A Splash of Colour

A Splash of Colour

Venue: Saltley and SmallHeath, Birmingham
Curators: Wendy Shillam
Date: 1st July 1998

Eliza Jane Grosz (GB) Susan Hiller (US) Pervais Khan (GB) Nicola Morriss (GB) Roxane Permar (GB)

A Splash of Colour was an ambitious program of temporary public artworks developed by the architects practice, Shillam + Smith Urbanism as a brave and unusual response to the early challenges exhibited by an urban regeneration scheme within an economically disadvantaged part of Britain.

An extract from the catalogue text by Wendy Shillam follows:

The process of regeneration is a mysterious one. The area of Saltley and Small Heath has been the subject of regeneration studies since the sixties. The fact that we are all still here demonstrates to me that regeneration can not be tacked as a merely technical or mechanical task.

Shillam + Smith believe that cities are made up of discreet areas or neighbourhoods all with their own character. Successful areas of a city illustrate their differing character very clearly. For example, if you take a walk from New Street in central Birmingham, through Victoria Square, past the red brick splendour of the financial district and on into the Jewellery Quarter you will be walking through a series of very different and distinct areas. However, many of the neighbourhoods that surround the central core of Birmingham, and Saltley and Small Heath is no exception to this, are characterised at first glance by their very characterlessness.

When we were first appointed we walked down every street in the area undertaking a Kevin Lynch style analysis. What we found was an area with little cohesion, few landmarks and a confusion between its Victorian and quintessentially British past and the modern, overwhelmingly Asian present. We felt that in order to address the process of regeneration successfully and in order to find new meaning for these areas we had to tackle the issues of multi-culturalism.

We undertook a series of surveys in the area and from this we were able to obtain major concerns from the local population. These included the mismatch between new housing development and housing need, problems of traffic congestion and environmental decay, a fear of crime and a need for more community and cultural activities in the area. We also noted that the cultural diversity of the area was not manifest in the architecture or environment. Ethnic displays in shops and colourful costumes worn on the streets existed in spite of the regeneration process not because of it.

We were struck by the isolation of this area from the rest of Birmingham. It is only half a mile from the city centre but it is cut off by major dual carriageways, railway lines in deep cuttings and by the swathe of the Heartlands industrial zone. But this area is isolated socially as well from other parts of Birmingham. As our investigations continued we discovered that it consists of a series of very small neighbourhoods, characterised by close knit families, many from South Asia, living together. The pleasures of living in an area of cultural richness were in danger of being overshadowed by sectarianism and social isolation. We suspected that the planning of the area, the lack of decent public space or places where community and cultural activities could take place were having a social effect.

What we had first distinguished as characterlessness was in fact a function of the relative newness to the area of many of the people who lived here; those who have come from South Asia have been trying to assimilate their traditional lifestyles with a faltering Victorian infrastructure and with modern British culture. Nowhere had anyone attempted to understand this synthesis or to respond to it in the mechanics or in the aesthetics of the regeneration. People had not yet had the opportunity to assert their identity and as such they felt no ownership or responsibility for the public domain.

Along with our commission we had a sum of £40.000 to be expended on "environmental improvements". However we realised that nowhere could that sort of money to make any impact on the process of regeneration or of community consultation. To put a few more trees in a park or to re-pave a small area would benefit only a few people, in only a local area. We wanted to use this money to help change the way people felt about their area, to understand what Saltley and Small Heath might become if local energies could be harnessed. We also wanted to include those people who are often excluded from a dialogue about regeneration, who don’t go to public meetings or who don’t feel confident enough to participate. We have a predominantly young population in this area; it is these children who will inherit the results of our decisions today, we also wanted to start a dialogue with more sheltered women, who we found often don’t feel able to participate (and sometimes are not encouraged to do so).

