In making records of Hockley Flyover, a site of ‘grade separation’ where one highway is carried over another, we attempt to evaluate the past, present and future built form to ask ‘what is the impact of urban regeneration on our sense of collective citizenship and personal memory?’
When I first arrived at the pedestrian circus that sits underneath the A41 I found it difficult to see past the discarded objects, piled up rubbish and broken paving stones. If Grade Separation had once been heralded as the dawning of a modern era where the motor car was relegated to serve a leisure rich urban populace then Hockley Circus could be viewed as a failed project or more kindly as an incomplete project, one with unfulfilled beginnings.
It is clear from the inclusion of artwork commissioned by the Public Works Department that the intention at Hockley was to create a place for people. William Mitchell Design Consultants were employed to create ‘abstract panels…intended to “contrast with the rigidness and precision environment created by the viaduct and subways” (Nozlopy: Public Sculpture of Birmingham 1998.) A newspaper article from the Birmingham Post dated 22.03.1968 explains that:
‘included in the concourse are three glass kiosks – two will be let as small shops and the third – the largest of them, is to be a cafe…To add a touch of softness to the scene, children from nearby Hockley junior and infants schools planted twelve rowan trees in the concourse. There is also a suggestion that later a model of a woman may be placed in the area.’
Hockley Circus was opened in April 1968 as a part of the development to improve the traffic route from Birmingham to Wolverhampton but clearly there were aspirations for its spatial qualities as well.
UK road builders took inspiration from West Germany
Perhaps the failure of aspiration arises from the profound way in which grade separation changed the fundamental way in which the city had always functioned.
Fundamental has its roots in the Latin word fundamentum, which means “foundation.” So if something is fundamental, it is a key point or underlying issue — the foundation, if you will — that the thing is built upon.
Perhaps the definition of the word ‘abstract’ is useful to consider here. Did the insertion of a rigid, precise and abstract set of objects literally pull the city apart, disrupting its continuum, its subtly shifting landscape.
1400, “a withdrawal from worldly affairs, asceticism,” from Old French abstraction (14c.), from Late Latin abstractionem (nominative abstractio), noun of action from past participle stem of Latin abstrahere “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert;” also figuratively, from assimilated form of ab “off, away from”
This space is nearly a space. It is not without merit.
On the 03 October 2017 I recorded some informal interviews with people who were in the space or moving through it. I was surprised to discover that one young couple meet there every day to talk. Something about the scale and openess of the space draws them there. Two young ladies, Leila and Hibak, were not particularly interested in the Mitchell artworks though they did like the graffiti which they referred to simply as paintings.
Leila: I notice the paintings because they are bright and they stand out.
Hibak: I think it’s creative.
But many of the people either liked the Mitchell artworks or went further to suggest that they made the space special.
Stitched together photos of one of three sections of Mitchell’s artwork.
Jenny: If someone were listening and they wanted to know what this space looked like, how would you describe it? What are you looking at?
Keith: I’m looking at art to be fair. Looking at art, urban art.
Jenny: Are you talking about ‘that’?
Keith: The whole of it. All of it, all of it to be fair, but I think that this makes it a bit extra, what’s been done.
Jenny: I’ll just pop this on here. Tell me something about either this or what it’s like to live here in Birmingham.
Keith’s friend: I’ve moved from Stafford to Birmingham. Erm. This square here, I do like to be honest with ya. It’s not what I’m used to seeing.
Jenny: What are you used to seeing?
Keith’s friend: Magnolia.
Jenny: Yeah right.
Keith’s friend: Yeah. We’ve not much graffiti in Stafford. Erm, and..
Jenny: How does this graffiti make you feel? Do you like it?
Keith’s friend: Some of it is tatty but you can see where the professionals have done it or the good taggers have done it….Yeah I do like decent graffiti but I’m not too keen on the tagging over there. ‘Nathan 2017’. That’s pointless.
Jenny: It’s not a gift is it? It’s just taking away. What do you think about all the concrete work?
Keith’s friend: Erm…Is it abstract? Is that what you call it?
Jenny: A guy called William Mitchell makes random shapes and sticks them in clay and then pours concrete in. Yeah I think you’d call it abstract.
Keith’s friend: It is isn’t it?
Jenny: Pretty abstract. I don’t know what it is!
Keith’s friend: I sound posh when I say abstract.
Jenny: Anyone can use the word abstract.
Keith’s friend: Abstract. It’s different from what I’m used to, it’s not an eyesore. Not at all.
Jenny: Would you let your kids climb on it?
Keith’s friend: No, no…they’d come back ‘like that’.
Jenny: Do you ever see any kids down here?
Keith’s friend: Not really, no but I don’t come down here that often. But if there were some benches and some swings and I don’t know, what do you call it, monkey bars, I’d bring the kids down here.
Jenny: Do you know what, if someone came down and cleaned up the rubbish that would be a start.
Keith’s friend: Before that festival, that you were on about, they cleaned up before and they cleaned up afterwards and it was spotless but it only lasted about two weeks.
Jenny: Things need cleaning…Well thank-you. I agree with you, I think if you had a bit more stuff here… more people would use it.
Keith’s friend: Even a little ice cream, a little shed where they sell ice cream, something like that, in the summer, it would be nice.
Jenny: Thanks very much guys
The residents of Hockley Circus aren’t quite conscious that it is ‘something’. And yet there are ‘Flyover Show’ festivals, barbeques and acapella groups that perform under its arches. Periodically architecture students arrive to squirrel around its edges documenting concrete and recording the sound of wind in its tunnels.
Hockley flyover show
Perhaps the way in which a space like Hockley Circus is evaluated is to bring to the surface the memory of its faded glass kiosks and its statue of a woman that was never realised. To sing into existence its presence as both a harbinger of the new and as a relic of the past. It is also a stark reminder that all future [architectural] projects have the stench of their own demise written into the fabric of their aspiration. That things may need to be incomplete, forgotten and re-found before they can become fully formed.
The people who use Hockley Circus don’t remember what was there before. The people who use it now are themselves products of an urban landscape. Hockley Circus is their space and could and should be so much more for them. ‘Just add a little care’…Could that be a recipe for collective citizenship?
Leila: It is a really big space, so they should use it.
Jenny: I think if they cleaned it that would be a good start
Leila & Hibak: Yeah it would
Hibak: I think if they made it more safer like, you see that man coming through, I wouldn’t be able to see him if he wasn’t wearing that thingy. If I was walking through with kids I wouldn’t feel safe. I think if they made it safer I think people would actually come here more often.
Jenny: You are right, he’s coming through there and if it wasn’t for his reflective strips you wouldn’t see him.
Jenny: Alright ladies, well I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thank-you so much. Just to let you know, we are trying to make an exhibition for Digbeth’s First Friday. It will be a little piece of art with some sound and some sculptures. If you want to find out about it…then… we will put a poster up in here if there is an exhibition, that’s what we’ll do, because that’s easy right! Nice to see you, bye bye!
Collage exploration of an icononographic image for Hockley Circus
By Jenny Hall