plaza in space

Here at [Re_Map] we’re not just about future visions and computation and an interesting exchange with a historian of technology this week brought together some thoughts, conversations and recent archive footage, of which we had been in receipt, to make this rumination. The historian in question had been to visit RAF Barnham where the Blue Steel nuclear deterrent was stored until 1963. His observations included one concerning the plan of the outer perimeter that had unnecessarily assumed a pentagonal plan, a type of fortification that stretches back to the C14 to contain C20, state of the art, weaponry. The point being that the act of ‘design’ in technology can be seen to be frequently referential to earlier forms and methods, as some sort of default and even in the most extreme of circumstances.

Much has been made, in architectural circles, of ‘interactivity’ and of designed ‘intervention’ in the public realm. One has to ask is this at the expense or in lieu of ‘decoration’? There has been a physical and metaphorical ‘flattening’ of the city in its vertical plane. Relief in facades, over the course of the twentieth century, has diminished, though depth has not necessarily receded in the same way, as new double-skinned solutions emerge to try and affect climate change and carbon reduction. Interactivity in material and built terms is often an applied surface with a variety of environmentally responsive reactions that may include automata, light or sound and in all probability began to emerge from museum display and theme park technologies. The augmenting of reality with some new form of audio-visual encounter that crosses the real-virtual divide is a difficult territory to discuss critically in a blog post – the question as to whether it is even worthy of discourse would have to answered first; are these types of experience in the public realm simply ‘entertainment’? Should we expect the continued Disneyfication of reality as we continue to be great consumers? The role of the ‘image’ in the urban landscape is also an essay in its own right, these are not questions to be answered here.

More exactly here is the fact that ‘interactivity’ and ‘responsive art’ is not new and attributable to the rise of the Arduino and other prototyping platforms. The cyberneticians of the 1960s were all investigating such and the Jasia Reichardt curated exhibition of 1968 at the ICA is now seen as pivotal in bringing together creative from various disciplines around the ideas of interactive, generative and responsive art. Somewhere, amidst the maelstrom of unfettered creativity that seems, from this distance, to characterise the late 1960s was an artist known as William (Bill) Mitchell.

Bill Mitchell explains the setting for his illuminated art on the narrow side of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester.

Mitchell doesn’t classify himself as an artist, in his words, “I’m a doer, I like doing things, making, and art gave me the opportunity to do that.” His output from the 1950s onwards was prolific and he pioneered new techniques in casting, blasting, moulding and formwork using concrete, plaster, glass, ceramics, rubber and other self-prepared compounds. It is this large scale and ‘machined’ art for which Mitchell is most well known, but his sparkling imagination would not confine him to ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense (despite his unconventional approach), he found himself concerned with the “brashness” of applied illuminated advertising in places like Piccadilly Circus and set about finding a way to control the arrays to combat the pollution by disorganised agglomerations of neon. He set his sights on the growing tower of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester, eventually subject to a suitably futuristic marketing campaign which saw it branded as the ‘Hotel in Space’. Footage sent by Mitchell to [Re_Map] shows him describing the context in which the new building sits as being formed mostly from a “bus station and lots of extraneous matter like trees, not very good trees”. He wanted to develop a design for a “flexible, sort of piece of drawing paper, that you draw on with light” that would cover the entirety of the narrow side of the new tower and would face Piccadilly Gardens.

Text from publicity brochure for Piccadilly Plaza. Held at Salford Local Studies & Archives.

Mitchell’s own working model of sensors and activated bulbs.

The 300ft x 65ft façade was to be covered with 16,000 photoelectric cells in panels each of 11ft in height to align with the floor-to-floor dimensions of the tower. The photoelectric cells when subjected to a signal, in this case light, would activate bulbs in a panel of a different scale, but the same gauge; there was a sensor for every bulb.

Mitchell stands in front of a full scale mock up panel. The model on the left is a scale model of the tower and the small white rectangle represents a single panel.

Mitchell was as much an inventor as a designer or artist and in his studio he mocked up a ‘Heath Robinson’ version of his idea using a  “home movie outfit” and sensors and circuits he had put together himself as well as a full scale mock up panel and models of the building.

The footage shows Mitchell explaining his role and that he then “had to get somebody who could put two wires together”. That someone was “Mr. Parker”, though we never discover where Mr. Parker came from. To produce a picture they needed to generate half tones using thyristors on the circuit boards, it was this sort of knowledge that Mr. Parker brought to the project. It is unclear from the footage whether indeed this was a commission to build or to experiment or just something that the energetic Mitchell decided to do. The conclusion of the footage states that the developer, Bernard Sunley, has yet to decide whether or not to stump up the £180 000 required to realise the dream – obviously he turned it down. It is also not certain whether the lights would be in lieu of the circuit board relief panels that were eventually used on the end walls of the tower.

Mr. Parker demonstrates his more sophisticated model that can produce half tones.

The possible application did not stop there, architect Gerry Matthews of Covell & Matthews thought that Blackpool promenade would be the ideal location for a similar set up based on two screens and outdoor amphitheatre adjacent the promenade. At the new Curzon Cinema in Mayfair Mitchell switched the light sensors for audio sensors and generated kaleidoscopic ambient projections that were years ahead of their time.

In this short film is encompassed a mass of ideas and latent commentaries that are contemporary in the twenty-first century; the notion of brand and its impact upon the city, the idea of reactive and responsive environments, the role of art in the public realm, kaleidoscopic urbanism and electronic art to name but a few. Mitchell is an intriguing character who is currently penning his own biography and this will undoubtedly yield more evidence of the innovation embodied in his practice.

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