Fun Palace: A Ceramic City Story

December 23, 2015

Even when away from the pH+ studio at weekends, the exploration and enjoyment of architecture is a lust for many of us. Kristian finds his passions for the buildings and landscapes he grew up around causing him an unquenchable pride and enthusiasm. Here Kristian shares a glimpse of his endeavours outside of the working week:

Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s never built Fun Palace very much comes to life one weekend every year. Not within the confinement of a transferable lattice structure, but across hundreds of small community events celebrating art, science and localism.

Over the course of the last year I became involved in the discussions and momentum of a collective of people bound by an enthusiasm for the Potteries – the conurbation that forms Stoke-on-Trent. In the first weekend of October we played host to our first Fun Palace. The catalyst of my involvement was a particular building in the Potteries; the Grade II Listed Free Public Library on London Road.

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The local authority placed the Library into a property auction with a guide price of £85,000. I met with Danny in a nearby pub, united by the belief that the building had a far greater value to the local community. We discussed future uses and planned to approach investors, who we believed might protect and repurpose the building, but most importantly, respect and value it as a free public place. Danny runs the Ceramic City Stories projects and Potteries Tile Trail, which connects, records and champions Potteries made architectural tiles worldwide. Many are Minton Hollins tiles made from the clay surrounding the London Road site and crafted in the now demolished factories.

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The Minton family companies developed a long standing pottery factory founded in 1793. Over the centuries they produced earthenware, porcelain, fine bone china and tiles. Famous Minton Hollins encaustic tiles have medieval revival designs by Architect A.W.N Pugin and can be found in Westminster Palace and the Houses of Parliament; Melbourne Parliament and Cathedral; The Capital Building and National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC; An arcade in Central Park, New York and most grand Victorian terrace houses, public buildings and churches.

The Borough adopted the 1875 Free Library’s Act, receiving donations and the 3000 volume archive and museum of the Stoke Athenaeum members Library and built on land gifted by Colin Minton Campbell. These gifts to the people of Stoke were a philanthropic gesture for public enlightenment. One condition of donations ensured that the lower ground of the building was a canteen for factory workpeople.

It was this canteen that was shrouded in wallpaper for around 50 years when converted into the children’s library. The now unused space was in the process of maintenance by the winning auction bidders when the tiles lining the walls were rediscovered. Aware of Danny’s expertise, the owners contacted him to review the discovery.

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This yielded the opportunity for us to volunteer in opening up the basement of the Free Library to the public, a generous offer by the buildings new custodians. Our first re-opening was a weekend event of ‘unveiling the tiles’, still mostly papered over. The weekend was advertised through local press, encouraging the public to visit and play a vital part in rediscovering the heritage of the communities former free Library. Now sold off and no longer public, I felt delighted to see adults and children from the town diligently remove areas of wallpaper with water and flexible plastic scrapers, revealing one or two of hundreds of different tile prints. Each tile is in a sequence of literary themes from the Old and New Testament, Aesop’s fables, Tennyson’s idylls of the King, fairy’s and nymphs, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare’s plays and more. A prominent experience that I brought away was the moments when children and adults proudly pointed out ‘their tiles’ that they had carefully uncovered. The Heritage building was adding to its social narrative, continuing to strongly embed itself as an important part of the community. Not just a building, but spiritually owned by its public. Many older visitors returned to reminisce and enjoy a building that they had visited as a library or even as children when it was used as a temporary changing room to the long demolished public baths behind.

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Since the grand public unveiling, the library has played host to several weekend openings such as a Heritage DIY manifesto day in partnership with academics from Leeds University and Heritage Lottery Funding as well as a successful Heritage open weekend. The October Fun Palace saw it join hundreds of other national spaces over the weekend in celebrating a special local place, its people, and the fusion of Art and Science.

The Fun Palace weekend gains its inspiration from Theatre Director Joan Littlewood, who set about developing a laboratory of fun with Architect Cedric Price in the 60’s. The temporary events where brought into motion by Writer Stella Duffy to mark Joan’s centenary in October 2014. Realising the aims of the Fun Palace would be a fitting tribute, one that championed causes that were close to Joan’s heart. Stella and Sarah-Jane Rawlings became co-directors of the Arts Council funded Fun Palaces team that promoted, inspired and activated community Fun Palaces across the country. The successes were built on this year. Each Fun Palace was unique to its people and place. They poetically provided an activity, a discussion and art and science in a re-purposed space, temporal landscape or purposely crafted stage for either a moment or the entire weekend. Social media transmitted images and video recordings of each #funpalace in a manner that would make Cedric Price proud.

