool, dyed and woven locally, as well as locally produced leather goods, locally made buttons, pottery, agricultural products, precious metalworking and jewellery.
Tudor Birmingham increased in status as a prosperous market town.
Industrial activity was increasing in Birmingham. Iron was mined in the Black Country and the golden conjoined cubes of iron and hydrogen sulphide, buried deep in the black strata, felt the disturbances above and sensed an easing around it. It too felt its time was coming.
The innovation and enterprise of industrialists and business people made Georgian Birmingham the first manufacturing city in the world. People and raw materials flooded in and produce and merchandise flowed out along upon the newly built canals. The town specialised in skilfully made metal products, branching out into guns, swords and cutlasses to supply the British army.
The place came alive. A visitor in 1740 reported:
I was surprized at the place, but more at the people. They possessed a vivacity I had never beheld. I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake. Their very step along the street showed alacrity. Every man seemed to know what he was about. The town was large, and full of inhabitants, and these inhabitants full of industry.
Existing timber-framed houses were given neo-classical facades or were demolished and rebuilt using brick. The city was remaking itself.
The days continued to slow and through those longer evenings a group of free-thinking gentlemen began to meet; their minds alive to the spirit of the time. The members of the Lunar Society would make use of the light from the Moon once a month to find their ways home, all the time eyeing it, intuiting its significance. Thus began a gathering of intellectual thinkers, industrialists, scientists, poets, entrepreneurs, painters and architects exchanging ideas between science, engineering, industry, philosophy, the arts, botany, evolutionary biology, education, literature and medicine. The Birmingham Enlightenment took experimental science and turned it into practical technology then applied it to the industry of the city.
Ideas took flight.
The boom in industry and commerce grew apace through the Victorian period. The coming of the railways had as great an impact on the town as the canals of the previous century. The first station was built on the edge of the built-up area at Curzon Street. New technology and innovation increased production dramatically. By the end of the 19th century there were 2,000 factory chimneys in the Birmingham area. Birmingham became the City of a Thousand Trades. Larger factories greatly increased the efficiency and speed of production, but turned many workers lives into a monotonous drudgery.
As central Birmingham became increasingly industrialised, living conditions for people deteriorated. The extremely wealthy began to move out of the smoky town and the large Georgian town houses were replaced by smaller middle-class homes, later to be replaced again by housing for artisans and the working classes. Squalid slums stretched from the present site of New Street Station to Snow Hill and down into Digbeth.
Birmingham grew, layer upon layer.
Later slum clearance began, along with the provision of public services such education, libraries, trams, open spaces, gas lights, piped water and a sewerage system to those who could afford to pay. New public buildings and a great number of churches were erected. Houses were built of local red brick from the Triassic clay pits and brickyards in the eastern districts. Most houses were roofed with Welsh slate brought by canal.
Technological advances made brass quicker and cheaper to make, stamping machines allowed mass production techniques to be used in jewellery manufacture, almost all buttons sold in Britain were from Birmingham. Birmingham Small Arms Company opened a large mechanised steam-powered gun factory, one million feet of glass was supplied by one Birmingham glass makers to cover the Crystal Palace, electroplating was invented in Birmingham and silver-plate manufacture was revolutionised. With the introduction of steam power Birmingham became the world's pen-making centre, bedsteads in iron and brass were produced in over thirty Birmingham factories, 3,000 people in five factories produced railway rolling stock, railway lines and signalling equipment. Wire in brass, copper, iron and steel in every thickness and size was produced to be made into bird cages, umbrellas, chains, screws, nails, pins and nuts, ships rigging, colliery ropes, needles, fish-hooks and telegraph wire.
Birmingham products found their way to every country in the world.
During the 20th century, the population of greater Birmingham increased whilst industry began to move outwards. By the outbreak of World War 1 most of the city centre had been rebuilt with business and commerce replacing poor housing. By World War 2 the piecemeal replacement of poor housing was replaced by the concept of total clearance and rebuilding. During World War 2, as a major industrial centre, Birmingham was heavily bombed by the German air force, with 13,000 buildings destroyed.
The layers of Birmingham continued to accrue.
Of necessity a large part of Birmingham had to be rebuilt again, now to include the Inner Ring Road. The new white concrete modernist blocks, the flyovers and underpasses represented an exciting future. After the war the so-called 'Blitz & Blight' Act permitted councils to make compulsory purchases of land and enabled redevelopment not only of bomb-damaged districts, but also slums. In 1947 the whole city was made subject to the council's planning powers.
