Minerva works, but for who?

By October 19, 2015


Photo credit: Phyllis Nicklin 1968

Photo credit: Phyllis Nicklin 1968

In her first piece for TSOTA, Laura Harris discusses gentrification in Birmingham’s Digbeth district.

To ensure neither vessel nor water could flow freely from one private canal to the next, when Digbeth’s canal system opened in 1799 the Warwick Bar stoplock was installed. To pass through the barrier set boats back up to 6d (or £1.50) per ton.

Today, Warwick Bar is chained open. It has given its name to both a conservation area and a redevelopment zone home to, among others, Birmingham’s new locus of contemporary art, Minerva Works and community gardens Edible Eastside.

The cavernous warehouse of Minerva Works plays host to a labyrinth of cultural producers, from galleries and studios to supply shops and a café. Its aesthetic errs on the trendy side of DIY, and at events like ‘First Fridays’ eager eyes and ears descend on Digbeth as the units showcase their work.

Cultural influx peppers Digbeth’s recent history, lured in by lower rents and fertile empty spaces. Fazeley Studios, a community of factories, a church and a school repurposed as a home for ‘digital creatives’, was born of 1980’s Digbeth’s ‘dereliction and post-industrial urban decay’. Fazeley’s sister project, The Custard Factory, moved in in 1993, and Eastside Projects has been drawing art enthusiasts into Digbeth’s maze of industrial units since 2008.

Warwick Bar is the latest addition to this cultural throng. Spearheading this redevelopment is ISIS Waterside Regeneration, a company owned jointly by the Canal and River Trust and Muse Development. Ostensibly, the agenda of the redevelopment was to be one of sustainability, paying due credence to local cultures. But, of course, it was no less important that ISIS ‘turn a profit’.

This financial agenda is common currency in construction companies such as Morgan Sindall PLC, parent company of Muse Developments. Their presence at Warwick Bar is informative when considering the processes underpinning the development. While Morgan Sindall’s logo graces building sites across Birmingham’s city centre, at Warwick Bar their logo is nowhere to be seen.

To draw up the masterplan of Warwick Bar, a team was assembled in 2005 of Colliers International, a leading global commercial real estate company, and the Media and Arts Partnership (MAAP). The scheme received ready support from Birmingham City Council for its affinity with both the Big City Plan and Eastside, the largest physical regeneration project in Birmingham. Its prominence was also thanks to its location as the future landing strip of HS2, and as a showboat for Birmingham’s bid for 2008 European City of Culture (won by Liverpool).

The vision of the masterplan was one that put creative enterprise at the centre of Warwick Bar and they went about commissioning artists and architects to aid the design process through high profile competitions. These best laid plans, however, were not to come to fruition, and proposed buildings were left resolutely ‘on-hold’.

It was the financial crash of 2007-8 that put the emergency brakes on the project. Without the crash, many of the buildings in the area would have been ‘swept away’ by now, replaced by ‘new homes and an office block’. The redevelopment had to change tack.

Despite the pressure from Colliers International to ‘focus on forcing up the commercial value of property’, MAAP came up with a different plan. Adapted ‘at minimal cost’, the warehouse of Minerva Works was turned into a space fit for rent by creative enterprises. With rents as short as 45 days, the idea was to allow space for experimentation by projects to whom long-term rental contracts are prohibitive. In accordance with the socially minded airs of ISIS, this kind of redevelopment is hailed ‘slow architecture’, a process centred on the fermentation of an ‘ensemble of structures gradually and organically’. It is celebrated for its lack of the ‘get rich quick’ mentality of much urban regeneration.

Though it may lack speed, ‘slow architecture’ remains a process endorsed by Morgan Sindall PLC. The prevailing principles share much with the programme of gentrification. The profit imperative is stilted in the redevelopment of Warwick Bar, but it is by no means absent.

Many areas across the UK are no stranger to the process of gentrification and its victims; this is a provocative subject. By parachuting attractive pockets of culture into (often post-industrial) areas, property developers have ripe pickings of surrounding spaces to convert into flats or offices in newly desirable postcodes. Rents, inflated by the allure of the reconditioned veneer, are prohibitive to most (including those who suffered most from the decline of local industry).

A large part of the desirability of these DIY-themed regenerated zones stems from their apparent appearance to be an antidote to the characterless, identikit developments common to contemporary city planning. In contrast, they seem rough and ready, unpolished and raw. The aesthetic capitalises on a distaste for ostentation: bohemianism has both art historical precedence and appears to be diametrically opposed to self-interested and rampant profiteering. The popularity of ‘shabby-chic’ is vast in our austerity-ridden society, allowing the pursuits of privilege to prosper in austere disguise.

Through a programme of ‘slow-architecture’, the Warwick Bar masterplan morphed in to one centred on nourishing ‘a sense of place and of conviviality’. This was not borne of a sudden epiphany of social responsibility emerging from the embers of the financial crash, but a savvy adaptation to a new economic landscape. What’s more, the new-found ‘organic’ agenda of the Warwick Bar development lent to its attractiveness as it provided a space seemingly free from the high-octane world of finance.

In the end, ‘slow-architecture’ amounts to little more than outsourcing the labour of regenerating the area to the creative tenants. The resources are provided at ‘minimal cost’, justified by an adherence to the contemporary aesthetic schema of DIY Bohemianism. A deference to the slow, ‘organic’ development of artistic communities allows for a well-entrenched and lucrative ‘convivial’ atmosphere. It even generates a dissemination of the processes of gentrification, allowing for a diverting appearance of self-awareness. At every turn, the activity of contributing to the ‘thickening up of networks’ is both predetermined and co-opted by private agendas.

The gentrification of Warwick Bar may be limited to the slow lane, but the destination is unchanged. Ultimately, the capital of Morgan Sindall remains in the driving seat, while ISIS, Muse, and MAAP share the role of navigator. High-powered investors are savvy enough to keep their name, and presence, at a calculated distance. Minerva certainly works, but for who?

You can follow Laura at https://lmhwriting.wordpress.com/.

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