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The Fun Palace weekend brought a manifesto that science and art are bonded to one another and aimed to bring empowerment; to recognise a community and each individual’s genius, opening up the manifesto to anyone who wished to participate for free. At its heart, is localism and community with the encouragement from the words of Joan and Cedric:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

Locally to Stoke, Cedric Price grew up in neighbouring Stone. His pioneering statement on the educational systems and abilities of architecture to assist in the economic revival of an area where promoted by his Potteries Thinkbelt; A topic I excitedly revealed to Danny in the pub when we first met to discuss our passions for Stoke and the plight of the Minton Library. To stop the areas continued decline, the mantra by many locals of the Potteries is the re-connection of the unique collection of six towns. Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, Fenton and Longton only became known as the City of Stoke-on-Trent 90 years ago, more than a decade after Joan Littlewoods birth. The connective, inclusiveness of Cedric’s Prices Potteries Thinkbelt (the city caused by learning) inspires and promotes our aspirations for the conurbation. I have keen interest in  driving these ideas and possibilities forward and hope to remain active in the community when time offers it.

The Minton Library’s basement and the group’s passionate enthusiasm for the Potteries provided a perfect setting for a Fun Palace. The Potteries provide an exemplar of a community that fuses art and science in its centuries old ceramics industry. Along with recording and auditing the insitu tiles, the aims of our residency with the Library already prioritised exposing the building and its treasures back to its community. The Fun Palace weekend provided an opportunity to look at the Library in different ways, employing a macro and micro view of the building and its ceramics using art and technology to explore and record the heritage within.

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The public of all ages were once again welcomed in and presented with ways to participate. We were fortunate to welcome one of the directors of the Fun Palace initiative Sara-Jane Rawlings who stayed later than planned, enthralled by activities and heartfelt discussions. Jane organised crayon rubbings of tiles that once adorned parliament, allowing children and the occasional adult to explore the reliefs and decorations and become exposed to the slip methods to encaustic tile making. A wall of colourful patterns was soon building up and copies of rubbings were taken for visitors to keep. Tracings were started and made available to explore Library’s tiles. A ‘people’s exhibition’ displayed ceramics and backstamps. Specialist Tiler Simon provided reclaimed Minton tiles for young visitors to create their own temporary geometric layouts. I promoted and discussed Cedric Price’s Thinkbelt. Bret exhibited prints and organising a free raffle for a copy of one of his designs while recording the weekend through videos.

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An exhibition from Potteries Ghost Signs explored the graphic artistry and faded signs that remain from past communities. Deb McAndrew brought theatre scripts and promoted the Claybody Theatre, a group set up to bring live performance and the arts to new audiences within the potteries away from potentially daunting arts institutions. Phil brought a wealth of reference materials and knowledge to research visitors’ artefacts and personal connections to pottery firms. Artist Steve Shaw brought stories and discussions of working with clay as a media, while Jane inspired visitors to participate. Danny toured people around the building and collected shared stories while Kate Innes contributed words of poetry. Kate exhibited her WriteScience award winning poem ‘Walking the hills’ and brought typed exerts for visitors to match to the Library’s literary themed illustrated depictions. During the weekend volunteers and visitors were honoured to a recital of Kate’s unpublished poem Clay. As a legacy for the Minton Library Fun Palace Kate crafted a poem inspired by the weekends discussions, excitement, locality and the people:

 

‘Muck and Magic’ – for the Potters of Stoke

Clay is some kind of living thing –

a beast that’s hard to gauge.

It cries out to be changed and formed –

but fights at every stage.

It deceives us with its softness

and undoes our best attempts.

The next pot will be your best pot –

but today’s must pay the rent.

In touching clay we touch the past –

the skills, the pride, the ground

of men and women in black and white

who made Stoke strong and sound.

The mix must shine just like an eye –

a glass one – they would say.

They passed on lots of little tricks

we say ourselves today.

The firing phase is hazardous –

the ware can break apart.

If fire wins out – then all is lost –

if man – we call it art.

For clay has chemical innocence –

and you have to go along

with all its idiosyncrasies

so the pot can sing its song.

Kate Innes

October 2015