One afternoon in Spring, while sitting on the 5 bus as it pulled into Middlesbrough Bus Station, an artwork on the building opposite caught my eye. Brightly-coloured, geometric shapes formed the outline of the instantly recognisable BBC Broadcasting House. Broadcasting House, sitting on the corner of Newport Road looms over the bus station. I had seen this cold and weather-beaten building so many times before sitting on buses to and from town (not really paying it much attention apart from noting that its thermometer always reads the same temperature). Yet, the piece of artwork I had just passed breathed a new lease of life into the sandy building, injecting colours into it’s chunky block structure – reminiscent of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant.
The artwork was by visual artist Emma Bennett. Commissioned by Middlesbrough Council and delivered by Navigator North it is one of two pieces of public art by Emma currently up in Middlesbrough. There is the aforementioned Broadcasting House Reimagined on Brentnall Centre, Gilkes Street and Carpark Stairway on the side of the Cleveland Centre. Emma’s work examines the built environment that forms the landscape of Middlesbrough. An established artist, exploring memory, Modernist and Post War buildings (architecture from 1945 – 1979). Emma describes the commissions to me as “Wonderful!” as until now, she has never had the opportunity to create public art. Nonetheless, she has previously made large wall painting commissions. These include; Pink Walkway at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art for the Sonia Boyce curated show In The Castle In My Skin (2021) and The Masham Commission to coincide with her show, Down Town at Navigator North’s creative space The Masham (2022).
Her approach to all these art pieces begins with taking photographs of selected buildings to explore their structural shapes and examine them from different angles. Emma tells me that she always considers the colours in her paintings throughout this process and selects them before painting. Typically up to five colours will be used, alongside black and white stripes. This photography leads to Emma sketching out the building outline and painting her colourful work that re-envisions these places. Returning to the subject of colour in Emma’s work, it is notable in The Masham Commission, that the green hue synonymous with the tiles on the exterior of the building is present. Additionally, the reddish-orange used gives a nod to the red triangle of the Bass signs that sit on the pub.
For the Middlesbrough town centre commissions, Emma wanted to create painted murals like her previous wall pieces. For this, she proposed five new paintings based upon particular buildings and structures in the town. From initial paintings, the two selected were Broadcasting House Reimagined and Carpark Stairway. These were then digitally reproduced, blown up, and placed onto the sides of buildings near these sites. Initially, the artwork Carpark Stairway couldn’t be put up on the Cleveland Centre due to a private landlord. Instead it was going to be placed on the side of Tesco Express (opposite Barclays) rather than near the stairwell it depicted. Thankfully, this didn’t work out and when Middlesbrough Council brought the Cleveland Centre, the work rightfully ended up on the building a stone’s throw away from the stairwell built-in 1971.
The reason why these two particular locations were selected by Emma, at surface level, lies with them being regularly-passed sites by the artist. Broadcasting House is next door to her studio, and while studying Fine Art at Teesside University, the Cleveland Centre Concrete Stairway was en route from her studio to university. Yet, when we look a little deeper, these concrete structures hold memories that have strong meanings to Emma. She notes that the composition of a concrete stairwell is instantly recognisable to a lot of us, for it is present in a lot of town centres, making it a staple of the British post-war landscape. When I think of a concrete stairwell, I instantly think of the Hayward Gallery, part of London’s Southbank Center. One of its somewhat identical circular stairwells to Middlesbrough is painted a banana yellow, echoing Emma’s work. When researching the Cleveland Centre I could not find the architects of the site, however, the Southbank staircases were designed by Norman Engleback, Ron Herron, Warren Chalk, and John Attenborough and opened in 1968.
Seemingly, locations grafted from concrete and buildings in geometric shapes have forever been a part of Emma’s life. At the age of twenty, she moved from her hometown of Redcar to Maidenhead, Berkshire for art college. Here, she found solace studying in the town’s library. There was a serendipitous connection as the library in Maidenhead was somewhat identical to that of the one she had grown up with in Redcar, (Emma paid homage to Redcar Library in her painting Pink Walkway). In fact, both had been designed by Ahrends, Burton, and Koralek Architects in the late 1960s and built in the early 1970s. Sadly, the Redcar Library was demolished in 2011 but the Maidenhead Library still stands and is Grade II listed, (in my eyes there’s some pretty blatant North/South bias here). If we want to get super high brow, we could use the critical lens of Hauntology to explore these relationships between structures and memories further. The term was coined in 1993 by the Marxist philosopher Jaques Derrida to describe our, “nostalgia for lost futures”. To put that plain and simple, a lot of the futuristic-looking architecture of the postwar period was built with the narrative of promising a brighter future, yet that future wasn’t achieved.
But lets not get bogged down in theory, because I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note. I mention to Emma that I really tire of people making the flippant remark that Middlesbrough is an ugly town! I ask her how to encourage those who make such comments of how they might be able to find inspiration in the town’s (at first glance) mundane buildings. Without hesitation, she responds that “it’s just looking up!” Highlighting that, “We have all done it, gone into town and only keep our eyes at eye level but, once you look up at the buildings, there are some amazing things.” In her most recent work, she has been exploring Middlesbrough’s windows, becoming fascinated with their shapes and structures and has created paintings around this subject. So, next time you are in Middlesbrough, try looking up as a wellbeing activity. Try looking at the windows on Albert Road or even at that overlooked BBC Broadcasting House, designed by Hugh Wilson and Lewis Wormsely and built for BBC Radio Cleveland in 1974. Who knows what inspiration they might hold?