CoLab Dudley
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CoLab Dudley

Co.LAB #1 Project Launch

Holly & Jo share the beginning of an experiment with Birmingham City University’s Co.LAB.

In his blog ‘Cars as the new horses, high streets as the new high streets’, Dan Hill raised the provocation of:

“…if you let traffic engineers run the street you get traffic; if you let gardeners run it, you’d get gardens. In reality, we need a multiplicity of disciplines addressing the street…”

What happens if budding designers in architecture, landscape, interior, product and furniture convene to imagine resilient, regenerative futures for Dudley High Street together?

We are finding this out through a High Street experiment with Co.LAB, a collaborative laboratory embedded within the School of Architecture & Design at Birmingham City University. Over the next two months, 15 students from four design disciplines, guided by Matthew Jones and Hannah Vowles, are getting to know the High Street, and imagining what it could be like in 2030.

The experiment started with getting to know each other and our experiences of the High Street. In a COVID-free world we would be welcoming our collaborators into the Lab space on the High Street, to wander around and chat with each other before settling down with drinks and snacks. It’s difficult to recreate this togetherness online, but with Mat’s framing and the students’ enthusiasm we were soon all exchanging stories and sketches of the High Streets we grew up with.

In our first gathering, as we do with all our meetings, we had a check-in question to help us be present. We brought the High Street to the students by sharing a photo of it at 3pm (which is admittedly usually quieter at that time, never mind during lockdown) and asked everyone:

Share one thing that you notice about Dudley High St from this image:

The students’ first impressions included:

  • Absence of sunshine;
  • Patterns on the pavement;
  • Absence of many pedestrians;
  • Dominance of cars and the road;
  • Cars blocking movement;
  • Lots of closed shutters;
  • Lots of greys and browns — no colour;
  • No variation of frontage on the right;
  • Lack of anything green or growing;
  • Old world looking street furniture and lamps;
  • Nobody in groups or stopping and speaking / connecting;
  • Dull;
  • Empty benches.

From one image, the students had teased out various challenges that we’ve been trying to understand through listening and talking to people on the High Street and public life studies in consideration of the wider systemic context and its complexity.

The students were taken on a whistle stop tour of High Street, and why new forms of social infrastructure are needed to these complex issues; how we work as a social lab; our principles; and what conditions we are currently creating to rebuild, nourish and reveal our imaginative capacity in order to respond to the High Street’s challenges with creativity and communal dreaming.

We shared with them our ecosystem of Time Rebels, Strategic Partners, Ground Crew, and, of course, the students themselves. They are now part of a wider crew of creative people imagining a High Street of 2031, and with that comes the support of the ecosystem:

Just like our check-ins, we did a check-out to transition us to the rest of the session. In the spirit of our principle in celebrating gifts, we invited the students to tell us what talents and gifts they look forward to sharing with the team along this journey:

“Curiosity; empathy; collage; sketching; knowledge of colour; digital visual communication; drawing; green design; materiality; positivity; montage; creativity; and lived experience of growing up near the High Street.”

Mat invited us all on to Miro to think about our memories of the High Street, and sketch what sticks in our minds. He encouraged us to think about what was distinctive, what happened there, how people interacted with the place, and how it made us feel.

We were drawn to memories of the colour and size of the High Streets we grew up with; the topography and the geological processes that generated the landscape beyond; hanging baskets and chewing gum; changing shopfronts and the spaces between; people stopping to rest and eat; and the sights of a magic machine cutting ham. Their other senses recalled hearing singing, and the smells of food vans, the cake shop, fresh doughnuts, dried food and spices.

Recent memories include how UK High Streets have changed since COVID, with people queuing down the whole street to support their local independent bakery. Looking beyond the UK, in Brazil, the São Paulo Museum of Art acts as a public shelter: a space the people take over with skating and film screenings. It doesn’t matter that it’s noisy, and you can’t hear the film: it’s a place where something is happening at all times of the day and people feel safe.

Having anchored themselves in each others’ talents and memories, the Co.LAB designers are now getting to know the High Street of Dudley. We will be sharing what gifts they bring and the stories of the designs that they reveal through this collaboration in a series of blogs that we will co-author. As an alternative social infrastructure on the High Street we pay a good deal of attention to the HOW of what we do as much as WHAT we do. This focus shapes our practice as a lab team. It affects how we build, value and behave in relationships. This is why we are a platform not a service. It is why we engage in principles led shared learning and co-designing that disrupts usual hierarchies of knowledge, and ways of knowing and doing. We hope that introducing the Co.LAB designers to this way of working will help create nurturing conditions as they develop their regenerative design practice — their journey or their HOW in this collaboration is as important to us as WHAT they design.

Personal Note on Co.LAB

I have a soft spot for Co.LAB, having taken part during my Masters in 2011 (when it was known as ‘Elective’). It is a chance for students to collaborate with other disciplines and partners inside and outside of the university. In 2011, I was drawn to a research project ‘Demystifying Studio Culture’ in which students were invited to become research partners with academic Hannah Vowles. It unlocked in me a fascination in the process of designing and creating; in the spaces we create and the relationships we build, and what happens when the design process facilitates collaborations between different disciplines. It shaped the foundation of my approach to academia and practice for the next decade, and led to several other collaborations with Hannah (including this project!).

Four days a week, I work with charity and community groups at APEC Architects. APEC shifted my research even more into how the process of design can empower communities to shape their environment, physically and socially. APEC itself is actually a product of the 60’s equivalent of Co.LAB. Birmingham School of Architecture was collaborating with the University of Birmingham, investigating the integration of community facilities into places of worship (at a time when this was happening across Europe, but not the UK). The project resulted in a new church in the Birmingham suburb of Hodge Hill, designed and constructed by students. It also led to the project’s research fellows, Peter Bridges and Martin Purdy, meeting and founding APEC Architects together. An important aspect of the project was that students engaged with the parishioners to determine what the brief would be: a nursery, workshop, cinema, library, lounge, art room, and games spaces. This approach of developing a brief with communities influenced APEC’s process for the next 50 years and into the third generation.

My point is that collaborative experiments that create the conditions for curiosity and experimentation, enable people to learn and test through doing and prototyping, celebrate gifts and skills, and bring people together to design and build spaces and experiences together can create generational ripples of abundance, curiosity, creativity, care, and trust.

As the Co.LAB design students of 2021 embark on their journey of imagining regenerative futures for Dudley High Street, I can’t wait to see the branches of experiments and roots of connections that have grown from this project in 2031.

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Holly Doron

Holly Doron

Creating conditions for kinder, more creative and connected places through CoLab Dudley, Wolverhampton for Everyone and APEC Architects.