Hugh Pearman takes a rewarding journey north to find a city that’s discovering its self-belief
The programme of cultural events, of course, is only part of the purpose of the City of Culture designation. As with the rather larger stimuli of Olympics or Expos, the events give cities a deadline to get themselves looking good, to improve their facilities, to have some ‘legacy’. Funds are available or can be leveraged. Minds are concentrated. So it is with Kingston-upon-Hull.
It’s not as if Hull hasn’t had numerous smaller cultural and urban regeneration initiatives in the past. I’ve been visiting the city at intervals since the late 1970s, when it was first grappling with the problems of post-industrialisation – not least the collapse of its once huge fishing industry. Wander the streets of the Old Town – a great place now, as it always has been – and you come across the fragments of forgotten public art projects beneath your feet or on the walls, just as you do in London’s Southwark, say. These things have a shelf life.
Over decades, various architectural and cultural interventions have taken place – be they Terry Farrell’s huge aquarium The Deep, Wilkinson Eyre’s bus station grafted into the city’s fine Paragon railway terminus, Wright & Wright’s Hull Truck theatre, McDowell & Benedetti’s rotating bridge over the River Hull at Scale Lane or Sheppard Robson’s recent radical reworking of the Hull University Library as built by librarian/poet Philip Larkin. We’ve covered them all, and even devoted a complete issue of the RIBAJ to the city in May 2009. More recently we examined the city’s architectural culture in the light of the Hull City Plan and how it dovetails with the City of Culture jamboree. So when I went this time, I was looking for signs of positive and permanent change.
The cultural events are fine, and popular: visit the art galleries, take in the large public art projects such as Nayan Kulkarni’s monumental installation ‘Blade’ in Queen Victoria Square – a single 75m wind-turbine blade, made locally, hovering like a colossal scimitar right across the square. The largest found-object imaginable, it is curiously unphotographable. The Ferens Art Gallery, always good, has been technically refurbished and has a good set of Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Popes’ series. Up at the university, the Brynmor Jones library has a popular exhibition of drawing, ‘Lines of Thought’, including an enchanting elephant by Rembrandt.
What you first notice on arriving in the city, though, is the £26 million worth of reasonably nice new stone paving and hard landscaping in the pedestrianised parts (way better than the previous concrete-block iteration) and the fact that the pedestrianised or traffic-calmed parts have expanded to connect the key areas of town. Manchester-based Re-form landscape architect is the designer. There are lots of new timber-slat benches, lots of rather lumpy new lamp poles and lots of work still going on. But a better indication of the city’s improving cultural health is the new artisan chocolatier on Humber Street.
Humber Street is in the city’s Fruitmarket area, a few streets with water on three sides (Humber, River Hull, and Humber Dock) which is isolated from the main city by being on the wrong side of the thunderous dual carriageway of the A63, taking a seemingly endless stream of trucks to and from the newer docks downstream, because this is also the E20 highway to Rotterdam. The Deep, on the other side of the Hull where it flows into the Humber, is similarly cut off, though at least there is now a pedestrian bridge linking it with the Fruitmarket. For years there has been a plan to improve and bridge the A63 and so re-link the city for pedestrians, but this is in the lap of the Highways Agency, which is not going to hurry itself just because of an arts festival. In consequence the Fruit Market district, more than a little blighted, has been hanging on by a thread for years, not helped by a failed unbuilt housing scheme in the 1990s, and too much has already been demolished. But enough remains – especially the largely intact part of Humber Street where auctions for fruit and veg off the boats used to be held, and bananas ripened in lofts. Now, like the maritime Covent Garden it was, it is coming back to life. Some of it – Thieving Harry’s café on the corner, Cocoa chocolatier/patisserie, an upmarket Indian restaurant facing Humber Dock – happened anyway, but have benefitted from the tide of streetscape improvements which has washed along and made them look a lot better. Light-touch refurbishment has prepared units for future tenants in a joint venture with local developer Wykeland Beal. The same team has provided an outdoor auditorium built over an old dry dock by the Hull, right in front of a new building for digital industries. That does have a City of Culture link, as does one permanent bit of ‘legacy’ – the new Humber Street Gallery for contemporary art. Luckily there wasn’t much money so this is a simple scrape-and-reveal exercise on what was a sound 1950s fruit warehouse. Good lighting and essential services was all it needed beyond the pre-provided large spaces.
In the Humber Street Gallery you’ll find a retrospective of Sarah Lucas downstairs, and another upstairs of the slightly alarming 1970s Hull-based ‘Coum Collective’ which was much into highly sexualised performance art and which later morphed into the industrial shock-band Throbbing Gristle. It was all so long ago – the fanzine-style printed material is charmingly dated – but the images and videos still have the power to shock as well as amuse. Not for children! Keep them downstairs with the rather sweet ‘Dead Bod’, a seagull graffiti painted on a rusting shed decades ago by a mariner which became an alternative symbol for Hull. Now it is preserved indoors for ever.
In the end it all comes down to attitude. Whatever you go to see or hear in Hull, make sure to wander the streets of the Old Town as well as the Fruit Market, try the boardwalk up the Hull and the Wilberforce Museum towards the top end of the High Street. The city has still got a way to go urbanistically, but after all this time I’m sensing confidence now – the feeling that at last it is starting to come together.