The city becomes invisible to those that know it well. If you know your way around, there’s no need to really look at it. Those who live and work in Birmingham usually have no need to refer to the wayfinding signs, but given the last eight years or so of Civic upheaval, their function has become more in demand.
The chrome spike signposts appeared about 20 years ago against a high-profile declaration of providing CCTV for safety and security of citizens, as well as pointing at key parts of the city. They were overtaken and updated in 2011 by the iPhone 4-esque totems provided by Interconnect, but bits of them are still in place, scattered like broken headstones, missing arms and cameras.
For some reason, I started paying attention to the one in Victoria Square a few weeks ago. I’d just been looking at the ‘Town and Country’ ghost sign recently revealed on the iron shutter of a shop at the top of new street - perhaps I still had my ‘urban revelation’ glasses on as I strolled past on the way to the Francis Alÿs exhibition at Ikon.
The signpost looked unusually scruffy, even in the context of a civic centre that is essentially a building site. The clear plastic weather-proofing over the signs is badly perished and peeling. The post itself looks like it was recently hit by something heavy, and now lists dramatically, like its former square companion the Iron: Man. Closer inspection reveals that many of the destinations the arms point to are no longer there, making its primary function redundant.
Most recently gone are the School of Music and Fletcher’s Walk. The School of Food dropped the Tourism & Creative Studies bit some time ago too. Central Library closed in 2013. The Visitor Information centre that once stood on the corner of Waterloo Street and Colmore Row has surely been closed for ten years or more (the city no longer has one at all).
One arm has been updated: white spray paint covers one destination, which on closer inspection turns out to be ‘Jewellery Quarter’. That’s still there!
At some point the Museum and Art Gallery have used the signpost as a beacon for their fluctuating entrances, with black and white chevrons pointing the way. It looks to me like this large sticker accidentally covered a sensor or secret camera at the top, below the New Street Station arm, then was covered back up with insulation tape, now hanging off untidily.
My first thoughts were: has this sign recently been uncovered somehow, like the iron shop shutters? A blast from the past, albeit a much more recent one? But no, this sign post hasn’t moved since the 90s, other than by a few degrees to the right.
Without getting into the meta-semantics of what this sign signifies, it feels like it is causing more problems than solutions. How many visitors have gone in search of Tourist Information or assumed the Jewellery Quarter is inaccessible? Doesn’t Birmingham want to look after its new residents, tourists and indeed refugees? What has gone wrong?
At some point in the last couple of generations, we have lost the ability to see ourselves from the outside, like a work desk that gets steadily more chaotic and untidy. WE know our way around by now and … hasn’t it always been like that?
Ben Waddington’s walk for Ikon Gallery - Knot Working - responds to themes of illegibility in urban design, invisible boundaries and the erosion of Civic Space in Birmingham and takes place on Saturday 11 August at 1pm. Advance bookings only at https://www.ikon-gallery.org/event/knot-working/. Francis Alÿs’s exhibition Knots’n Dust is on until September the 9th.
Update 23 August: this is how the sign looks now... still an eyesore but no longer directing anyone to the long - gone Tourist Information office!