Similar in concept to the Inner Ring Road, the Middleway would circle the city centre with a radius of about a mile and link five new redevelopment districts. Districts were rebuilt with local shopping centres with all necessary amenities and services, and were separated from industry and each other by green open spaces with play areas. However the estates were designed to house only half the former population.
Birmingham’s industrial and manufacturing sector was put under deliberate restrictive conditions from the 1960’s under a central government policy that saw Birmingham’s booming success through the 1950’s as unfair to other urban centers. Industries were closed, and new industries were blocked from opening in the city. People were deliberately displaced from old housing stock in a concerted effort to reduce the city’s population by 200,000.
During the 1960s and 1970s office blocks in the form of large plain cuboids, purely functional in form, appeared throughout the city centre. A new library, at its centre the open form of an inverted ziggurat, was built to replace its Victorian predecessor demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road.
By the 1970s and 1980s central government’s aggressively restrictive measures had sent Birmingham, and its manufacturing sector, into a spiraling decline.
The City Council set out to re-brand the city by encouraging the development of the service sector. Some of the developments from the late 1960s and1970s were refurbished or rebuilt. Some innovative estates and housing designs proved unworkable in practice and tower blocks were unpopular, being replaced by traditional low-rise housing, some of it private.
By the 1990s the Inner Ring Road was seen as a 'concrete collar' hindering any expansion of the City Centre. The raised section at Masshouse Circus was demolished altogether allowing expansion into a run-down district of post-industrial Birmingham renamed as Eastside and designated as the new Leisure and Learning Zone. The ground was cleared for a park and new city square. For the first time in a thousand years the light of the Moon reached this patch of exposed earth at the heart of Birmingham.
The moonlight fell soft and gentle now through the long nights, and as it did so the Moon slowly read down through the layers of the city. It read past the noise and the bombs, the slums and the factories, down past the fast hands and quick minds, the rattle of the first trains, the red brick, grey slate, black coal, the moments of awakening, the coming and passing of a plague, the timber and the thatch, down through a thousand years of a market, the iron ware, the buttons, the pots, the precious clasps and rings, it sensed layers of coldness of ice and of water, of the grinding and pounding of rock, it felt the heat of a red desert then the warmth of a black bog. It felt a deep kinship with this place, always on the move, always forwards, and saw that it carried within it all it ever was.
The Moon looked around for a memento of this place to take with it when it would finally duck out of its dance with the Earth and its eye was caught by the glistening perfect cuboid geometry of the small golden mineral, hidden down amongst the deepest layers of Birmingham’s memory. The Moon tickled the iron and hydrogen sulphide molecules into excitement and this small golden form felt the Moon’s attraction and began to move upwards. With each layer of history it passed through it took something with it, incorporating it within its form, growing outwards, layer upon layer. As it moved upwards it realigned its internal geometries, reshaping to echo the geological strata it passed through. As history stretched both beneath and above it the growing mineral form understood what those men of the Lunar Society had grasped; the romantic brilliance of the pure potentiality of the world expressed through a singular city. It pushed on higher through layer and layer of architecture, constantly shifting and growing to mirror the changing forms. As it neared the surface it comprehended the will and inventiveness of the city’s generations of thinkers and makers and incorporated that within the complexity of its form and detail of its intricate gleaming facets. It grew again, breaking through the surface, realigning one final time the many layers of the city, finding a more perfect geometry, a new blueprint for Birmingham.
And so in the moonlight it comes to rest, sat on the earth at the heart of the city. Its new form ready to one day lift from the ground and follow the Moon. A sculpture that holds within it the pure potentiality of the entire city.
Meanwhile around it the city remakes itself again, many times over. City squares are built, buildings go up, new stations appear to receive fast new trains bringing with them new people, new ideas.
As for the future: Birmingham continues to move north-eastwards carried on the Eurasian plate, pushed along by Africa, heading, in perhaps 250 million years, for Siberia. By then the days will be long and the Moon will look small in the night sky. Whether the sculpture will still be there or will have caught the wind and departed to follow the Moon, who’s to say.
Everything we take for granted, indeed all that is around us, including place and time, is in flux. The only constant is change.
Acknowledgement: Some of the ideas and excepts within this text have been inspired by or taken from A History of Birmingham Places & Placenames . . . from A to Y by William Dargue, and are kindly reproduced here under the Creative Commons Licence.