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Warwick Bar Soundwalk

Location: Warwick Bar, Digbeth, Birmingham

Artists: Liminal

Overview

When new developments are planned, it is extremely rare for either the existing sounds of a site or the sound qualities of the new buildings to be considered. Yet sound is essential to our experience of a place.

Liminal, a two-person sound artist and architect team, believes that it is crucially important to consider sound within the planning process, and advocates conserving certain noises and also re-introducing lost sounds. Liminal will also orchestrate new sounds (natural or manmade), where this adds to a sense of place.

Liminal was appointed to work with Kinetic AIU architects on the masterplanning of Warwick Bar, a five-acre site close to Birmingham City Centre.

Warwick Bar is part of Digbeth, an area with a rich industrial history, and some factories there are still operational. However, several of the Victorian listed buildings in the area have been converted for use by cultural organisations and artists. Birmingham City Council has now designated Warwick Bar as a cultural quarter and is working with the developer, ISIS, on the site.

Liminal researched Warwick Bar’s sounds, both past and present, and also proposed how sound considerations could inform the whole development of the site. Although a close collaboration with Kinetic was not possible, Kinetic’s current design work for Warwick Bar has been strongly influenced by Liminal and it is hoped that Liminal will work on the development at some point in the future.

Liminal’s work was funded by PROJECT, a scheme that was set up to enable artists to contribute to the planning process of major development schemes. It was managed by MADE, a West Midlands regional architecture centre that ‘involves artists and creative process in development schemes as a way of incorporating culture and people into placemaking’ (Jayne Bradley, Partnerships and Projects Manager at MADE). Kinetic AIU Architects is a Birmingham-based practice.

Background and context

Warwick Bar is a five-acre site within walking distance of Birmingham city centre. There are signs everywhere of intense human activity going back to the earliest years of the industrial revolution. Canals run along on two sides of the site, and there are canal-side warehouses and numerous factories, many of which are Victorian and listed. Many of the buildings are now neglected – but perhaps more surprising is the fact that some are still operational, being occupied mainly by small-scale metal manufacturers. A busy road runs along a third side of the site, and tucked behind this road are converted buildings that house ‘new style’ industries, providing multiple units for small-scale businesses and the premises for a number of cultural organisations and artists. Coursing through the middle of all this human activity is the River Rea, which is increasingly rich in wildlife.

Birmingham City Council has overseen dramatic improvements to many areas of the city. The council now aspires to transform Warwick Bar into a mixed-use, carbon-neutral, socially inclusive creative quarter – using private rather than public finances. ISIS developers acquired the site and appointed Kinetic AIU architects to undertake a masterplan of the site. This is a document that explains how a site will be developed in terms of costs, sequences of works and time-schedules. Its purpose is ‘to set out principles on matters of importance, not to prescribe in detail how a development should be designed.’ (Architect’s Brief)

ISIS acknowledged from the outset that it was a tough assignment. ‘We want a masterplan that can resolve what could be perceived as contradictions within the brief: the need for a development that is both commercially profitable and also long-term sustainable, and for a development that is both heavily populated and also richly bio diverse.’ (Architect’s Brief)

It is relatively unusual for artists to be involved prior to the design stage of development schemes, but in October 2005 Jayne Bradley of MADE secured PROJECT funding to enable an artist to work with Kinetic and other design and engineering professionals on the Warwick Bar masterplanning team.

Objectives

The main objective was for the artist to contribute to the masterplan for Warwick Bar, working to the same brief as the architects: ‘The expectation is for the artist to be an integral member of the design team and to contribute to the entire process of developing a masterplan, in a collaborative and engaged process.’ (Artist’s Brief)

The artist was asked to pursue their usual working methods and creative practices – and for their contribution to be ‘broadbrush’ rather than specific. They were not expected to make detailed recommendations or create permanent artworks – or even draw up proposals for artworks.

A big part of the artist’s work was to devise just how they would get involved with the masterplanning process, and part of their brief was to document this whole process of engagement with the masterplanning team. The artist was also expected to consult with the local community, in collaboration with MADE.

Jane Bradley was inspired by the PROJECT guidelines: ‘I thought it was best to let the roles emerge and to keep things quite fluid. I didn’t want to scoop up all the loose ends and give these to the artists, which often happens. I think of my job as managing expectations – of what people think artists should be doing.’

The commission

Jayne Bradley drew up a short-list of five artists, to which Kinetic also contributed. Interviews were held in March 2006 and the panel included Jayne Bradley (MADE), John Shuttleworth (Kinetic architects), Mike Finkill (ISIS developers) and Alistair Snow (PROJECT). The artists were asked to make a presentation about how they would approach the project and how they saw their role within the design team. It was felt that Liminal, an outfit that does not make physical objects but is concerned with sound, would be particularly suited to working on a masterplan.

Liminal and their approach

Liminal, which was established in 2003, comprises Frances Crow, a qualified architect, and David Prior, an artist and musician. Previous works include: Triptych, a commission for The South Bank Centre, London, 1998; Swash, a soundwork for Living Coasts in Torquay, 2003; the sound design for the Churchill Museum, Cabinet War Rooms, Imperial War Museum, London, 2005; and publications and gallery projects. Liminal is currently working on the Cotswolds’ Water Park masterplan.

