Artist and filmmaker Andy Howlett has been working for three years on a film about the demolition of the old Birmingham library. He tells David Baldwin why it’s more psychogeography than documentary.
November 23rd 2009 is a day that will live in infamy for Birmingham historians. That was the day that then architecture minister Margaret Hodge rejected calls to list Birmingham Central Library as worthy of special architectural interest, sounding the death knell for the John Madin designed building.
It’s hard to put over just how passionate some people were about saving the library from demolition. Where some saw a jutting slab of concrete, others saw a beautifully designed example of brutalist architecture at its finest. Petitions and activist groups were set up, outrage was made known, but it was ultimately all in vain. The library is now gone.
But not forgotten. Screening this September as part of the nationwide Scalarama Festival is a work-in-progress version of Paradise Lost: History In The Un-Making, a film by artist and filmmaker Andy Howlett that looks to capture the history of the building and the people who worked there. Although you wouldn’t exactly call it a documentary.
‘I suppose you’d call it a video essay,’ says Howlett, speaking at the Birmingham Open Media centre on Hinckley Street, where the screening will take place. ‘It’s about the history of the old library and the original plans for Paradise Circus that didn’t come about. It’s effectively me walking around and exploring. That’s my main practice, trying to work out a place by being there and experiencing it. Call it a psycho-geographical survey of Paradise Circus, before the demolition squad moved in.’
Howlett first started making the film about three years ago and is still filming now, even as the diggers reach the final stages of their destruction. Paradise Lost is Howlett’s way of capturing a key part of Birmingham’s past before it’s brushed aside, and he was adamant that it shouldn’t just be his voice telling the story.
‘I’ve walked around the space with other people as well, so I invited an architecture expert who worked in the library for a time, and Alan Clawley, who was campaigning for over 10 years to try and save the library. Just lots of different people who have some sort of connection to the building. I want to show how many different perspectives there are on this place, teasing out the different narratives before it’s all swept away.’
Howlett is the first to admit he’s no expert on the former library. Raised in Solihull, he’s only adopted Birmingham as his home in the last few years, but he’s wasted no time in immersing himself in the city’s artistic scene. As well as acting as a co-ordinator for the Scalarama film festival, he runs the Magic Cinema ‘open reel’ night in Balsall Heath (‘We screen short films and anybody can submit; there’s no real selection process, I just show whatever I want to’), has been developing a performance piece under the Homegrown artist development programme based around a Desmond Morris film and regularly uploads walking videos to the Video Strolls website which see him explore the Midlands.
Yet Howlett’s lack of personal experience with the old library could be seen as a considerable positive. He’s not already laden down with preconceived ideas about the building, so he’s learning at the same time as the audience are, and not just about architecture.
‘The guy who used to work there said he felt the service was being deliberately run down, a process which went on and on until that was used to justify knocking the whole thing down. Alan Clawley has dug up a whole load of dirt on it. I think there were a lot of excuses used to demolish it just because it was on valuable land that be sold off and redeveloped. I think it’s being turned into ‘mixed use’ developments, whatever that means. Shops, restaurants, that sort of thing. Very Brindleyplace, and it won’t be public land, it’ll all be private. That’s a big theme of the film, the selling off of public space. What I call the ‘blandadisation’ of the city.’
Birmingham is undoubtedly in the throes of huge change. Huge developments everywhere you look, endless road works, a revolving array of new restaurants. Not that it’s anything new for the city. As is the way with history, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
‘We always knock down things,’ says Howlett, ‘but why do we do this? We’ve perhaps been doing it in recent years to try and get away from the public perception of Birmingham being a concrete jungle, but that image came about as a result of the exact same process – to knock things down and build the ‘city of the future’. There’s a deep rooted insecurity in the city, an identity crisis. We’re constantly trying to make up for that with these grand gestures to the world. I think that crisis came about because the city grew very quickly in a relatively short amount of time, so it didn’t have the time to build any kind of identity.’
In one significant way, Howlett’s film is exactly like Birmingham itself – ever changing, always adding new things, not quite settling down into a final form. He expects the work in progress version to last around 45 minutes, but the end result could be considerably longer. And he doesn’t exactly know when he’ll even have that end result.
‘It started out as this small ten minute thing and grew and grew the more I looked into things. All these new avenues keep coming up. That’s why I wanted to do the work-in-progress screening, to give myself some kind of deadline. But it could go on forever…’
By David Baldwin (taken from Electrolyte Magazine)