Stephen Hodge’s Where to Build the Walls that Protect Us is an extended project that works towards a playful-constructive re-imagination of Exeter, our small city in South West England.
This is how Hodge explains the structure of the project:
“Over the winter and early spring, we’re going to construct a scale prototype of a future Exeter. And, as the main focus of the project, this interactive model will be publicly unveiled and animated through a series of performances and events in April 2014. But, before we turn to building anything, we’re going to take a closer look at today’s Exeter. You are invited to join one of four reconnaissance excursions this autumn. They’ll weave through the city, playfully exploring the key themes of terrain and climate, buildings and the life between them, industry and commerce, and mobility and communications. You’ll have an opportunity to encounter experts (climatologists, planners, financiers and residents), to gather material, and to contribute your own ideas to the on-going planning enquiry.”
Where to Build began its journey(s) this Autumn with a series of excursions through Exeter, on themes of ‘climate and terrain’, ‘buildings and the life between them’, ‘industry and commerce’ and ‘mobility and communications’ (this last one taking place tomorrow).
As an activity, these excursions slip into the gap between artwork and planning practice, mediating between the unlimited imaginary and the unthought possibility, in an engagement with the city as it currently is.
I attended the second of these, concerned with building. This account is my impression, not representative of the project or the experiences of others.
The excursion was not a dérive as such, though I know the project has its foundations in many years of walking this city according to the principles of dérive, or some approximation to them. It followed a specified route, with several pre-arranged encounters and activities along the way. At the same time, this was not a performance and a real sense of investigation characterised our engagement with it. We were all given notebooks which were later gathered in, and I had no sense of any division between participatory moments and spectating – the stop-start performance, the stop-start participation that can often be characteristic of the art-walk, or relational event.
The early part of our journey took me home, to encounter my delightful neighbour Maeve Creber, telling the story of Karl Hawkins. I have heard Maeve tell this story before, but it is one that grows and changes over time, partly because she gathers in more information and partly because she refines the telling of it. Karl saved Little Silver from demolition, in a story heady with the contradictions of social conscience and substance abuse, mysteries of birth, class and wealth, arrogance and benevolence, the Spanish Armada and the 1960s. We are grateful to him.
From here, we meandered onto Queen Street, pausing in the car park, a former tennis court where ball games are now banned. I often wonder about a future where it might become a tennis court again, or a community garden, in some utopian fantasy of a world with fewer cars.
We thought about benches.
We dropped into the RAMM, to look at the model of Exeter.
After this, we were given tiny, plastic figures, invited to find homes for them within the urban street. They perched in air vents, on window sills or lay in the hammocks made from cobwebs. Relenting a little, I found a walled garden for them, in which one waved to another in prelapsarian joy.
Our next arranged meeting was with Dom Rott from the Parkour training group Street Motion. We asked him to tell us how he looks at the city’s walls, steps, railings. He talked us through his estimation of a way of travelling King William Street and then, under the eyes of wardens, gave a leap onto a wall, risking for one moment the fluid movement of the free runner.
We walked towards the Bus Station, which yearns for renewal, and considered the possibilities there.
And after this, taxis to Cranbrook, the new town being built close to Exeter airport, the first new town in Devon since medieval times. It was here that I found my own expectations and understanding of the Exeter area shaken, encountering an unexpected poignancy in this new development, and an urgency, a passion where I had least anticipated it.
The visit began with our investigation of the show homes. These three houses, ranging in size like the three bears, display some interesting assumptions about their prospective buyers (one presumes supported by market research and current trends in interior decor).
Entering the Mummy Bear house, the initial schemes of spry purple and black, the artificial plants and bowls full of pebbles were startling, but still lay within the bounds of expectation.
It was only on climbing to the second floor, that they began to take on aspects of the Surreal:
In the Daddy Bear house, an ornate four-poster was twined with artificial flowers, placed at right angles to an open-plan, aspirational bathroom with his and hers appliances. Meanwhile, Baby Bear’s furniture appeared scaled down in size, or did I accidentally pick up something marked ‘Eat Me’ in the dream kitchen of Daddy Bear’s house?
Yet, we were to find something quite different from this when we met up with the new Minister, Reverend Mark Gilborson. The story he has to tell is not one that I had expected. It is one of the excitement and vulnerability of being present at the birth of a new town. He told of knocking on the door of every single new residence. The little problems encountered by those who have come to live there, and are, as yet, surrounded by buildings empty or in the process of construction. The isolation of a place that is currently without shops, pubs, cafés, community buildings or parks and the rapid change of a place which has the fastest-growing school OFSTED has ever seen. Finding virtual sites for communication and persuading a fish and chip van to visit in the evening. The new community centre which is finally opening. The expectation of the new train station. Finding creative ways of using the sites that exist – the school, the proposed church site, which might in fact become a garden. The unexpected fact that this is a young town, at least for the time being. So much newness in one place.
Gilborson was cited as a positive example by Conservative Housing Minister, Mark Prisk in April 2013. Of course, church-led philanthropy and community building combined with property speculation fit neatly within the Tory idea of Capitalist Britain. Despite this, it would be missing something to dismiss the imagination and enthusiasm that Gilborson (whose personal blog expresses his anger at Thatcherism) brings to this emerging place.
I know too little of this site still to offer my own opinions on its development, though it is fairly clear that there is a tension between the commercial needs of the builders and those of the residents, which mean that shared spaces, spaces which cannot be sold, are not/cannot be (?) the first to be built. However, for the moment, at least as it was narrated by the minister, this is a community, one that is conscious of itself as such. Amid the blandness of its architecture, the glossiness of its brochures, this was unexpected.
We left Mark and continued, wandering down the almost-empty streets, between eyeless buildings surrounded by scaffolding and now and then, a house with curtains and a car parked outside. At the end of the road was a hoarding: ‘Coming soon – your new town centre’. A new town, poised between the utopian dream, a possible unfolding and the melange of inspired improvisation, commercial property development and minor disappointments of the already real.
As the excursion also was.
We returned to share ideas and build with lego, but I think my partial account ends here.