Birmingham has something of a reputation for the destruction of its architectural heritage. From the sites of former Victorian, Edwardian and Brutalist buildings are increasingly springing new constructions that offer an improved and more glamorous vision for the city. Until, that is, these new constructions begin to tire too.
Leipzig-based artist Sven Bergelt has been in residence in Birmingham for three months as part of the international Exchange@2015.le project, organised in conjunction with public art organisation WERK. His base has been, perhaps surprisingly, Birmingham’s Glenn Howells Architects. The firm is also the site of his exhibition ‘Future Worn Out New One’, the result of a sifting through of some of the layers of history, politics and planning that cover the city.
Take, for instance, Bergelt’s large installation ‘Behind, the Paradise’, a large black-painted hoarding that stands ominously in the foyer of Glenn Howells Architects. Hoardings can be found on almost every street in Birmingham, temporarily obscuring both the demolition and construction of public spaces and private enterprises. This displaced hoarding has a physical and political presence. Turning its corner, however, reveals it has only two sides. In the open space a taxidermy crow is theatrically framed. Perched atop broken concrete aggregate posts sourced from the city’s former Longbridge car plant site, the bird metaphorically picks through fragments of the city’s architectural past. Whose paradise is this? One clear reference is to Paradise Forum, a now hoarded shopping arcade beneath John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library of 1974. After its demolition, Paradise Forum will become simply Paradise, a luxury commercial and retail area designed by Glenn Howells Architects.
Madin’s library features too in a series of gentler works on paper by Bergelt. ‘Where is the Library’ is an index of its exterior architectural detailing made through surface-rubbing. In the preservation and archiving of fragments of the remaining building, Bergelt’s work takes a cyclical turn. Ninety-six of the artist’s ghost-like drawings are bound in a unique book which he hopes will form part of the new library’s collection.
‘Greetings from the Bulldozer’ pulls together aspects of the city’s wider heritage with historical German literature. In ‘The Rider on the White Horse’, a novella of 1888 by Theodor Storm, cats and children are buried within the construction of dykes for good luck. A line from Storm’s narrative is prominent within Bergelt’s installation. The remains of a mummified cat were similarly found within Birmingham’s nearby Curzon Street train station, built in 1838 and the proposed terminus for HS2. Through these parallel stories Bergelt aligns architectural creation with loss and with death. These strands run powerfully and starkly throughout each work.
The final work of the exhibition is a replacement doormat for the foyer of Glenn Howells Architects upon which the exhibition’s title is stencilled. The work reminds us that, without care, many of the city’s buildings are ultimately as disposable as a doormat. The visual image of Birmingham is one of urgent and endless renewal. It is the perfect place to be an architect.
Future Worn Out New One by Leipzig based artist Sven Bergelt was produced by WERK in partnership with Glenn Howells Architects, and sponsored by Argent and Zahoot.
The exhibition is part of Exchange.le by HALLE14, an international residency exchange project between three sister cities Leipzig (HALLE14), Birmingham (WERK & Glenn Howells Architects) and Lyon (École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Lyon) to celebrate the one thousand year anniversary of the city of Leipzig.
Sven Bergelt: Future Worn Out New One
NEST 321 Bradford Street, B5 6ET Birmingham
Review by Anneka French for WERK
Nice review, thanks! But I wonder what the implications are for Bergelt’s work if it can sit within the belly of the whale without causing indigestion, so to speak. What teeth does his critique have if it can be absorbed by its target without friction, perhaps even enhancing the reputation of an architectural firm very much involved in the remaking of the city in the image of consumer capital?
Great question but difficult to answer this, especially as the firm are one of the funders of the project. I guess it shows willingness to acknowledge critique. The impact would have been quite different again if the work was sited elsewhere for sure.