Friday, 12 January 2018

'Neighbourhood watch' - notes from a talk by Ben Highmore

Ben Highmore (Professor of Cultural Studies at University of Sussex) gave a talk as part of the conversation around 'urbansuburban', my residency at Modern Art Oxford's show 'Future Knowledge' in May 2017. This was based around Tom Phillips’ project ’20 sites, n years’, an on-going annual study and record of changing urban spaces in the vicinity of the artist’s home over an indefinite period of time, with plans to hand over to his son when he can no longer continue. Tom Phillips work highlights transformations in urban spaces as changes in local government, re-development and economic shifts make their mark on a place, and the process of recording as a way of opening up possibilities for new insights.

Ben talked about aspirations around lifestyle and housing where desirable luxuries such as cars and telephones became a necessity as communities were divided and people moved to new suburbs, becoming dependent on these technologies to maintain social connections. The resulting problems with traffic and increasing land given over to road systems adds to the pressures on land and issues of road systems creating divisions in cities and landscapes and adding to the diffusion of communities. This opens up challenging questions about 21st century lifestyles as we plan for an unknown future and how positive aspects of people’s lives can be enhanced through harnessing technology. 

The talk provoked discussion around housing, architecture and urban space, including issues of maintenance in social housing, the signage and door furniture that distinguishes social housing from private housing in mixed developments and approaches to public consultation. Consultations usually ask people what they want, but don’t take into consideration the lifestyle people have already as the ordinary aspects of daily life are not fully valued or understood. Architects are often blamed for the failed planned social utopias when actually it’s regularly the spit and sawdust approach of non maintenance combined with draconian restrictions placed on groups so as not to have self determination by landlords and councils that leads to ‘sink estates’. 

This act of observing and recording ordinary, overlooked spaces has been a recurring theme throughout the urbansuburban activities in ‘Future Knowledge’ with newly discovered personal collections of photographs of St Ebbe’s in the 50s and 60s opening up conversations and memories for people who lived in the area. These conversations continue to reveal narratives around housing and place that weren’t heard at the time of the 60s re-development of St Ebbe’s when residents were moved to new suburbs. The memories give a sense of the ‘organised complexity’ of city life which Jane Jacobs could see through her sensitive and open observations of the New York slums which were condemned by Robert Moses to be replaced by modernist housing blocks in the 1960s.

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