Concrete and Caves
Gravelly Hill Interchange: Birmingham’s most famous motorway junction and an important piece of structural history from the city’s period of modernist redevelopment
Its 13 miles of elevated and intertwined roads are traversed by thousands daily; though not all are aware of the fascinating spaces underneath the junction, which offer endless possibilities for exploration and have provided artistic inspiration for a range of creative individuals. Glimpses of these spaces are most frequently fleeting, from a fast moving car or from a train, but pedestrian access via canal towpaths allows a closer look. Historically too, the area holds captivating stories, and creative investigation, not only physically but also contextually, offers a different experience altogether.
More commonly and affectionately known as Spaghetti Junction, the interchange was built over 4 years and opened in 1972, and is reflective of Birmingham’s auto-oriented culture of the time; its complex network of elevated roads upon towering concrete columns a futuristic vision of modernity. Despite being constructed after Manzoni’s time in position as City Engineer, it is undeniable that his influence would have been important leading up to the construction. It’s interesting too to consider other design influences in the wider context of modernism in general and its development.
The columns with which the roads are supported bring to mind Le Corbusier’s pilotis – think Unité d’Habitation and Villa Savoye. In a non-architectural context too, we encounter various textures and moments which can make one consider the space in the context of developments in the modern art world at the time that the interchange was conceived and constructed; the huge concrete blocks and forms bringing to mind the sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. By considering this structure alongside the work of such architects and artists, we can reflect critically upon how the pure ideals of modernism are translated into ‘real life’, passed through the hands of countless planners, architects and structural engineers, and also how they stand the test of time – what does it mean to look at this space today, several decades having gone by since the realisation that the modernist dream of objectivism was unreasonable? As well as presenting a relatively recent past-future of sorts, the chasmal spaces flanked by columns do something to evoke a history much older; a temple or parthenon of sorts, or some lost ancient city stumbled upon by the modern urban explorer.
As the cars and lorries thunder above, beneath the interchange are layered networks of connectivity. Confluences of the River Tame join with Birmingham’s main river, the River Rea and the Hockley Brook, the latter being historically that which fed Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory. The cross-city and Walsall train lines also pass through, offering fleeting views of the space to those on board. Salford Junction, the meeting point of the Grand Union canal, Birmingham and Fazeley canal and Tame Valley canal is also located underneath. Salford bridge, which crosses the junction, has been present in some form for at least 500 years recorded as such, though a bridge in that location is suspected to have been in existence since the 1200s. It is first officially recorded as Shrafford Brugge, ‘shrafford’ being a Saxon word meaning ‘ford by the caves’. These caves were natural, water-formed cavities in the rock face of the nearby Copeley Hill escarpment, and were the only natural caves in the region. These caves were used as air-raid shelters during WW2 and were not destroyed until the construction of Spaghetti Junction in 1968. The story of these caves has proved fascinating for certain creative individuals such as Leonardo Morgado, a writer for the Paradise Circus blog, whose piece An Urban Fairytale combines fantasy and reality to tell an eerie and somewhat unsettling tale.
It is not only writers who have been inspired by the environment and the freedom available underneath Spaghetti Junction: one of the first things to strike the eye when looking around is the sheer amount of graffiti adorning the concrete pillars; layers and layers of scrawled tags have been allowed to build up over time, free from the daubed grey paint-overs of the city centre, creating what you could think of as a ‘graffiti palimpsest’. These seemingly infinitely layered tags upon tags sit alongside bigger, more graphic pieces; one series of which consists of huge burnt-out matchsticks painted onto the columns, so large that they dwarf the occasional pedestrian wanderer who may pass by.
Something so magical about this place is the evidence of there having been so much activity over such a long period of time; yet it simultaneously feels so quiet and untouched. This is a space however which appeals not only to street artists, but other creatives too. In 2014, artist Bill Drummond made work underneath Spaghetti Junction as part of a 3-month project in the city, which involved him floating on a raft made of his own bed with 40 bunches of daffodils. He speaks of Spaghetti Junction as having an impressive grandeur – ‘the pillars holding up Spaghetti Junction outdid the Arc de Triomphe, the perfect place to make one’s entrance into Birmingham, ceremonial or otherwise.’ (writing in the Birmingham Post, 21/03/14) This endlessly intriguing space has also provided much inspiration for my own work, one piece being a large photograph of one of the columns under the junction, installed with tube lighting on the floor beneath the photograph. Upon the column which I came across is a somewhat humorous graffiti image of a skeleton, and in front of the column was a large pile of earth displaced in some kind of construction activity. The pile itself, the tyre tracks in the earth and the visible layers of graffiti all evidence human activity, but the image has a stillness and is completely void of people. This found moment seemed to be a perfect capsule of the space, and the choice to install with the tube lights does something to reference the light and space artists of the late 60s and 70s such as Dan Flavin, playing with ideas of modernism, its history and its modern-day reality.
Spaghetti Junction, despite being well-known and much passed, holds more stories and possibilities for exploration than one might first think. Its construction and the history surrounding it offers a valuable insight into Birmingham’s modernist past, something which, at a time when the city seems to ready to shake off its ‘concrete jungle’ tag, is important and timely to reflect upon. Geographically too, the space is thought-provoking, with its layered networks of transport and connectivity and the history of natural caves at the location. Various creative individuals have discovered the freedom and inspiration this space offers, including writers, photographers, artists and graffiti writers. This is not a space to be approached without care, and not without its dangers – I am not advocating walking there alone or late at night – but I would say that this endlessly captivating and compelling space is definitely worth a closer look.
Leonardo Morgado – An Urban Fairytale
All images © Ally Standing