At the same time we happened to be undertaking a study in London, sponsored by the London Arts Board on how public art could be used in the public consultation process. I felt that in Saltley and Small Heath there existed the ideal territory to commence such a programme. To the astonishment of our steering group and to the bemusement of the local community we set about persuading them of the benefits of such an exercise. It is to their credit that after listening to our proposals they gave us not just the go-ahead but considerable support and encouragement to set up this environmental art project.

Six artists have created six different projects, each one temporary and each one related to a specific issue of consultation. The work explores issues regarding housing, a healthy lifestyle, use of public open space, the nature of expectation in regeneration and identity of the area. All the works are temporary and located in the public domain. In an area of wide ethnic mix the potential to communicate with people outside the confines of cultural stereotype and using non verbal methods is vital.

Measures of Success

Shillam + Smith’s work does not stop with the conclusion of this study. Now we are homing in on specific projects, knowing that they have the support of the local community. These include a mixed use housing scheme which will form a model for brown-field inner city redevelopment in general and for the core area of Saltley in particular. We are also undertaking a detailed study for a healthy living centre, linking a target of 40 existing community facilities with 10 new ones that will address wider social and lifestyle issues which are important to improvements in health in this area.

As part of this work we also hope to improve communications by incorporating video conferencing in community centres, bicycle routes, green routes and new public transport links. We are also looking at the parks and recreation areas in relation to new housing development. Lastly we hope that Susan Hiller’s signs will pave the way for new signs that creates an identity for the different neighbourhoods which make up Saltley and Small Heath.

The collaboration with artists in a consultation process such as this can be assessed on two levels. There is, in the first instance the collaboration and contribution from literally hundreds of members of the community who took part in the project. For example, the pupils of Small Heath school who assisted Pervaiz Khan with the video, the women at Norton Hall Women’s Centre who sewed Nichola Morriss’s silk houses or the mental health group at Chapman Road who gave Elizabeth-Jane Grose inspiration for her piece "Well, Well, Well". Participating in creative endeavours brings a sense of pride and achievement for all those who take part. That this pride can be shared between council, local businesses, and the community is very important.

The project has also made a more direct contribution to our consultation. We now have hundreds of ideas from children about their ideal homes, which contributes to our new housing design. What makes us feel better will be invaluable background to our work on a healthy living centre.

But there is another level of achievement which we are less able to quantify but to me is equally important. I feel that the artists have gone some way to assisting our understanding of Saltley and Small Heath. David Cotterrell’s geyser creates a landmark in an area that until last month was only notable for crime and decay. Roxane Permar, under the guise of her alter ego Echolalia, has created giant roses which have found a shared aesthetic appreciated equally by elderly white residents as well as the Asian population in that area. Susan Hiller’s transformation of the normal and familiar (and graffiti covered) black and white street signs into a leafy and colourful manifestation of local culture has also posed a new identity (and incidentally a touch of the feminine).

Due to the commitment of the SRB board in appointing community consultants we are now approaching the design for individual sites with a much greater understanding of the urban complexity of this area and the people who inhabit it. We have the support and energy of the local community behind us. Perhaps these could have been achieved without a public art project. But what could not have been achieved is the aesthetic, cultural and social understanding that the artists collaborating with local people have provided. This has created revelations for us as urban designers, which will contribute towards our future work. This understanding of the meaning of the area is now shared with the community and with other officers who work in the regeneration area. Regeneration can not be achieved merely by improving the physical environment and by invigorating the commercial activity of an area. It is the perception people from the inside and outside have of an area which contributes most profoundly to the regeneration. I think this piece of work has contributed to a fundamental change in the way some people think about their neighbourhoods.

In painting their conceptual portraits of Saltley and Small Heath the artists have generated an understanding of who we are and what this place means. Now in our urban design role, we can help to transform that sense of place into an environment to which everyone can relate and which will go some way towards creating that distinctiveness which I think is the very essence of successful regeneration.

text by Wendy Shillam (originally printed in A Splash of Colour catalogue)

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