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Futures of an unlived past: participation, Plymouth architecture and the voices of the dead

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Perhaps it is impossible to create a participatory democracy through participatory means. The solution developed here, in any case, was to draw on the external authority of a famous urban planner. 

Julian Brigstocke
5 September 2013

‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?’

Sensory garden

Who should participate in the making of the future? Much effort goes into inventing ways of giving voices to the young, the inheritors of the earth. But perhaps the dead, too, should participate in the future. The dead have had their time, some might argue; it is time for a new generation to take over. And yet bleak histories of injustice and oppression make it clear that many people never did have their time. They ran out of time before gaining a chance to shape time.

The question, perhaps, is irrelevant. The dead do participate in the future. Not just in the bodies they pass down, or the wealth, or the memories; but also in the material settings that they shaped, and which persist today. Our cities, for example, are collective bodies that create possibilities for living in the future; but they have largely been designed, built and modified by the dead. Cities, collective capacities for the future, are also stony spirits from the past.

Rubble

Plymouth, UK, 1941. Total devastation. The city’s past is crumbling into the sea and the soil. Amidst the ashes, smoke and charred bricks, people dance on the clifftop of Plymouth Hoe, shifting their bodies in defiance of an enemy beyond sight, over the waves and above the clouds. An echo, across the centuries, of Francis Drake’s game of bowls on these same cliffs, waiting for the winds to turn before setting forth against the Spanish fleet.

‘Even the Hoe had never known such evenings as those when the blitz had spent its fury. Inland, stricken Plymouth stretched across its hills, there was a grim lattice-work of stripped and shattered roofs; wrecked St Andrews stood by the ruin of the Guildhall walls. Above this chaos the sound of military band music drifted over the embers of central Plymouth. It came from the Hoe. Tired people, streaming in thousands through Lockyer Street, answered the call to listen and join in the dance led by the indefatigable Lady Mayoress. Here the city, throwing off its cares in one symbolic gesture, laughed a siege to scorn.’

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Station Road, Keyham, Plymouth, 1940s. © Plymouth and West Devon Record Office 616/114/4/3.

Phoenix Way

A mythic moment, perhaps. A founding myth, a modernist reworking of Romulus and Remus. This makes Plymouth almost unique in the UK, where cities are usually described in languages of centuries-long organic growth, not vocabularies of founding and re-founding.

Yet the very possibility of democratic participation relies on collective acts of re-founding and rebuilding. Modern societies have arguably found the revolutionary, destructive side of democracy much easier to come to grips with than its foundational, constructive side. Political freedom requires collective assertions of new collective institutions and spaces.

The destruction of Plymouth, by creating the necessity of a new act of re-founding, briefly created a new opening for democracy. This opening was closed off again soon enough. But walking along the windy central roads of the city – neglected monuments to a broken promise – it is possible to discern the material traces of a post-war social democratic dream, a unique moment in British democracy: the engineering of a well-planned, ordered, supportive society, secured through a strong and democratic state. The reconstruction of Plymouth is a counterpart to the founding of the National Health Service. It was fiercely fought for by such political luminaries as Lord Reith, Michael Foot and Nancy Astor (Plymouth’s Member of Parliament, the first female MP). It was to be a concrete experiment in a new art of freedom.

If the dancing on the Hoe gave Plymouth its symbolic re-founding, it is Abercrombie and Paton Watson’s document A Plan For Plymouth which brought together the symbolic and the practical. Arguably one of the most important British planning documents of the twentieth century, it imagined a new city based on a sense of community that had been reinvigorated by the war. It described a new city free of the blights of overcrowding and traffic log-jams. ‘The city’, it suggested, should be the focal point of the diffused rays of the many separate beams of life’. ‘During the war years’, it went on, ‘there has been a decided trend of public opinion back to the spirit of the community, and increasingly insistent demands are being made for better and more efficient use of the land to the benefit of the people as a whole’. It imagined a city that would encourage participation in community and democratic institutions. Created through entirely non-participatory means, it imagined an architecture for participation. It exemplified, we might even say, a non-participatory politics of participation.

