Paradise Lost: History In The Un-Making
Cities like Birmingham are full of dreamers who see beauty in the mundane. One such dreamer is Andy Howlett, an artist and filmmaker who has spent the last several years exploring cityscapes and engaging in what he calls ‘hardcore psychogeography’ through a series of online called Video Strolls. This year’s Flatpack Festival plays host to the unveiling of Howlett’s magnum opus – Paradise Lost: History In The Un-Making, a thoughtfully deadpan video essay about the destruction of Birmingham Central Library in 2013. Although, as he explains, it’s about far more than that...
So what inspired you to start making a film about a demolished building?
I never had this great love for Birmingham Central Library before it was set to be demolished, and I didn’t have a long history with it like a lot of people I’ve spoken to. But when I heard it was going to be destroyed, I felt a strange sense of loss about it all. I can’t really explain it. It might be because I sometimes feel like I just missed out on this big chunk of Birmingham’s Brutalist history that’s slowly being destroyed. I grew up in Solihull, so the nostalgia I feel for the building and the era of architecture it represents is a nostalgia for a Birmingham I never actually knew.
Your online work for Video Strolls is a clear influence on Paradise Lost, which moves amiably from one thought to another. How would you describe their shared styles?
Video Strolls was started by my friend Owen Davey, who made these very low-key POV videos in which he'd wander around everyday locations making wry observations with voice-over. They beautifully captured moments of wonder amidst the mundane. When I saw that style, I immediately thought ‘I could do that!’. So Paradise Lost is essentially a feature-length video stroll. It's structured like a walk, in that it sets out without a clear sense of a destination, and it meanders a bit and discoveries are made almost by accident. Bit by bit the story is pieced together and hopefully it all resolves into something satisfying by the end.
The film has fun with the notion of Birmingham Central Library architect John Madin as the fallen angel Lucifer, including scenes of a winged Madin underneath Spaghetti Junction. Where did that idea come from?
It came from standing in front of Jacob Epstein's statue of Lucifer which greets visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The description next to the work tells the story of Milton's Paradise Lost and how the archangel Lucifer was cast into Hell for challenging the power of God, and I was struck by the similarity to how Madin and his generation of architects and planners are looked back on now - the idea that they got above their station and ‘played god’ with their monolithic constructions and utopian schemes. The fact that the Central Library complex was named Paradise Circus just made the parallel too good to resist, so I ended up working the fallen angel mythology into the film. I had the idea of filming under Spaghetti Junction because that struck me as exactly the sort of underworld that a naughty John Madin would be sent to for eternity to think about what he'd done. I had a friend dressed up as Madin in a suit and a pair of angel wings and two other friends filming. We had some scenarios we wanted to capture, such as Madin getting frustrated trying to build miniature cityscapes out of detritus, and around that we just tried out different ideas and made the most of the extraordinary setting.
How long has the process of making the film been?
I actually started it in 2014, and I didn’t have a clue how long it would all take. A lot of that’s because, as I started to get into the story, I ended up going down lots of different rabbit holes. Just finding out all these things I never knew, like Paradise Circus being the equivalent of the Southbank skate park for skateboarders, so the first cut was over two hours. It was really hard editing that down to what it is now, which is around 70 mins. Initially it was a bit more of a personal story that related to my own experiences, but that longer cut was just too dense, especially when you consider that a lot of it is voiceover with no sit down interviews.
Paradise Lost is focused on the demolition of the Madin’s library, but would you say it’s also about Birmingham and cities as a whole?
Definitely. It uses the demolition of a misunderstood building as a way to explore issues such as civic identity, institutionalised forgetting, municipal decrepitude and the reclamation of public space. It starts with a sense of curiosity about a building that has been erased from a map and from there it seeks to understand why it is that some buildings are considered worthy and others not, who makes these decisions, and what the true nature is of the forces that shape and reshape the city. We tend to think of this stuff as being inevitable or like a natural process, in which buildings rise and fall in the same way that mountains and valleys do. But there's nothing remotely inevitable or natural about it. The shaping of the built environment is ideological and the whole point of ideology is that it's invisible and therefore you can’t question it. But we should be questioning it.
You said the film didn’t really start with a clear sense of destination. If you could sum it up now, what would the film’s ultimate destination be?
I think on the one hand it's about trying to understand these vast historic and political forces that shape the city. But I think the heart of the film is really in the small, human stories that emerge from the process. It's about how people make sense of this baffling, shape-shifting city and find ways to make it their own. It's Birmingham as seen through the eyes of the weirdos, the artists, the outsiders and explorers. As with all my films, I hope people will take away from it a desire to go and explore the weird and wonderful underside of wherever they happen to live.
Do you dream about the library?
I don't recall ever having dreamt about the library in particular. I think that's my brain being kind and giving me some time off. I do sometimes dream about Birmingham, though - I go on oneiric excursions through fantastical, sometimes intimidating versions of the city with gargantuan mutations of the industrial architecture. Mostly I dream about places associated with my childhood though, and the Central Library wasn't a part of it.
Paradise Lost: History In The Un-Making screens online on 24 May as part of the 2021 Flatpack Festival, followed by a live Q&A with Howlett. Book now on Eventive.
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