Nottinghams Identity As A Cultural Quarter Cultural Studies Essay

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In Autumn 2006, Experience Nottinghamshire, the official tourist board for the county, devised and undertook a research report aimed at capturing perceptions of Nottingham city from its residents, visitors and investors. It's key finding: 'Nottingham is quite an anonymous city.' (Perceptions of Nottingham Report, 2006)

The distinct characteristics that defined a sense of place in Nottingham in the past, were based largely around traditionally occurring industrial activities and consequently since the decline of Nottingham's 19th century status as an industrial hub, the city has suffered from a lack of identity. Even specific areas that have retained their unique architectural features, such as the historic Lace Market quarter, are now under threat from increasingly generic, modern developments that sterilize the sensorial phenomena, that has characterized the city in the past.

Like many cities, over the past decade the City Council has been forced to reassess Nottingham's attributes and implement a wide range of initiatives to address this bleak image and raise the profile of Nottingham. From improvements in the transport infrastructure and built environment, to the remarketing and development of the city's historical and cultural assets, gradually this pro-active approach has begun to re-establish a more coherent city image.

For the purposes of the following research proposal, I will however focus only on the most recent development - the opening of a major new 'landmark' art gallery, on the periphery of the Lace Market. Conceived in the late 1990's, the time spent in the planning of the Nottingham Contemporary gallery has been considerable, yet to date little has been published on the subject. Implemented to consolidate the existing, but less prominent art based events around the city, it was hoped that the gallery would enhance Nottingham's identity, in the minds of visitors, as a cultural destination.

Employing the Nottingham Contemporary as a case study, the aim of this research is to understand how institutions such as art galleries, within the context of wider city initiatives, are deliberately introduced as a tool for culture-led regeneration.

The notion of identity within architectural theory is not recent, yet it is far from being an agreed term. Authors on the subject present diverse strands of thought, dependent on their particular field of research.

Arguably one of the most influential figures in this debate has been Kevin Lynch, an American urban planner who in the late 1950's brought about a new wave of interest in understanding how cities are perceived by their inhabitants. He explains,

'identity is the extent to which a person can recognize or recall a place as being distinct from other places - as having a vivid, or unique, or at least a particular, character of its own.' (Lynch, 1982, p.131)

In publications spanning 35 years, Lynch conducted research into those visual factors we most resonate with, hoping to increase awareness and stimulate an improvement in future urban design.

Many authors have since expanded on these fundamental investigations and, despite differences, the general consensus indicates that a successful 'sense of place' requires a series of attributes, that appeal to a diverse range of people. As Dolores Hayden more recently concluded,

'it is the story of how places are planned, designed, built, inhabited, appropriated, celebrated, despoiled, and discarded. Cultural identity, social history, and urban design are here intertwined.' (Hayden, 1996, p.15)

The layering of years of human activity and habitation, builds richer settings with which to identify. This may vary from not just visual stimuli, but incorporate the full range of senses to evoke in a person, a strong sense of imagery or emotion which creates a strong attachment tied to that place.

'It is place's assault on all ways of knowing (sight, sound, smell, touch and taste) that makes it powerful as a source of memory, as a weave where one strand ties in another' (ibid., p.18)

Within a city context these attributes may comprise of landmarks, multi-cultural influences, the historical context, social, economic and political influences; whilst in the design of singular buildings, common denominators to engage the viewer include the aesthetic, scale and materiality of the built form. Each individual will observe or experience a situation differently, dependent on their own background knowledge. If there is a common ground to associate with, there is potential to form a strong collective memory within the inhabitants.

Over the past 30 years, however, there has been an unprecedented increase in the rate of urbanisation and development in UK cities. A more globalised approach to the built environment has ensued and inherent qualities, such as historical and cultural continuity within communities, are in danger of being eroded.

'The notion of urbanism as a way of life, independent of the physical density of the environment and thus not dependent on locale, is becoming a concrete reality.' (Zardini, 2005)

Without a strong positive city image, the alternative may offer bleaker, and more negative connotations, possibly linked to social disintegration, fear and crime. The need for identity in the 21st century has therefore become much greater. More contemporary writings reflect this, (Pallasmaa, 2005; Zardini, 2005; Holl, 2007) emphasising the need to re-establish identity within our cities.

Factors contributing to the loss of identity are multiple and include an increased bombardment of mass-produced visual stimuli, such as advertisements (Pallasmaa, 2005); the reliance of technology and materials in modern buildings that do not express their age or history (Holl, 2007), through to the 'hygienic sterilization' of public streets (Zardini, 2005). Ultimately this leads to a homogenized environment, frequently repeated throughout the country without consideration to the locale, geography and culture.

Despite disagreements in the literature, what is significant is that the subject of identity is becoming increasingly topical. By being strongly rooted into its locality 'architecture has the capacity to be inspiring, engaging and life-enhancing.' (Pallasmaa, 2005) Lynch first highlighted the potential value of including contributing factors of identity within architectural design, and over the years it has encouraged a gradual but practical impact on city planning policies.

It is remarkable that despite this increased trend of thought, seldom are such characteristics fully realized in a final built form. Taking the case of Nottingham, despite the best efforts of the City Council and conservation groups, urban development in the late 20th century has still failed to address these fundamental issues. Ferris, writing in 2006 believes one of the reasons for this failure is that 'the economic and political forces that are shaping the future … are not specific to Nottingham.' Without strong local knowledge, partnership and investment, some recent developments might be accused of being bland, misplaced or incohesive.

After the Lace Market's designation as a conservation area in 1969, the City Council had originally hoped to maintain the traditional role of the area by continued investment in the textile industry. They were, however, unable to prevent the influx of alternative commercial sectors and large-scale development and the Lace Market became at risk from commercial gentrification.

'In such quarters the necessity of reconciling the various exigencies of conservation and revitalization, of balancing economic development while respecting environmental quality is particularly challenging.' (Tiesdell, et. al.,1996)

Interestingly, the original functional diversification from industrial to cultural quarter occurred,

'not through a process of planning and policy-making, but as something that has grown 'organically' over the years… a process that was informal, unstructured and do-it-yourself.' (Bell, et. al., 2004, p.149)

Examples of such cultural development in the area include the Broadway Theatre, and the formation in the 1980's of the arts based Midland Group. The continued sustainability of such an organic transformation has however been dependent on the intervention and continued support of the City Council. The Council, mindful of the failures of earlier policies, saw the need to diversify. Building on the success of these smaller independent units such as the theatre, they invested in establishing the area as a cultural hub within the city. As Bell continues to explain,

'some infrastructural support for this fragile hidden ecology of creative people could be a vital stage in consolidating and developing the Lace Market as a cultural quarter.' (ibid, p.161)

It was within this multi-faceted context that the Nottingham Contemporary gallery was conceived.

Such economic investment in public art, paralleled the actions of other provincial cities throughout the UK, such as Walsall and Gateshead where new landmark galleries are synonymous with the image of that individual city. Widely known as the 'Guggenheim Effect', such culture-led regeneration has become a respected means of attracting investment and tourism to a city. The regenerative success stimulated by the Guggenheim Museum in the once industrial town of Bilbao, being the prime example.

The Nottingham Contemporary, as the largest single gallery in the East Midlands and one of the largest contemporary art spaces in the UK, was opened to the public on Nov 14th 2009 amid significant media attention. Situated on one of the oldest locations in the city, and following numerous failed attempts to regenerate the site, the Nottingham Contemporary has not sprung up by chance.

In 2004, after half a decade of planning behind closed doors, an international competition was held to appoint a suitable architect. At this juncture it was clear, Nottingham required an iconic home for contemporary art.

A selection panel was formed including not only city planners, but individuals representing the local arts community, business investors and faculty members with an interest in exhibition design from two of the local universities. Finally after a rigorous selection process, architects Caruso St John were appointed and planning permission was granted in 2005.

To achieve a feasible research topic, I have narrowed my approach to this vast subject to specifically the planned actions of the City Council, Developers, Architect and Client. The methodology described below seeks to answer specifically:

How does the Nottingham Contemporary fit into the existing regeneration strategies of the Lace Market?

What planning policies were influential throughout the development of the gallery to retain or enhance locality?

What were the key client requirements set out in the design brief to the architects?

In descending scale, each of the three questions explores the physical and theoretical context of the gallery. Beginning with the wider historical setting of the Lace Market, its economic influences, existing developments, conservation policies and limitations, the research will then progress to the smaller scale attributes pertaining to the chosen site. Finally as a new build within an historical environment, the research will conclude in exploring the aspirations and requirements of the gallery building itself, from the perspectives of the client, the artistic community and the city residents.

I believe this study is useful at a time when so much emphasis is being placed on managing how Nottingham is perceived. The timely opening of the gallery still means it is surrounded by media hype as it settles into its role, but interest tends to be focused on the potential future of the gallery, rather than from where it stemmed. By offering a detailed account of the decision making process and influential planning strategies that influenced the development of this building, it is possible that similar approaches/policies, if regarded as successful, could be transferred to other projects and used as models for the future.

Several methods are accommodated within this initial paper and subsequent research proposal. My initial explorations took me in the direction of the historical development of the Lace Market and its growth, decay and subsequent redevelopment. Through both textbook and internet resources, I have developed a background knowledge of the events that have shaped the Lace Market context. From its designation by English Heritage as a conservation area in 1969, through to the formation of the Nottingham Civic Society and the public/private sector partnership of the Lace Market Development Company, an increasing amount of control has crept into the direction of the area. This knowledge has been invaluable in formulating this research proposal.

