Thursday, 10 September 2015

Leaving the Building - Notes from a Misguided Tour

It's been about five weeks since I did a short 'Misguided' walk in Exeter, led by Simon  Persighetti, a founder member of 'Wrights and Sites' and co-author of 'An Exeter Mis-guide' and 'A Mis-guide to Anywhere'.

The walk planned to 'look at the spaces between buildings and to focus on the relationship between the person in the street and the architectural environment' - and provide research for a new Misguide publication 'Architect-Walkers'.  It was a fascinating morning. Here's a selection of photos:

We were a mixed bunch: Simon, Volkhardt Müller of the TOPOS artist residency, academics (including another Wrights & Sites member, Stephen Hodge), a radio contributor, a marketer and sculptor, a former town planner, a performance artist, and me.

At 10 am we gather at the assembly point: The rear of the TOPOS building on Sidwell Street. We stride purposefully across the street - Abbey Road-style - to the first stop on this magical misguide tour: The multistorey car park opposite, which turns out to be the focal point for many of the morning's activities.

The walk has a mysterious/quasi-religious feel to it as Simon stops every 20 yards or so to give readings from the Wrights & Sites 'Architect-Walker Manifesto' (expected to appear in the planned 'Architect-Walkers' publication). The origins can be traced via links here and here.

Leaving no stone unturned, we explore the car park soft estate and peer into secure storage areas.

We edge around the building to a stairwell overlooking the exit, and Simon does another Manifesto reading. People coming and going give us curious looks.

The focus then shifts across the street where we examine the decaying brick work - some of which seems to date back to the time of the old city walls.

Chad-like tombstones peer over the wall from the St Sidwells chapel and community centre.

We explore the texture of the stonework and then cross back to the multi-storey. The area is covered with street furniture and signage, a kind of creeping infestation.

Under the walkway to Sidwell Street, Simon switches texts to A Dictionary of English Domestic Architecture by A L Osborne. The architecture here is sub-brutalist, with a generous coat of luminous orange to jollify it.

Anarchy is advertised on street posters but not encouraged by the surveillance cameras.

We edge around the building to the car park entrance. Then up several floors squeezed nervously in a lift which can allegedly accommodate 13 people ... The roof is closed for repairs - so we settle for the 4th floor.

Orange still prevails as the car park decorator's colour of choice.

Future Clean - a cone with scifi ambitions.

We try to pay for a parking spot without a ticket but have to settle for parking our miniature vehicle alongside an hour's money in a bay with a view of the city and countryside beyond.

An old guy insists upon parking in an adjacent spot despite there being 10 of us milling around and loads of other free spaces ...

We spend time slowly taking stock of the panorama before us.

Then it's back to the Sidwell Street walkway. Volkhardt reminisces about his old flat close by: The smells from the pork pie shop and the delights of Piss Alley.

We are asked to look out for street features and are assigned letters and words. I get 'O' for Ornament and Oratory. Have to clarify what an Oratory is (a small chapel) but I immediately claim credit for Ornament in the mosaics which decorate the passage into Sidwell Street.

The mosaics tell the story of King William's siege of Exeter's Eastgate - the site where the car park now stands. They mix images of mounted Normans with petrol caps and car hubs from the car park attendant's store. The scattered personal names have local resonances, including the Force family estate agents who have been in Exeter for 200 years. More details can be found on the car park walls and in the Exeter Civic Society publication: Discovering Exeter 9 - Community Mosaics.

It's then time to suit up with signs taken at random from a shifted keyboard, or perhaps from the car park itself: Arrows pointing this way and that, question and exclamation marks - Mysterious symbols.

Out onto Sidwell Street and, after paying homage to St Sidwella (a name which always makes me think of Sid Vicious and Paul Weller), we find strategic spots to stand - alone and in groups.

The good people of Exeter are mildly interested but not phased by our presence. They probably think we have something to do with a public utility ...

Next to some Red Cross collectors I feel like a member of the team with my red arrow ... And walking behind a couple of PCOs I gain a sense of authority and feel an urge to take out my notebook and take down particulars ...

At other times I feel labelled, like the school idiot wearing his dunce cap or, more ominously, a refugee/other minority labelled for who knows what.

Back through the passageway with the secret spring (which is barely moist in the sunshine) towards the CVS building. It is being stripped-out prior to remodelling - coincidentally facilitated by 'Encounters Arts' who "create imaginative spaces and processes for people to explore their relationship with themselves, each other, where they live and the natural world" - and Simon spots an opportunity to explore ...

Inside it is a vast empty cavern. We troop in and investigate.

All around there are fragments of office life - and how we make it bearable.

Simon and the performance artist become part of the building and greet it loudly: "Hello empty building". Others join in, mill around, explore further ...

Claire breaks into song - a hymn to the god of empty buildings. Proper singing in a space with perfect acoustics - This must be the Oratory.

So, farewell empty building, and then it's back to TOPOS for a debrief over coffee, hobnobs and chinese chocolate.

We introduce ourselves properly and a discussion follows about the architectural environment and how/whether we can influence it. In just one morning we've learned a little about the ways in which people change their environments to make them more comfortable and more livable. And we've learned about the continuity and richness of life in any modern city. These photos just give a glimpse into what we did and saw but can't convey the true essence.

Can we really affect the future? The jury is out but if there were more shared experiences like this, then who knows?

Photo: Simon Persighetti
Thanks Simon - it was inspirational.