Frances Crow explains: ‘we are interested in spatialising sound, in the larger context of sound in space. Rather than abating or controlling sound, we see it as a material with texture and resonance that we can work with. We’ve been influenced by the acoustic ecology movement that started in Canada in the 70s that set out to preserve soundscapes that were disappearing and made all kinds of recordings of soundscapes that have changed. But we’re not there to preserve a soundscape but to consider it, and work with it and design a new one.’

In terms of working with architects, she adds: ‘an architect is always designing a soundscape, but just isn’t thinking about it. If there’s noise, the convention is to have a water feature to disguise it – but we think it can be more creative with the addition of new “soundmarks” that become distinctive for the area. And a water feature could be natural, or at least biological, rather than man-made.’ She goes further to say: ‘We think the term “soundmarks” should be used alongside the word “landmarks”, and that historic sounds should be listed.’

Liminal and the masterplanning team

ISIS determined that Kinetic would begin its work by constructing a financial model for the Warwick Bar development. Kinetic discovered that various aspects of their brief – ecological considerations, in particular – together with difficulties relating to site capacity mean that the scheme could not be financially self-sufficient. The need to secure public funding has held up the masterplanning process for a lengthy period.

As Jayne Bradley from MADE explains, ‘Kinetic hadn’t started designing and it was pointless for Liminal to get involved with the financial model. But the terms of the grant meant that Liminal had to start work, so they did parallel research and worked instead on a proposal of how to contribute to a design masterplan when this is eventually done.’ Essentially, instead of working as an integral part of the design team, ‘we responded to the architect’s competition proposal while they were considering volumes and costs’ (Frances Crow). However, as Bob Ghosh from Kinetic explains: ‘We factored Liminal into our day-to-day activities. They came to general project meetings so that they could understand the issues.’

In April 2006, as part of their brief, Liminal drew up a schedule of what they would do.

Liminal’s sound survey of Warwick Bar

In May 2006 Liminal began by making a sound survey of the site, rather than looking at its topography, which would have been a more usual first stage. They discovered that Warwick Bar has one particularly unusual sound feature: ‘There is a proofhouse nearby where ammunition is decommissioned. Usually on a Saturday morning, or so we have been told, there is a distinctive bang and the roof vents open and smoke comes out of the building. The blast zone from the proof house actually crosses part of the site and you are not allowed to build in this area.’ (Frances Crow)

Of Warwick Bar’s other sounds Liminal writes: ‘Surrounded on three sides by water it is known as a distinctive, tranquil sound environment. In part, this is due to the juxtaposition of the road traffic noise from Fazeley Street and the relative quiet of the canals. When on the canal, the soundscape has a notable sense of space and clarity; individual elements of the natural soundscape can be easily identified in isolation while the louder sounds of industry are at a great enough distance not to dominate or obscure. Industrial sound is nevertheless a tangible presence around the site … offering valued soundmarks which contribute to the character and identity of the site. By contrast, the high level of road traffic noise on Fazeley Street masks the sounds of industry leaving the auditor isolated from the context they find themselves in.’ (Interim Report)

Liminal then pored over a number of Ordnance Survey maps dating from 1890, looking for buildings and other features which existed previously and which emitted sound. They discovered that there was once a tramway, an active canal basin, and a cattle-drive towards the Bull Ring market nearby. ‘Historically, the site has already considerably changed.’ (Frances Crow)

Throughout their survey, Liminal ‘drew parallels to the concept of landmarks and the “listing” of sites of historic importance’. (Frances Crow)

A soundwalk with the architects

Liminal uses a methology known as ‘soundwalking’. Developed in the 70s by R. Murray Schaeffer and Barry Traux and others at the Vancouver Soundscape project, soundwalking is a technique that stimulates what is known as ‘active listening’, through note-taking, audio recordings and other means.

MADE organised a picnic in July 2006 for Liminal and Kinetic, and Liminal devised a soundwalk for this, called The Four Points Soundwalk, having identified distinct sounds at the four corners of Warwick Bar. The group walked along the canals and the site’s busy street in silence, and they each wrote down the sounds they could hear during 5-minute periods at the four corners of the site. Bob Ghosh, Mike Dring and John Shuttleworth from Kinetic, Frances Crow, David Prior and Jayne Bradley did the walk together: at each of the four corners of the site the architects were asked to write down everything they could hear. Afterwards they had a discussion, which David Prior recorded.

