The Conversation

The Conversation is an ongoing series of photographic and textual responses between There is Beauty in the City's Glen Stoker and Photo Arte Komite's (Ph'a'ke) Igor Calvo. Using our respective cities of Stoke-on-Trent and Bilbao as our inspiration, we will be using our Beauty in the City magnets to explore the state of our urban environments, both physically and metaphysically, historically and contemporarily.

On the face of it, you couldn't get two more disparate cities. However, Stoke and Bilbao share some characteristics. They are a similar size in terms of population; share an industrial heritage vital to their country's prosperities and each boast football teams who not only play in red and white stripes but also have strikingly similar, pragmatic footballing ideologies.

There are no fixed rules to the conversation - each response may be solely photographic, or may have some attached text, but each posting will be in response to the previous post. There are no time limits to the responses, but we have agreed to try and make at least one response a month.
We have agreed to reflect after a year to see where we've reached and reflect upon our respective understandings of our built environments.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation -  #1 30.01.11

Glen Stoker:

Stuart is a car park attendant. This photograph was taken on the top floor of a 7 storey car park. There are 18 car parks in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent. Car parks are a predominant land-use in this post industrial city today. In order to photograph on the top floor of this car park, I had to persuade Stuart and his boss that I wasn't a terrorist. Once satisfied of my good intentions, Stuart made a special journey to retrieve the photograph he's holding, which depicts the city as it looked in 1934. It shows a landscape covered in bottle kilns, the tell-tale architectural structure of the region's ceramics industry.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #2 05.02.11

Igor Calvo:

igor calvo - photograph #2
Sometimes I think about the city as if the landscape of an old abandoned mine would be, through whose layers and traces we can study and learn about the different stages of its development.
In Bilbao, as in Stoke-on-Trent and many other cities that share a similar past, there are a lot of references to its industrial past and the impact its industry had and still has in the development of the city.
However, I think we often forget that Bilbao's history goes back much further than the last century and a half.
And, although it played an extremely relevant role in it industrial past, we often forget that it was Bilbao’s estuary, la Ría, the one that has accompanied and shaped the character and the development of the city throughout its history.
Here, at the end of the Zorrozaurre peninsula, with the last relics of industry behind me and the reflection of one of the few factories that still remains near the city in front of me, I wonder if I find myself in the last halt to the river that would allow me to go down to the water and catch a boat to leave the city behind, if so I do wished.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #3 05.03.11

Glen Stoker:

Hanley greyhound racing and speedway stadium. closed 1964
the dilemma facing the post-industrial city seems to be how to balance the understandable propensity for nostalgia, without that yearning for a past becoming a suffocator for a future.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #4 13.03.11

Igor Calvo:

alhóndiga from iparraguirre street

It is true that, in those cities sharing an industrial past, there is a longing or sort of melancholy set up in the collective mentality of their citizens with respect to "those years of work, production, development and progress" of the city (despite the huge abuses committed in labor and environmental issues we still could not get rid of completely).

However, it is also true that we must overcome this nostalgia and look forward to a futureof work, production, development and progress”, without ties and having learned from the mistakes of the past.

The new Alhóndiga Bilbao is a good example of that. Maintaining the original structure of one of the most representative buildings in Bilbao, the old industrial wine warehouse (more than 100 years old, remained empty from the 70’s) has been reborn to become a great culture and leisure centre, transcending its walls to spread the surrounding streets with new designs and structures that invite us to rethink about the streets as a collective and creative spaces.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #5 04.04.11

Glen Stoker:

unofficial use of urban space #1  - the itinerant hand car wash

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #6 20.04.11

Igor Calvo:

Whether official, unofficial, illegal or semi-illegal, all the spaces, places, spots or corners of our city should be public and of open access to all people.
I have always wondered what the hell signs like that mean, maybe people "NO?!

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #7 09.05.11

Glen Stoker:

The Boothen End, The Victoria Ground, Stoke-on-Trent. 
Life is full of places we used to go. Where once we felt at home.

The remains of the home terrace of what was the UK's oldest football league ground, the home of Stoke City F.C.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #8 27.05.11

Igor Calvo:

Usually, the human map of Arriaga Square consists of the citizens of Bilbao going to the theater (that gives its name to the square) to consume culture or those who cross it in their way to the Old Town and tourists who arrive both to the tourist office and to enjoy the architecture of the building.

