Longbridge Light Festival: 2014 & 16

Derek Horton Essay

White Heat, Brown Fields and Manufactured Dreams

Derek Horton

‘The Austin’, as everyone called it then, was a big part of my childhood, so big that you hardly noticed it – it was just there. From the hooter that announced lunchtime and the beginning and end of shifts and could be heard from miles away, to the factory buildings that spread over a site the size of a small town with a very dense population, to the cars that were everywhere; new ones lined in ranks of thousands on the edges of Cofton Park and the West Works towards Rubery then being shipped out on car transporter lorries and endless trains; and old ones, A35s, A40s, Morris Minors, even a few Austin Cambridges, all in varying states of repair, lining the roads of all the surrounding housing estates. When I was at Rednal Hill Infants and Junior School, almost everybody’s dad worked at the Austin. My dad too. Though in Harold Macmillan’s ‘never had it so good’ late-1950’s he left and spent the 60’s as a travelling salesman with a company Ford Cortina! By the time of the early 70’s recession though, that aspirational dream had ended in redundancy, he was driving a rusty old Mini van bought for fifty quid or so, and he was back working at the Austin.

From the mid-1950’s to the early-70’s, my formative years coincided with both the peak and then the rapid decline of production at Longbridge. In the 50’s and 60’s a self-reinforcing economic cycle generated new jobs and higher wages for manual workers to meet the boom in demand for cheap family cars, resulting in turn in those workers having the income to buy cars themselves, further stimulating demand. Longbridge then was the largest car manufacturing plant outside the United States. But the economic stagnation of the early 70’s and the 1973 oil crisis soon put paid to that. Even when an economic recovery began, a decline in design quality that never again reached the heights of Alec Issigonis’s iconic Mini, a reputation for poor workmanship and a history of even poorer labour relations ensured that Longbridge wasn’t really part of it. In 1975, the year I left, British Leyland (as it then was) went bankrupt and was nationalised, and its long but ultimately terminal demise was underway.

Before I was born my mom had worked there too, during the Second World War when the Austin had to adapt rapidly to manufacture an immense variety of contributions to the nation’s war machine, from steel helmets to aircraft and everything in between. Some of this took place in a subterranean factory for aircraft engines built under Groveley Lane to escape air raids in bomb-proof tunnels. Completed by mid-1940 the tunnels accommodated 10,000 workers. That’s just one of many astonishing statistics that reveal the staggering scale of the place that was the backdrop to my childhood.

I remember on the Bristol Road a large chevron-shaped sign showed an aerial picture of the factory, and in large print was the slogan ‘The Largest Self Contained Car Factory in the World’. This was no idle boast, as around 25,000 employees produced about a quarter of a million cars annually. At its height the plant consumed 75,000 tons of coal and 1.7 million gallons of oil, for electricity generation and steam for the miles of heating pipes. Water consumption was 350 million gallons. The factory had its own telephone exchange, a large health centre with dedicated medical staff and a further eight ambulance stations around the plant with their own nurses so that an employee was never more than ten minutes away from medical attention. There was a works police force along with a company fire service and even an internal post office. Sixteen giant canteens and four snack bars were spread around the site, and there was a sales showroom and exhibition hall with a restaurant for visitors. Just as I left my childhood home for the last time in 1975, work was starting on the final expansion of the Longbridge plant, the Metro building, housing automated welding equipment and the first significant use of robotics in the UK car industry. Its architecture was a giant steel-framed shed typical of the time but to reduce its visual impact on nearby housing its height was lowered by excavating the ground by 14 metres, the excavated soil was planted with trees and the sides of the building were painted green, making it the least obtrusive part of a plant that now spread over several square miles. It wasn’t so much a factory as a completely self-contained town with everything except the housing. Almost every adult I knew around the area we lived in worked there, but this was not workers’ housing of the kind conceived by earlier benevolent capitalists like the Cadburys in Bournville or the Lever family in Port Sunlight, who built good quality houses and amenities for their workers surrounding their factories. Although Herbert Austin had built the small ‘Austin Village’ of about 200 prefabricated houses in 1917, the workforce expanded so rapidly that the idea was abandoned. Longbridge and nearby Rednal and Rubery when I was growing up were a mix of post-war council houses and inter-war private housing that had been settled mostly by the Austin’s skilled workers or white-collar staff. As such at that time it was almost exclusively white. The only ‘minority’ child in my school was a Chinese doctor’s daughter, and I can well-remember a Jamaican man buying a house over the road from ours. That would have been about 1963 and it was an extraordinary, and for many unwelcome, event. The much more racially mixed production line workers, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Irish, travelled further to work, from places like Balsall Heath, Handsworth or Sparkbrook, the very places that I left home to move to a few years later when I realised my need to escape the suffocating aspects of the white working-class suburbs.

