Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Weep for West Bromwich

I don't know if you've every been to West Bromwich. If you haven't, don't: it makes The Dark Place look like New York in the Roaring Twenties. Unless you're going to support their very fine football team (something The Dark Place entirely lacks). Otherwise, it's a case study in post-industrial decline, poor urban planning, democratic failure and political contempt.

What does a poor, abandoned town need? A bloody big 'iconic' building of course! If you give it curvy windows and a wacky name, the jobs and vitality will come coursing back. It's what Augé called a non-space and what Owen Hatherley et al. decry as the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of post-socialist politics: superficial, tricksy postmodernism which masquerades as democratic populism but is actually a cynical evasion of the tangible and unpostmodern problems facing places like West Brom. And so:

This is The Public. It was meant to be an arts centre of some sort, at a cost of £19m - because modern cultural policy assumes that people who used to make things will suddenly find themselves living in a Wonderland of jobs and aesthetic beauty if a big postmodern box is dropped on them. I think this is hugely patronising: it's cultural policy by helicopter.

It cost £31m. Nobody knows what it's for. Nobody goes there. It's going to be closed or demolished: the Arts Council of England called its own decision to build it 'a gross waste of public money', as Charlotte Higgins notes in her damning summary.

Next time, how about asking the people of West Brom what they need. They might be poor, but they ain't thick. My guess is that serious economic intervention might help. But what do I know?

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