TV screen

The city’s success in developing its plan in the face of huge obstacles has been credited to the extraordinary authority that the Plymouth Plan quickly acquired. Whitehall bureaucrats quickly realised that the plan had become a local ‘Magna Carta’, and could not be easily interfered with. It enjoyed widespread popular support. The authoritativeness of the plan can be partly attributed to a canny publicity campaign – not least a television documentary made by Jill Craigie, called The Way We Live. Following a (fictitious) working class Plymouth family, the film explained the reasoning and utopian ambition of the plan and the improved housing, community and living conditions that it aimed to foster. In addition, an external expert was immediately engaged whose judgment would be hard to question and whose ideas were not easily challenged’. This raises a recurring question – what the political philosopher Arendt calls ‘the great question’ – in political thought. If a new foundation has to be created, it can only be founded by people with no authority to do so. But if they have no authority to do so, how can the new authority be grounded?Perhaps it is impossible to create a participatory democracy through participatory means. The solution developed here, in any case, was to draw on the external authority of a famous urban planner.

Utopia

Plymouth’s architecture is not well loved. It is, after all, deeply out of keeping with the times. It could hardly be less fashionable. The kind of strict zoning it maintains (carefully separating out commercial, industrial and residential space) was abandoned long ago in most cities. Abercrombie’s Plan For Plymouth was at once the first and the last Beaux-Arts city plan in Britain.In fact, it’s perhaps not too much to say that of all British cities, it is Plymouth that comes closest to the monumental splendour of Paris. But the real animating spirit of political practices can perhaps only really be seen when their dreams have faded and their images have fallen out of fashion. When fashions have lost their intoxicating power (the ephemeral atmosphere of novelty), the utopias they imagined come more clearly into view.

Stone

The use of Portland Stone for many of the buildings in the new city centre was controversial. In the Plan, Abercrombie had intended to use the most modern of construction materials: steel and reinforced concrete made from local limestone aggregate, thereby blending old and new. In the event, a less radically ‘modern’ solution was adopted. The use of Portland Stone also fulfilled a number of practical and financial motives, such as the need to keep the Portland quarry in operation.

Plymouth’s buildings were designed to be reused and reshaped: ‘to be infinitely flexible and adaptable to all passing fashions’, as the architect Jeremy Gould puts it. The stone buildings were (and remain) high quality, long life, and low energy. They were not intended to be beautiful in and of themselves; rather, beauty was to come through the creative use of them, which would bring new and more transitory adornments. The aesthetic qualities of the city, that is, were to be created through citizens’ participation in the production of its spaces. The contrast with recently built shopping centres such as Drake Circus is striking. Designed for instant impact, the embodiment of fashion, they soon look tired and old-fashioned.

However, this aspiration went largely unrealized. ‘Portland Stone buildings require intense coloured shopfronts, signs and blinds for contrast and visual interest. In the 1950s, this is exactly what they got, but later, the need was forgotten in a rash of commercialism and the balance between neutral background and positive shopfronts was obscured by the feeble design of both.’ Yet this indicates that possibilities still exist for living a new past of this unfashionable present. Rather than heeding the cries to regenerate and rebuild Plymouth’s spaces once again, legitimising a new round of ‘creative destruction’, perhaps what is needed is a political art of re-inhabiting these spaces, creatively re-activating their faded potential, wrenching these spaces from the blandness of commodification.

Litter bin

The centrepiece of the Plan for Plymouth was a long, monumental avenue running from the railway station to the Hoe. Subsequent landscaping, however, dramatically reduced the impact of this grand boulevard, as well as other streets. Although designed for traffic, the city centre was pedestrianized, making the streets feel empty and far too wide. To fill them, various pieces of ‘civic junk’ have been placed in them, camouflaging the potential of these spaces. ‘On a wet windy day, when the seats are unusable, the suburban planting bedraggled, the crowds have not appeared and the wind has emptied the litter bins, they take on an uncomfortable bleakness which is unique to Plymouth’. With the completion of the commodification of the city, participation of people in the production of space has been replaced by the participation of waste.

Madame Sosostris

There is something faintly archaic about the current surge of interest in participatory democracy. This archaism isn’t the apparent nostalgia that is sometimes visible in participatory democracy theorists’ evocation of the slave democracy of Ancient Greece. Rather, it is a nostalgia for democracy itself – a sudden and passionate rediscovery of democratic life that is linked to a shivering premonition of its death.

Democracy is a commitment to a malleable future – to the possibility of grasping hold of time and shaping it according to the will of the people. Yet it is being saturated with the dismal prophecies of dead-eyed fortune-tellers. Economists, accountants, politicians and scientists announce to us that we have sold the future, burdening ourselves and our children with barely recoverable economic and environmental debts.

With the future shut off, it is time to learn better the craft of participating in the unlived futures of the past. Our future is disappearing into a continuous present; but pasts can always be remade, relived, reshaped. Democracy today requires the participation of the dead, the forgotten and the discarded, enabling us to improvise new pathways along the knotted threads of time.

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’

 

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This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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