Without realising it at the time, I’m sure my nascent interest in art and design was influenced by the Longbridge of my childhood. ‘Art’ didn’t really exist for me then but, without really knowing what it meant, ‘design’ did and (although I didn’t know what one sounded like) it had an Italian accent, because I loved the shape and form and colours of the cars that were made on my doorstep, most of all Alec Issigonis’s Mini. Also Giovanni Michelotti’s Triumphs – Herald, Vitesse and Spitfire – from nearby Coventry. Like many kids growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I had a fascination with the USA too, and I loved the idea (fatally flawed as I look back on it now) that Birmingham then was modelling itself on American cities. The first stretch of the M1, Britain’s first motorway, opened in 1959 and by 1962, when I was six years old, a section of the new M5 opened, starting from Lydiate Ash within a mile or two of Longbridge. As motorways slowly encircled the city, culminating in the opening of Spaghetti Junction in 1972, the cityscape was transformed from the early ‘60’s onwards by the Queensway tunnels taking dual carriageways under the centre of the city. The great American cities and freeways were the model and cars were the priority in this new topography of Britain in which Birmingham was at the heart. The social, economic and environmental consequences were probably unimaginable then and certainly not at the forefront of anybody’s mind. For this was the era in which prime minister Harold Wilson celebrated ‘the white heat of technology’, and the idea that this heat might generate a frightening warming of the globe was a nightmare no-one had yet dreamed. For my generation growing up, the dream of the future was filled with gleaming streamlined and tail-finned cars, skyscrapers ringed by modern suburban housing, Concorde flying overhead and space travel only a few years away.

What emerged from this new topography and the infrastructural changes it wrought was a new concept of public space, thoroughly commercialised and increasingly privatised. This in turn brought with it whole new modes of social inclusion and exclusion. The included and the excluded and their latent rules of conduct were determined by late capitalist social conditions around the phenomena of mobility, isolation and alienation. These conditions have become increasingly evident and those phenomena ever more glaringly apparent. ‘Longbridge – A Great Place To Be’, say the signs around the now almost unrecognisable landscape of my childhood. This great place to be is in many ways the archetype of late capitalism’s newly dominant privatised public spaces. ‘The Austin’ is long gone. Only in the names of new roads or faceless pubs and restaurants and, tellingly, a recreation, counselling and training centre for unemployed young people called, without irony of course, ‘The Factory’, do faint traces of its history remain. Here St Modwen, ‘The UK’s Leading Regeneration Specialist’ are in the early stages of establishing what their website describes as ‘an exciting new community at the very heart of Longbridge, providing up to 10,000 sustainable employment opportunities and 2,000 high-quality homes, alongside a number of shops, restaurants and a stunning £2 million public park’. They are, they say in the ubiquitous promotional developer-speak that characterises such projects, ‘delivering the vision’ – a vision in which ‘Longbridge is being transformed from the home of motoring innovation into a vibrant £1 billion new community’. This is a project that will ‘engage and inspire’ they assure us, as their publicity goes on to remind us that, ‘the journey of the iconic Longbridge site is steeped in history. Our vision is to write the next chapter for generations to come.’

Promotion of the regeneration project and the site’s potential through a Light Festival is one part of writing this new chapter. Curated by Poolman Rowe, the first Light Festival was held in October 2014 as part of a larger project organized by WERK, a commissioning agency for site-specific and responsive public art projects, in partnership with Bournville College and St Modwen. When I visited for the Longbridge Light Festival I stayed in the Premier Inn, described on its website as ‘a hotel in the financial district of Longbridge Town Centre’. That’s a sentence I could never have envisaged either reading or writing when I grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of ‘the Austin’! The factory had undoubtedly been the size of a town, but it certainly wasn’t one. It isn’t now either of course. Its first building was the new campus of Bournville College, already referred to locally as ‘the spaceship’ for its appearance in the centre of a vast lunar landscape that is a perfect literal example of what planners call a ‘brown field site’. The ‘town centre’ of Longbridge is a fractured hub of shops, offices and commercial buildings including the hotel, all typical of skin-deep po-mo architecture, radiating access roads to nowhere across a disconsolate wasteland awaiting the development of the ‘2,000 high-quality homes’ it might eventually serve. There is, sadly, something symbolic of the delusion, denial and lost opportunities of market-led regeneration in building a town centre before there is a town for it to be the centre of – a complete reversal of the evolutionary urban development that spawns real towns and cities. And an even deeper irony is that this centre without a town shows no sign of ever having the service infrastructure that the town-sized factory that used to occupy its site once had, the Austin’s health centres and post office for instance. There are already coffee shops though, in a demonstration of what the urban sociologist Sharon Zukin calls ‘pacification by cappuccino’, the process in which even bland and monotonous suburban tract developments revel in a ‘faux urbanism’ that touts the sale of ‘community and boutique lifestyles’ to fulfil manufactured dreams of urbanity.

