Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I spent it watching my first ever Shakespearean play, All’s Well, That Ends Well. Most of the Shakespeare that I had come to know during my time at school were tragedies and I haven’t explored it any further since. However, I think last night was a very good example of why he is often described as having been ‘ahead of his time’, filling his scenes with humour, sex and politics. All in all, a great combination.
Having said that, I have to say I am not a theatre lover. I really enjoy dance and musicals on stage but I find theatre hard to follow. Musicals like the Nutcracker and Billy Elliot keep me on the edge of my seat, wanting to get up and dance along. Whereas with theatre I sometimes find myself fighting with my eyelids, no matter how early it is.
But last night, I was sat in an open space so close to the actors, I felt I was a part of the show (and that’s saying something considering I was sat in the back row). In fact, I am quite sure that Helena (the main character) consulted with me at one point: how she, a maid, could ever be the wife of such a noble man?!…I think I was nodding along, even if I wasn’t, I was definitely thinking: “I feel ya girl”.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, like the one on Chess, Life and the City, you’ll notice I like to make, possibly somewhat exaggerated, connections between the the dynamics of things like chess or in this case theatre, and how they mirror aspects of life in cities. In this case, I’m not talking about the plot.
What I am referring to, are the dynamics within the theatrical space. The more included I felt, the more I enjoyed the show. Like in cities. The more included people feel, the more they ‘enjoy the show’.
Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner, also known for the important role she played in advocating to save the NY High Line from demolition says: “…a successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a fabulous time.”
In most cities however, that fabulous time is often exclusive to some. Cities are particularly in risk of becoming exclusive or strengthening their exclusivity if and when experiencing major regeneration for example. The regeneration of cities can either reactivate and produce greater inclusivity in to the fabulous party or make it more exclusive for some.
So, although risky, I believe regeneration can be a great opportunity. So is it worth the risk? For the sake of re-activating spaces that have been abandoned or dispossessed and generating greater inclusivity and integration for local communities? South Bristol, where I watched Helena finally win over her noble man in the Tobacco Factory Theatre, provides yet another example (in addition to those in Bogotá) where a private-sector led initiative has intervened in public life for public life.
Once again I’m back to that uncomfortable position that I don’t like to admit and that I’ve tried to hide a little in previous posts on private interventions in public life (I, II). That position where I’m kind of liking what the ‘private sector’, or rather what two very specific private-sector-interventions have done to two very specific derelict buildings in the city (in this case, Bristol).
Here is why:
1. The Tobacco Factory
Today, the Tobacco Factory, which also hosts a restaurant, a cafe-bar called Thali Cafe, offices, loft-style apartments and a performing arts school is described as “one of the most exciting theatre venues in the country”; and although that’s a direct quote from its own website, I have actually heard other very good things about it through word of mouth.
Like the NY High Line mentioned earlier, the factory section on Raleigh Road, Ashton, was a derelict space in the city that was just a big burden and a major target for speculation. It was going to be demolished but was bought out by George Ferguson, the now first mayor of Bristol. Its theatre first opened its doors in 1998 and since it has morphed in to a multi-functional space that serves the local community and aims to provide a ‘model’ of exemplary urban regeneration.
As I said earlier, when I went to the Tobacco Factory and sat in the theatre, I felt pretty good about it. Although thinking about it properly, I realise that I wasn’t really there for very long. I stood at the bar for about 10 mins before I was immersed in to Helen’s world, somewhere in Italy, in a different era surrounded by ladies wearing corsets and men wearing pouffy jackets. Having said that, during those 10 minutes did I spend in the bar, I was surrounded by a big crowd of happy, excited and very pleasant looking people keen to fill their minds with Shakespeare for the next two hours. So I can’t say much about it as a ‘model regeneration project’ (although the video at the end will) but I can certainly recommend the place for a visit to Bristol and have to say, I liked the use and purpose of the once-derelict and now-activated cultural space.
More contested space…
Another area, which has seen a lot of contestation over regeneration projects is Stokes Croft, heading towards North Bristol. An area that “always had an independent spirit. It’s an area that’s become a beacon of alternative thinking” – says Chris Chalkley from People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (prsc.org) to the BBC.
According to a case study (4) by Portland Works the area of stokes croft is now branded as Bristol’s Cultural Quarter after having been taken up by the PRSC who are described as “…a group dedicated to maintaining the area’s diversity and lack of commercial dominance” (Case study 4, p.2).
Standing at the crossroads and looking around, there is evidence in all directions of a collective struggle by people to have a say in how the area is regenerated.
Embedded within this contested ground lies Hamilton House (HH) and the very much loved Canteen.
2. Hamilton House and the Canteen
Owned by Coexist (a community interest company whose architect for HH was George Ferguson), Hamilton House is an old – once derelict – office block that was bought in 2009 and transformed in to a multi-functional space. It aims to support local causes through providing a space that is ‘relevant and accessible to all parts of the local community’.
You get a feeling of the kind of place it is once you visit their home page, where it announces that “Coexist would like to offer free use of spaces to any group that is working with or on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers”.
One review says the Canteen is a place where you can “put the world at rest”. As for me, ever since I arrived in Bristol, second week in and the Canteen was already my favourite place. And I hadn’t even been inside! It was just that feeling I got every time I passed by it, that positive energy, the buzz …the optimism. You can just see the diversity of people, wandering in and out of the bar, playing at the ping pong table, standing outside the door having a smoke and a chat with a stranger or chasing after the toddler whose wandering around visiting the different tables and eating anything it finds.
The live music from the stage livens up its balcony as well as the crossroads outside its doorstep. I’m still only standing outside, but I’m definitely thinking how fabulous this party is looking. The Breakdancing Jesus is definitely having a fabulous time.
Finally I got a chance to walk in and have a drink on a sunday evening. At 11pm there is still a relaxing buzz, a couple of tables are taken but there is enough space to sit about 6 of us. With the mellow music playing in the background, surrounded by a warm red light from the fairy lights and a gin tonic in hand I’m thinking, on a Sunday night, I want to stay at this party.
Contesting for our space in collective city transformation…
So thinking back to some of my previous experiences with private interventions in public life, I’m coming to believe a little more in the role of the private sector in building our cities. Of course, I am not saying it is all good, these cases are certainly the exception rather than the majority.
But it seems to offer an opportunity for us as city dwellers to take a more direct approach at collective city building.
Going back to Amanda’s talk, she says that:
“Public spaces need vigilant champions not only to claim them for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them, to make sure they are for everyone…”
I think Stokes Croft and Hamilton House have shown me a little more evidence about the possibility of taking what Amanda says and relating it to the city as a whole. Yes cities need vigilant champions, but we can be those champions. Pushing for inclusive spaces by expressing our desires for them to be so. It seems to me that HH and the Canteen are and exemplary pieces of evidence of how a group of people, a community, is taking ownership over the changes that happen in their area.
Going back further, to the Theatre space at the Tobacco Factory. At the end of the day the more inclusive the space is, the more you can enjoy the show. But the only way we can ensure that such inclusive spaces are designed is if we as ‘spectators’ express our desires and push to be a part of the show.
More on the Tobacco Factory: