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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, January 28, 2005
    Halo over Barnsley

    When Will Alsop looks across the moorland wastes of south-central Yorkshire he sees a halo over Barnsley. The architect-provocateur has a vision to return the fallen industrial town to its roots. Starved of trade because of the proximity of Godawful shopping-sink Meadowhall, Barnsley can become again a market town at the heart of agricultural country. It's part of Alsop's vision of the SuperCity - stretching from Mersey to Humber along the M62 axis, and the focus of two floors of exhibition space at Urbis, which I visited today.

    What I like about Alsop's mad vision is its creative energy - the possibility of Northern English towns and cities erasing centuries of grim industrial parochialism and embracing bright new concepts. It's in the spirit of today's brightest musical creatives LCD Soundsystem, asserting "These are the parts of a terrible past / and these are the things we can live without - you've got to give it up / if you want to live it up". Barnsley as a Tuscan hill village. When you laugh at this, is it hopeful laughter, Alsop wants to know. Can you see a halo in those Dearne Valley clouds?

    What I dislike in the exhibition is that, despite plenty of talk about awareness of climate change etc, Alsop's idea of an eighty-mile-long city is based on the surely tired old idea of motorway ribbon development. What's new is that service stations become park-and-ride hubs, places of genuine quality where people will come to take their leisure. What's new is the idea of building up - rather than out - in the countryside, creating nodes of self-sufficient living for 5000 people which would rise out of the landscape, "objects of curiosity and wonder in the manner of the castles of the Welsh Marches." What's new is the idea which would revitalise Barnsley and other places - that shops and markets in the SuperCity would predominantly sell home-produced foodstuffs ('home' being within the SuperCity bounds). But all of this is based on structuring our lives along a 12-mile axis around the M62.

    Alsop seems a dreamer - he promotes the idea of imaginative solutions to urban problems. But perhaps he's also a realist. After all, for many of us who live here our lives already do depend on a commute along that grey and choked-up road (vast and green and lovely across Saddleworth Moor). I did today. And am likely to for the forseeable future.

    Anyway, today at Urbis I sat in a film booth sharing Alsop's vision with a couple from East Yorkshire and enjoyed playing around the interactive exhibits at the same time as a group of Manchester schoolchildren. So it seems that despite the tensions in Alsop's approach the exhibition will help us Northerners start to find new ways to debate our common urban future. Perhaps LCD Soundsystem (playing in my ears right now) also offer some shards of language with which to build:

    "Yr city's a sucker
    My city's a creep
    What we want is what you want
    What you want is what we want - is a case of - ha ha ha ha
    You have so much more space in which to - ha ha ha ha
    You have so much more time with which you - ha ha ha ha"