Although it will soon no doubt become some kind of reality, the ‘town’ of Longbridge remains as yet a fantasy in the ersatz, alien world that is currently its ‘centre’. In curating the inaugural Longbridge Light Festival, Poolman Rowe drew on this sense of fantasy and alienation in their Back to the Future theme, reflecting the difficulty regeneration projects face in looking to the future without erasing the significance of a site’s history for the identity of the local community. The very idea of staging an event in the ‘centre’ of an as yet nonexistent town has resonances with the dystopian fictions of J G Ballard and the site has a sci-fi dimension already in the minds of the local community through the Bournville College ‘spaceship’.

Public art until relatively recent times tended towards the polar opposites of, on one hand, officially sanctioned permanent artworks, usually sculpture with roots in civic statuary, and on the other, temporary interventions in public space such as murals or parades, often rooted in local community activism.  More recently this separation has been made less distinct as politicians seeking economic regeneration and planners attempting to de-sterilise new urban developments have recognized that temporary artworks, festivals and spectacles can be co-opted to their interests. The ‘garden festivals’ initiated by Thatcher’s environment secretary Michael Heseltine in the 1980’s in Liverpool, Stoke and elsewhere were a fairly early example. This model requires public art to be playful, accessible and child-friendly, to provide public spaces with a welcoming air of happy, undemanding creativity and to draw people in with a seductive spectacle. It demands from artists that they provide a kind of dressing-up box, or as WERK describe it in more cultural theory inflected terms, engage in ‘place-making and the disruption or reactivation of our everyday lives, environment and routine through new experiences’.

This is not without attraction or value. Why shouldn’t people want to play with their cities and neighbourhoods, to dress them up and feel some kind of ownership of and connection to them? On the other side of this genuine sense of fun and pride in community there is of course a more manipulative model of city dressing on the part of planners, architects and developers whose main interest in such potentially vibrant activity tends towards self-promotion and marketing. Consequently, when their short-term aims have been achieved, the dressing up box is too often packed up and taken away, leaving people feeling cheated by wasted resources, players in someone else’s game, and with a renewed sense of their alienation in deprived or sterile communities.

But it isn’t always like this, and it needn’t be, and sometimes it’s too easy to be cynical. So although not everyone gets to play, that might not be because it’s done for the few but often just because it’s new – having never done it before it takes time to get the message out or work out how to. Not least because there are unforeseen practicalities, legalities and red tape to negotiate. Whatever happens, some people will love it and some will hate it. For everything that someone finds successful there will probably be others who point to compromise and failure. As the artist and activist Palle Nielsen wrote (about his Model for a Qualitative Society project at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1968, but it remains true today), ‘it is tremendously difficult both to exist in a society of systematised pursuit of effect and image, to be mentally a part of it, and at the same time to change and become creatively socially engaged’. Committed artists though, especially working towards social engagement in particular communities, need to rise to the challenge of that difficulty and even if they can’t always succeed, the attempt can generate worthwhile and engaging experimental work.

This was certainly the case in the Light Festival, where works like Juneau Projects’ Warning Structures, Ruth Claxton’s light-activated take on a traditional lantern parade, Matthew J Watkins and Poolman Rowe’s colour and image projections, BAZ’s Birmiwoco experience, Morton Underwood’s Sonic Graffiti, and others, all demonstrated what can be achieved through imaginative creative engagement with a problematic context. They used visual spectacle, immersive entertainment and interactive experience rather than didactic rhetoric to raise important questions around the politics of regeneration, sustainability, ecology, mobility and energy usage. With its location on the suburban periphery of the city, the Festival also explored the possibilities of inverting the assumption that engaging with art always requires heading for an urban cultural centre. At a much more personal level, for me it was also the trigger for recalling long-forgotten childhood memories, a means of reflecting on the long term impact of those remembered experiences, and an opportunity to engage in unforeseen ways with the massive environmental and cultural changes wrought by the UK’s seismic shift during my lifetime from a fundamentally manufacturing based economy to an overwhelmingly finance and service industry dominated one.