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.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Banana Lil'

“A single image of an ordinary street or family photo can spark memories, stories and conversations bringing the past and participants to life making concerns and thoughts ever present. A family photo, a black and white image of a woman’s great grandmother sat on a chair holding a piece of paper can be recognised by a stranger as ‘Banana Lil’, someone she’d not seen since her childhood in St Ebbe’s between the wars.  The group could then tell previously unknown stories to the woman about her own relative that she could then take away to the rest of her family.”
Kieran Cox

It was wonderful to meet 'Banana Lil's' great-grand daughter, Jen, at the last of our reminiscence sessions at Modern Art Oxford. 'Banana Lil'', also known as 'old mother fire blocks', was a well known character in St Ebbe's. She ran a fruit and vegetable shop on Commercial Road, but drummed up extra custom by selling fruit and veg from a barrow which she wheeled around the streets of St Ebbe's. She was a strong character, shaped by a tough life and a will to survive. Banana Lil' seems to epitomise a certain spirit and character so typical of St Ebbe's. The grit and determination to succeed, and the wry humour with which to laugh away life's knocks and bumps.

Snapshots of St Ebbe's

Another fantastic collection of images and memorabilia has come to light. David Brown spent his childhood in St Ebbe's, moving to Marston in his early teens when St Ebbe's was demolished. He is a keen collector and has gathered a fascinating array of material.

We spent some time looking at a collection of photographs given to David by his friend. These are snapshots taken around St Ebbe's in the early stages of the demolition. Many are of seemingly quite ordinary buildings and places - not necessarily the most attractive parts of St Ebbe's - but at a reminiscence session the significance of these places emerged. It was interesting to see how photos taken by an 'insider' of St Ebbe's - someone who knew the area intimately as a resident - were so evocative for former residents who have rich memories of daily life associated with these places.

Mabel's shop. "It was absolutely packed. If there was anything you wanted you could buy it here!"  

"You see the lamp post on the corner? I remember the lady who lived in this house used to mop the bottom of the lamp post every morning. In case a dog had done a wee on it." 

The back of Paradise Square.

Paradise Street

Paradise Square.

Charles Street (now Turn Again Lane). The two houses on the left were demolished (despite being listed). Oxford Preservation Trust saved the remaining buildings in the terrace. 

Warburtons scrap yard. This space was very important for the community, and particularly for children who would earn pennies for taking bottles, scrap metal, even rabbit skins to the scrap yard. 

Looking up Littlegate Street towards the town centre. Albion Terrace (childhood home of Gillian Williams) is seen on the left. This was sadly demolished, but the garden and vicarage beyond survived.

Corner of Castle Street and Paradise Square.

Luther Terrace

New Street - T Bard & Son was a fish wholesaler.

Speedwell Street

Thames Street with South Oxford School on the right.

Urbansuburban sculpture workshop at Modern Art Oxford

Taking inspiration from Oxford’s ‘Golf ball’ control room for the demolished multi-storey car park, and using the simple construction methods of Charles and Ray Eames kit, known as ‘The Toy’, children and adults collaborated to make large cardboard sculptures in an urbansuburban workshop for Future Knowledge. 

Despite working from a uniform starting point, the outcomes were diverse, exploring architectural ideas, play structures, imaginary spaces, interiors and exteriors. 

We collaged onto the sculptures using archive images from St Ebbe’s, finding interesting ways to relate imagery from the photographs to ideas within the sculptures.

“The Toy” was a self-assembly project made in 1951 by Charles and Ray Eames and sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. The pieces of “the Toy” came packed in a hexagonal tube and could be used to produce multiple structures, playhouses, theatres and shelters.

The control room of the 1970s Westgate multi-storey car park, known locally as 'The Golf Ball'. This was demolished in 1999 due to degradation of the building and redundant technology. The rest of the site was cleared in 2016.

Workshop photos credit: Kieran Cox

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

urbansuburban at Modern Art Oxford

I am showing the urbansuburban book and new work created in response to research around St Ebbe's at Modern Art Oxford in their exhibition 'Future Knowledge'.

Please come along to see the work and archive photographs and contribute to the on-going research which will be developed and displayed during the course of the exhibition! I am interested in your memories and viewpoints, whether relating to the old pre-1960s St Ebbe's, the original Westgate and multi-storey car park or the new re-development.

I will be running drop-in workshops in the upper galleries on 25th May, 31st May, 6th June and 15th June from 2-4pm.

There will also be a talk by Ben Highmore this Saturday, 27th May at 3pm. More details on the Modern Art Oxford website.

If you want to share memories or material relating to St Ebbe's and can't manage these sessions then please contact me to arrange another time to meet.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The urbansuburban book!

The urbansuburban book is on display at the Museum of Oxford in their permanent displays from 1st October to 17th December 2016. Please go and have a look!

You can view a pdf of the book here.

Friday, 9 September 2016

1960's St Ebbe's in colour

Tom Hassall, the archaeologist who ran excavations in St Ebbe's before the first Westgate Centre was built, has shared his extensive collection of slides taken in the area when he began work in 1967. Although St Ebbe's was regarded as a slum and planners did not think it should be preserved, Tom sensed that something was going that should be captured. He took many photographs for his personal archive, recording details of remaining houses, the demolition process and aspects of the construction of the Westgate Centre.

After so many black and white images of St Ebbe's it is a revelation to see the area in colour.

All photographs are used with the permission of Tom Hassall.