In regards to the newer planning strategies, specifically those with a direct relationship to the gallery, searches of government legislative documents have shed very little light on the situation. It appears too recent a point in time, for there to be extensive publications within the public domain. Instead, to obtain this information, I will need to identify and speak with those parties that have been directly involved in the development process, those tasked with formulating local planning policies and the actual briefing document for the gallery. To deduce a well-rounded and, hopefully, unbiased account this includes contacting those mentioned previously, members of the local and regional Councils, individual members of the competition selection panel, the Architects, Developers and Client.

Whilst many buildings have contributed to the cultural regeneration of Nottingham in the past, focusing in on just one case study seems appropriate for a small-scale research project. Valuable time can be spent on analyzing details rather than on broad generalisations. By focusing specifically on the Nottingham Contemporary, its geographical proximity is ideal should I wish to carry out field research and importantly, I hope that, once identified by name, key figures will also be accessible. Backed up by the original theoretical framework, the key outcomes from this study can then be abstracted and used for comparison in similar future scenarios in Nottingham and other cities, or related back to the larger global issue of identity.

In this instance statistical data is, initially, of little use due to its more remote and general nature. Instead, in a qualitative approach, I plan to undertake detailed interviews, which will be more suited to portraying the perspective of the individual and the organisation they represent. Again, due to the relative ease with which I could conduct face-to-face interviews, this is preferable to those conducted over the phone or by email. Whilst possibly more time consuming, I feel I would be able to better control the direction and focus of the interview if conducted in person.

Prior to devising the interview questions, I attended a public debate held by the Nottingham Contemporary, involving the architect Adam Caruso, a faculty member of the local university Jonathan Hale, and an architectural historian Michalea Giebelhausen. This talk was hugely insightful in presenting the architect's desire to explore the gallery's image within the city from an early stage. The comments also reaffirmed that a strong dialogue/consultation had been undertaken with all interested parties throughout the actual design process.

Jonathan Hale, as a member of the original selection committee overseeing the international competition, was involved from a very early stage in the development process. I intend to conduct an initial pilot interview with this panel member, as his extensive background knowledge could prove invaluable and he could also identify further potential key interviewees. This initial interview would not only give me good insight into the decision making process but also test the suitability of my devised questions for future subjects.

In approaching the interviewees in both the pilot and main interviews, I intend to give a brief description of the topic to be discussed in advance, explain the format I intend the interview to take and request an appropriate amount of their time.

Whilst it is tempting to interview several people simultaneously, by gathering in one place, such a scenario could be difficult to control and some participants may offer more of an opinion than others. Instead, I plan to interview each person individually with a number of predefined questions derived from my original three core questions guiding the research. Supplementary questions would also be used to facilitate further discussion should the original question be unclear to the interviewee or not specifically relevant to them, dependent on their role in the process. This structured approach will prevent the interview from straying away from the emphasis of the research question, yet provide more flexibility than a questionnaire.

For the purposes of the initial pilot interview I intend to record the interview through traditional note taking rather than using audio recording devices. Transcribing the discussion afterwards would be unnecessary for this initial stage, but is something I would introduce in the main interviews, despite the risk it may make the interview seem more formal to the participant.

The fundamental focus of the interview series is to obtain opinions on what were the strategic driving forces behind the development; what planning and policy documentation has been produced before, during and after and by whom; the context in which the documentation was produced; the brief outline and to what extent was it followed or adapted, and whether any key findings/decisions can be applied to future developments in the Lace Market or more further afield.

Any documents/legislation mentioned in interview that I wasn't previously aware of, can then be sourced by name and analysed in a further stage.

The pilot interview (the full layout of which can be seen in the appendix) was positive in outcome as I gained a large amount of background information. As the interviewee was willing to talk very broadly about the subject, often the conversation would peel off on a tangent. As a result the interview lasted much longer than anticipated and not all questions were answered explicitly. In future I need to keep on track, ensuring I focus on getting answers relevant only specific to the line of inquiry, which will also reduce the length of the interview. The interview also helped to further refine the topic in my mind and pointed me towards the Directors of the existing Bonnington and Angel Row art galleries in Nottingham, a previously overlooked source group who actively undertook the role of client in the Nottingham Contemporary project.

Once all interviews have been conducted, transcribed and background information obtained, I feel the best way to collate the information will be in a simplistic tabular format.

By drawing up individual tables for the key strategies, the planning policies and the

client requirements, key comments from all sources will be grouped accordingly.

This linking together of the development framework, the processes, policies and brief, will provide a clear factual picture of the progression from start to finish. It will enable me to deduce the key formal and informal factors that influenced the gallery development and to consider both the strengths and weaknesses of such a strategy.

