There are many reasons to leave West Bromwich; few to go there. Could Will Alsop's new building prove that the arts can lead urban regeneration?by Paul Barker / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
West Bromwich is one of the most destroyed places I have visited in this country. A new centre, due to open there in autumn 2006, will test the theory of urban regeneration through the arts. It is a gargantuan fun-box 26 metres high, 22 metres wide and 115 metres long. Deep indigo with pink trimmings, it is an astonishing, cheering sight in this town of small, often shabby buildings.
West Bromwich is deep in the Black Country: that cluster of towns northwest of Birmingham where they discovered how to smelt iron with coal and where William Murdoch invented gas lighting. But industrial wealth was long ago wrung out. When the architect Will Alsop came here to talk the new project over, he was stunned at the all-encompassing grimness: far drearier than Peckham, in south London, where he built his colourful, prizewinning library. The Albion soccer stadium was the only modern building within sight. No cinema, no swimming pool, an unemployment rate twice the national average. Previous “regeneration” had worsened the wreckage: an inner ring road and blanket demolition were the magic answers—better to have done nothing. The high street, once known as the “golden mile,” is so run-down that the only shop fascias I recognised were William Hill, Coral and KFC.
Sylvia King is chief executive of the fun-box, which has been given the rather odd title of “The Public.” She fizzes like a Black-Country firecracker, and gives me hope that the new centre will sparkle as brightly. She shies away from calling it an arts centre. Ben Kelly, the principal interior designer, who is about to start the fitting-out, calls it all “an interactive digital adventure playground.” There will be no permanent collection, and, I think, no high art. “I have no problem with high art,” King says, “but the poor can easily see it as an attempt to civilise them.” Black Country-born, she has worked on community arts for 25 years. She is very conscious of the people she sees herself as working for. “Around here, lottery players ask each other, ‘Have you put your money on the tax on the poor?’ Well, this is their slice of it.” Almost half the £54m cost of The Public comes from the lottery.
The ground floor can be walked through, and King is happy that people may use it as a short cut to the Cascade Bingo and Social…