Although, only some times, people decide to make other use of this emblematic place in Bilbao. Without having to ask for permission, without having to apologize for gaining it, the citizens themselves have decided to "occupy" the Arriaga Square to show their indignation over the ineffective and useless Spanish political class.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #9 20.07.11

Glen Stoker:

Whilst on a walk of Stoke-on-Trent's ring road, looking at the way citizens are officially guided around their city spaces, I was drawn to this urban phenomenon, known colloquially as a "lazy line".

 In the last post in our conversation, Igor's depiction of Arriaga Square, showed how a city space is appropriated by its citizens for a use other than that imagined by the planners, politicians and authorities in general.

This image shows the formation of a shortcut from the pathway up a bank towards a large shopping centre. The authorities have repeatedly tried to dissuade the city's inhabitants to take this route, but have been repeatedly ignored and, over many years, a new, democratic, popular walkway has formed.

Cities are often full of these popularly formed objections to the inadequacies of urban plans, though it is very rare for the authorities to admit their error and formalise these shortcuts or "lazy lines" into properly constructed pedestrian routes.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #10 27.05.11

Igor Calvo:

In conversation # 9, Glen reflected on the failure of many urban policies and the stubbornness of local governments and authorities to tell people where it may or may not walk, move, go…and he was absolutely right.

Not so long ago, the council inaugurated a new plaza/square “in the middle of a roundabout" in the center of Bilbao. Being the chosen site for the plaza/square already controversial (a place of relaxation surrounded by traffic), its design, with the benches looking at the road and the citizens who would seat in them breathing the bad fumes from the vehicles surround, seems like nonsense.

On the day of its “opening”, many were the citizens of Bilbao who came to show their disagreement with the design of the new plaza/square and, above all, to request the change of the benches location; so that, at least, they would look towards the centre of the plaza/square instead of facing the road. The city council shook its head with signs of disapproval, emphasizing how whimsical were their fellow citizens and, making a great exercise of kindness, moved "some" of the benches as citizens demanded.

Thus, Bilbao has gained a place that makes traffic to flow easier through the center of the city, but the council has wasted another chance to make the city more friendly for its citizens and pedestrians. All that, thanks to public money of course, on account of the same taxpayers who requested its modification.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #11  09.09.11

Glen Stoker:

For six days a week, this space comprises one of the city centre's 20+ car parks. Empty spaces designed to make money for the council at the expense of those wishing to use the city centre. The over-provision of car parks in relation to the amount of people who wish to use them means that many of these spaces remain largely empty. Empty spaces consisting of a series of marked, car-size empty spaces.

Every sunday, the council allows this car park to be used as the location for the Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Car Boot Sale. For £8.00 you can hire a space to park your car and sell possessions from the boot. The space is transformed into a bustling hubbub, as throngs of the city residents descend to grab a bargain, or to recycle the unwanted parts of others' lives.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #12  01.10.11

Igor Calvo

During our conversation, we have “talked” more than once about the "protected" spaces that cities devote to the vehicles that drive along them everyday, either when they fulfill their primary function (as car “nurseries”), or even on such occasions when they are used for another purpose (as in the case of car boot sales); however, little mention have we made of its main protagonists: the cars which, at least in Bilbao, nearly match the number of its inhabitants, with the problems that it brings to the circulation in the city.
There are times even, as in this street in the center of Bilbao, in which, depending on how we place ourselves, we can hardly see a human presence among so many cars if not reflected in the car glasses.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #13  22.10.11 

Glen Stoker

I walk past this window a few times a week and always feel compelled to peer inside. The dishevelled room,  is a workmen's rest room and is inhabited by a fridge, a microwave oven, a heater and a couple of chairs.

And a table.

I've never seen anybody in the room. But I know there's a human presence because the table always has something on it. Usually it's a folded tabloid newspaper. Today it was a carrier bag, full of tomatoes.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #14  02.11.11

Igor Calvo

Urban Still Life III
Igor writes...

In increasingly populated cities, to the point that by 2050 “the cities will absorb all the world population growth”*, is interesting to find out how we can still find isolated and “uninhabited” urban spaces in which the human presence can only be sensed and not seen; sometimes in a poetic way, much more prosaic in others, one just have to follow the trace…

In any case, will the cities of the future be able to put up with the waste generated by their increasingly population?

