Tuesday, 28 July 2009

B of the Bang 2005-2009 RIP

MOST cities have their landmarks - Paris the Eiffel Tower, London Big Ben, Rio de Janeiro Christ the Redeemer etc.. For four years, B of the Bang performed that function in Manchester, a 56 metre reminder on the skyline, high as a twenty storey building, of what the city stood for. Commissioned in 2003 to celebrate the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester’s chance to clean itself up and put itself back on the map after the IRA bomb, and built outside Manchester City's new Eastlands stadium, it took its name from the sprinter Linford Christie’s claim that he starts a race on the ‘B of the Bang’ of the starting pistol.

An audacious piece of public art by the innovative young designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose best known work is a folding bridge in London, B of the Bang was a bold and unmissable gesture in Manchester’s history for being a city of firsts and fitted right into its penchant for extravagant architecture. The sculpture had unmistakeable Manc swagger behind it, erected to capture ‘the city’s innovative and pioneering spirit’. A familiar and welcoming view, exploding like a firework over the city as passengers arrived into Piccadilly on trains from London or the south, it became as much a part of the Manchester skyline as the peaks in the background.

B of the Bang was an artwork, but it was also something more than that - an icon, a reminder of the new Manchester full of ambition and hope for the future, rebuilding itself after decades of decline. Spikes reached for new ambitions like arms, stretching across often grey skies for something in the distance beyond their reach. Splayed dramatically across Manchester postcards, it became one of the bold single images that represented Manchester to the outside world post-bomb (although, implausibly, in the pictures it‘s always sunny).

Its impact was made all the more powerful by its context: B of the Bang didn’t adorn the corridors of power, but was tucked away in Beswick, a suburb just outside the city centre that ranks amongst the most deprived areas of Manchester - according to the Government’s Multiple Indices of Deprivation for 2000, Beswick was in the top 1 per cent most deprived wards in the country - where little else would make it into tourist promotional material. It didn’t look out over grand municipal buildings or manicured lawns but busy roads and a giant Asda superstore. B of the Bang wasn’t built in the type of area people would visit for pleasure, (apart from Manchester City stadium), but it was a symbol of hope that gave the area something to be proud of (in theory).

Funded partly by the Northwest Development Agency and European Regional Development Agency, it was intended as part of the process of regeneration that was being undertaken in the area, and contains a time capsule in the centre so people opening it in three hundred years time will have a record of an area of Manchester that has been knocked down and rebuilt several times, with more of the same planned for the coming years.

At B of the Bang’s launch in January 2005, the Chief Executive of the urban regeneration company New East Manchester called the B of the Bang a "very clear and bold statement of intent”. He said: “The regeneration of east Manchester needed a monumental piece of public art to provide a sense of identity and place and to represent the physical, economic and social changes underway in the area."

It’s been suggested that B of the Bang could be reerected at a different site, possibly outside the City Art Gallery, although it would lose much of its impact submerged amongst the clutter and bustle of the city centre. (However, Salford Quays has been suggested as an alternative location, and B of the Bang could inject some much needed personality into that area.)

The sculpture had problems from the start and quickly became known, unkindly, as C of the Clang by residents, with people taking exception to its rusty appearance (although this was part of the design as the sculpture was, like Angel of the North near Gateshead, built in weathering steel that was supposed to gain a layer of oxide as it was exposed to the elements). The council has considered the option of rebuilding it in a lighter material, yet it wouldn't fit so well the redbrick fabric of the city.

B of the Bang cost £1.42 million to build - way over estimate - and was finally installed two years late. It lost one of its spikes soon after being erected and had to be fenced off from the public. Last year, the council settled for £1.7million compensation in an out of court settlement, which added to local people’s anger that £120,000 of their taxes went towards funding the sculpture - although there are many passionate admirers of B of the Bang who protested against the decision to take it down.

In total, 22 out of the 180 spikes had to be removed, and earlier this year work began on sawing off its hollow tubes. Now only a collection of stumps remain, looking like a bad homemade haircut, with one lone spike trailing limply like a rats tail ponytail. B of the Bang’s gravestone esque memorial is a meek notice apologising ‘for any inconvenience caused’ due to the sculpture’s ‘technical difficulties’. The official line is that "B of the Bang is a magnificent artistic statement that was just right for modern Manchester. It is regrettable that technical problems have undermined that artistic vision”, yet Anthony Gormley, the artist behind Angel of the North, and others have criticised the council for their loss of ‘nerve’ in choosing to dismantle, rather than make the investment to repair, the sculpture.
Unlike other statues, even big ones like Angel of the North, B of the Bang has an edge to it, elegant in its simplicity yet spiky as a Yucca plant. The Beetham Tower is the image most people have of a sky high Manchester, yet its only distinguishing feature is its height, and it couldn’t be said that it contributes any excitement or dynamism to the Manchester sky. B of the Bang didn’t passively watch over the city or, like Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, stare out to sea. It swayed in the wind like a trembling tree (an inbuilt design detail) and strange music whistled through its spikes on a windy night.

As the Heatherwick Studio website puts it, “the design reacts against the convention for passive-looking monuments to sporting events that celebrate peace and harmony, rather than the dynamism and explosiveness of physical competition”. 39 year old Heatherwick was no outside choice for Manchester either, as a former student at the Manchester Polytechnic. He said: “I love the city and I’m not interested in building it anywhere else.”

Ps, a few days after I wrote/ posted this, the Manchester Evening News printed this editorial on B of the Bang, which obviously I totally disagree with (as usual!)

1 comment:

Gerald (Ackworth born) said...

It is hard to write dispassionately about the B as public art and politics are inherently divisive concepts.
However I do think there were technical problems with the design and it is probably right to dismantle it but I wouldn't like to see it resurected anywhere else.
Fortuneatly a lot of photographs of it from different angles will preserve its memory for the future record.