Liminal’s engagement with the public

Artsfest is an annual Birmingham-wide weekend festival of arts events. MADE commissioned Liminal to produce the Warwick Bar Soundwalk for Artsfest in September 2006. This had sounds from Warwick Bar’s past – cattle, canal locks and distant steam trains – and interviews with several people, including an ecologist, a historian, a local composer, and a woman whose father made ice-cream at the Bond icehouse in Warwick Bar. ‘It was both educated and experiential knowledge. We also used recorded sound from the site and we were interested in the play the sound-walk attempted to achieve between the natural soundscape and the recording. At times it became ambiguous as to which was which.’ (Frances Crow)

The public picked up MP3 players at the MADE gallery, which is attached to MADE’s offices and located in Warwick Bar. Frances Crow was on hand to speak to the public: ‘people of all ages, from teenagers to OAPs – a lot hadn’t really listened to a place before, and found the content interesting, particularly the interviews.’ Over a three-day period seventy-seven people listened to the Warwick Bar Soundwalk while walking round the site and the feedback was very good.

For Artsfest, Liminal also created an exhibition at the MADE gallery: a panoramic photocollage of Warwick Bar with dialogue annotated on it, together with details about Liminal’s proposed work with the Warwick Bar masterplanning team.

Finally, Liminal produced written instructions so that people could undertake The Four Points Soundwalk during Artsfest. There were unfortunately only three responses. ‘Another time, we would invite groups down – schools near to the area, people who live on the boats. That way we would be able to focus people’s minds more.’ (Frances Crow)

The noise mapping exercise

Every city is currently obliged by the EU Directive on Noise to create a Road Traffic Noise Map, and Andrew Jellyman from Birmingham City Council was involved in producing one in 1998. This provides data about the noise levels of roads at different times of day.

Between July and October 2006, Liminal worked in collaboration with Andrew Jellyman to create a sound map in response to initial plans drawn up by Kinetic for the layout of buildings. Their findings were that significant areas would be very noisy. They then drew up an alternative layout in which a number of buildings serve to dampen traffic noise, and in which the canal is diverted to bring water and calm to the centre of the site. This work was purely speculative, in that cost and building use were not taken into account, and it was also based on approximations – but it served to demonstrate how the soundscape of the site could be considered.

Liminal’s interim proposals

In October 2006 Liminal wrote an Interim Report that outlines how they would seek to work on the development of Warwick Bar in future.

‘We see our primary role in this initial stage of the development as raising the status of the history of the soundscape of the site to a level where it might actively influence the development of the masterplan.’

Liminal’s proposal is that they work with Kinetic to devise a map of the site with desired sound qualities marked on it (from ‘buzzy’ to ‘calm’), and in this way determine future designs. ‘…We believe that Warwick Bar has the potential to be an exemplary development in terms of its sonic character.’

Liminal’s future work would include: further mapping of sound in the development area; ‘listing’ and preserving soundmarks of historical importance; reinstating historic soundmarks and creating new ones; researching acoustic design techniques; and introducing planting schemes to absorb and change sound, through changed behaviour and the presence of wildlife.

MADE’s response

‘We got more out of Liminal than we expected. The public participation was good – because it really worked and wasn’t just lip service. Now that the masterplanning is starting to move again I am waiting to see how serious it is and whether the argument can be made with ISIS for Liminal’s continuing involvement.’ (Jayne Bradley)

The architects’ response

‘Liminal has definitely influenced our thinking. The walk we did with Liminal was incredibly atmospheric and the different soundtracks reflected the history of the site and its previous uses. There are major transportation routes and a lot of bustle close to the site and mapping the soundscape was very interesting. We could hear the bells from St Martin’s church in the city centre – we were within its parish – and you’d never consider the site as being so near the city centre until you hear that proximity. We are interested in place-making and Liminal made us understand the potential for very tranquil spaces near water and busy spaces away. We will try to involve them and think about their interim proposals. There’s going to be a whole programme of work involving artists at different times during the period of development. Nothing’s going to happen overnight and the two years we’ve been working on it is a short time in its whole history.’ (Bob Ghosh)

Budget

Liminal’s fee was £8,000, including expenses. MADE contributed a further £800 towards the costs of the Artsfest commission.

Key Issues

Sound as an artform is unfamiliar to the majority of people. Liminal communicates what the team does by adapting familiar language: soundmarks are the sound equivalent of landmarks; there is the proposal to ‘list’ historic sounds, and to conserve them, and so on. The soundwalks, too, are an effective way of heightening people’s awareness of their sound environment, and help people engage with what Liminal seeks to do in particular locations.

Kinetic and Liminal’s different schedules meant that there was little opportunity for joint working. Due to Liminal’s flexibility and resourcefulness and Kinetic’s receptiveness, the team was nevertheless able to undertake work that is influencing the masterplanning process.

Contact details

Frances Crow and David Prior

Liminal

frances@liminal.org.uk

david@liminal.org.uk

01803 847 632

07811 999 140

www.liminal.org.uk

Jayne Bradley

Partnerships and Projects Manager

MADE

jayne@made.org.uk

0121 633 9333

www.made.org.uk

Kinetic AIU architects

Bob Ghosh, director, and Mike Dring, associate

bg@kinetic-aiu.com

md@kinetic-aiu.com

0121 212 3424

www.kinetic-aiu.com

Nick Bird and Mike Finkill

ISIS developer

www.isis.gb.com

© Copyright Angela Kingston, 2007