This empathetic approach to ensuring that all parts of the scheme fit together, is a method that logically should and does, from initial findings, appear to work. By having far more local input and a diverse range of expertise in the development consultations, and in responding to the regenerative needs of the area as a whole, the design of the building has strong foundations.

Whilst it is too soon after the opening of the Nottingham Contemporary to comment on whether it can completely fulfill the overall objectives, the interview series will allow me to conclude whether the people involved throughout, feel, on initial reflection, the end result has achieved what was initially strived for; whether there are aspects that perhaps did or didn't work, and if the gallery has been a success in their mind.

If, in time, the gallery does indeed become an overriding success with both the local population and in attracting the desired levels of tourism, it would provide evidence that with considered development strategies from the outset, a new build can indeed be orchestrated to have a strong resonance with its locale. The framework deduced in this research would have increased value and, as such, the techniques found to be employed in this instance, may be applicable elsewhere.

Carrying these clear objectives through to further developments within the Lace Market and developing cohesion, as a city, Nottingham has the potential to discard its anonymous classification and promote a positive identity.

Appendix I

Question structure tested in pilot interview conducted with Jonathan Hale, 16/12/09.

Question

Supplementary

1.

How would you describe your involvement in the development of the Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery?

At what stage did you become first involved? What background experience do you have that placed you in this circumstance? How has your involvement continued?

2.

Could you describe the historical background, which led to the formation of the selection committee tasked with appointing an architect?

Did this committee stem from previously formed groups?

Who else did the panel comprise of?

3.

At the time of the competition, what were the main aspirations of the panel for the building in its wider context of the Lace Market and Nottingham?

Was it important to enhance Nottingham's reputation as cultural destination?

4.

How was the gallery to sit within the ongoing redevelopment of the Lace Market quarter?

How significant a role was the gallery to play in the Lace Market's cultural status? What other buildings' have been or still are pivotal?

5.

Were any of the development strategies / planning policies that have assisted in guiding the lace market development, applicable in influencing the gallery design?

What initiatives or policy documents should I be exploring in further detail? Was the gallery used as a stepping-stone for future development?

6.

Would you agree that by holding an international competition to appoint an architect, it appears that from the beginning an iconic building was desired in the city?

Do you feel the recent success of culture-led regeneration in cities such as Walsall and Gateshead, has influenced Nottingham's gallery?

7.

What were the main objectives of the initial design brief?

How was the brief devised? Did this brief evolve over time? Which of the interested parties had an input?

8.

From the initial consultation through to the recent opening, the planning, design and construction process has spanned ten years. How have the aspirations for the gallery evolved over time?

Do these still suit the rapidly changing environment of the Lace Market? Do you feel any important aspects have been overlooked in the process?

9.

In your opinion which are the most successful attributes that have been fully realized in built form?

How can these be used as a bench- mark? Being so closely involved have you found that there are any disappointing aspects? Can any specific local influences be identified in the final built form?

10.

Do you feel now that the Contemporary is complete that it has a resonance with its context and the local people of Nottingham?

Does it consolidate the Lace Market in people's minds as the cultural quarter?

Related bibliography

Bell, J. and Jayne, M. (2004), City of Quarters: Urban villages in the Contemporary City, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Aldershot

Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2006), How to research (3rd Edition), Open University Press

Hayden, D. (1996) The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (2nd Edition), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Holl, S. (2007), Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (2nd Edition), William K Stout Publishers

Lynch, K. (1960), The Image of the City, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Lynch, K. (1972), What Time is This Place, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Lynch, K. (1982), A Theory of Good City Form, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Oldfield, G. (2001), The Lace Market, Nottingham (2nd Edition), Nottingham Civic Society

Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (2nd Edition), John Wiley & Sons

Tiesdell, S., Taner, O. and Heath, T. (1996), Revitalizing Historic Urban Quarters, Architectural Press, Oxford

Zardini, M. (2005) Sense of the City: An Alternative Approach to Urbanism, Lars Muller Publishers, Toronto

Christiansen, R. (2009), Nottingham Contemporary: making waves and taking risks, The Telegraph, 22nd November

English Heritage, (2000) The Power of Place, The Future of the Historic Environment, Publication for Central Government, Nottingham

Experience Nottinghamshire, Perceptions of Nottingham: Nottingham's identity, the unknown city? http://aboutus.experiencenottinghamshire.com/exec/101639/3583 (Accessed 07.12.2009, Created Autumn 2006)

Ferris, J. Conservation and Regeneration in the Nottingham Lace Market, www.arcchip.cz/w02/w02_ferris.pdf (Accessed 22.11.2009, Created Autumn 2006)

Caruso, A., Hale, J. and Giebelhausen, M., Architecture, Art and the Changing City, Public debate held 09/12/09, Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery, Nottingham

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