*Mike Davis, “Planet of slums”, 2006

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #15  27.11.11 

Glen Stoker

in reply to Igor Calvi's last post...

Where We Used To Live (2011)

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #16 02.11.11 

Igor Calvo

Igor replies...

Nobody discuss the need for urban renewal of cities (much more arguable and controversial, I agree, is how to do it), but even greater is the need of its inhabitants to keep the memory of their tracks through those urban microcosms; even though, as this is the case, an attempt of showing evidence of our passage through life or just where we were once.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #17 04.01.12 

Glen Stoker

in reply to igor...

urban markings create memorials to human presence and events. cities are, in some part, a product of these presences and occurences which combine to create narratives that make each city unique.

 pc john taylor was pushed from a building while attempting to apprehend a burglar.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #18 14.01.12 

Igor Calvo

a quick reply from igor brings into question our city's heroes...

Plaques, monuments, statues, street names ... the cities are full of signs and landmarks that celebrate, commemorate or highlight people and events that are assumed to have played an important role in the development of today’s city.
But those urban marks go back to past times and tell us stories which, as history itself, should be revisited and reinterpreted every now and then, as the official history not always tell us the truth.

Rafael Sánchez Mazas was a founding member and leader of the *Falange and Minister during the Franco regime. Today, there is no reason why such a significant character of the Franco dictatorship should give name to a walk in Bilbao.

*A fascist political movement and party

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #19 18.01.12 

Glen Stoker

In response to Igor...

The growth of a city is often inextricably linked to the efforts and presence of one or two notable figures. Post-industrial cities can often be dominated by the ghosts of the same figures.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #20 07.03.12 

Igor Calvo

no. 20 in the ongoing conversation between Igor and Glen


Even though history tends to personalize in individual figures both the successes and failures of a country, a city…sometimes it’s the community the one who takes the credit for achieving something good.

In the modern history of Bilbao, we find a really good example of how the collective spirit and the feelings of belonging and loyalty to a club by a whole city, have managed to maintain among the most important professional football teams a club comprise solely, since its creation more than one hundred years ago, by basque players: the Athletic of Bilbao.

Itzi and Imanol, along with 40,000 people at San Mames and hundreds of miles more at their homes or in the streets, stuck to their radios or TVs; they all are, concerning the Athletic of Bilbao, just one figure, just one spirit who keeps on making the impossible happen. 

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #21 07.03.12 

Glen Stoker

#21 - in reply to Igor Calvo

The idea of a single city, with a unifying force and a community committed to collectively working towards its success could be seen as a model for finding a way through the post-industrial regeneration of a city. Igor, you suggest that Bilbao has that unity.

Stoke-on-Trent a conglomeration of 6 towns spread over 8 miles originally came together as a federation and became a city 100 years ago. Yet it has never quite managed to achieve that idea of "unity".

The city is still, in effect, a group of 6 individual towns, working for their own ends, sitting uneasily under the umbrella of Stoke-on-Trent. There is a resistance to commit to a unified city centre - a parochial protectiveness of one's hometown. Until these ties and boundaries are loosened and broken, this city might never achieve the potential that a collective spirit might realise.

There is Beauty in the City : The Conversation - #22 12.03.12 

Igor Calvo

a reply from Igor Calvo

It is true that Athletic of Bilbao is capable to turn a whole city and its county into just one being for carrying shoulder-high the team towards victory (for instance, as it happened last Thursday in Old Trafford which for a moment or so, looked like San Mames); however, it’s just football. Although, it is also true that the pride and the feeling of belonging to the city is virtually unanimous and makes the citizen of Bilbao to, sometimes, verge on chauvinism.
Even though, I’d dare to say the feeling of pride and belonging it is also shared for the citizens of that “geographical entity” known as Gran Bilbao: one of the biggest metropolitan areas of Spain, comprises of more than 20 independent town councils but committed to work together for their development.
But then, a real problem could emerge: the one that could make the big, leading city, to monopolize the most part of the human, economical or cultural resources; as, for example, we can check if we make a brief comparison to the cultural agendas of Bilbao and the rest of the town halls of the Gran Bilbao.
Unity, yes of course; diversity and balance, of course too.