Synopsis Paper

A town can be a work of art – in theory at least – much as a person may be – each have been amongst art’s most common subjects; yet with towns, art and people, as we all know, the true value lies beyond the aesthetic.

Although many Italian Renaissance towns were created out of the best artistic and visionary practice of the time (and philanthropy) it is difficult to see the contemporary equivalent, at least in the UK. The nature of art has changed as have our values, wealth patterns and education system; so perhaps we need to look a little differently particularly now, in the face of the current global ecological and economic crises, to see new potentials for artistic engagement. Realising this potential in certain respects can be more difficult in places like Barrow but if the ‘real’ assets within the social natural and built environments are recognised and understood the rewards and opportunities can be much higher, and I believe have the potential to set new standards for a globally sustainable future.

There is a sense in which Barrow and other post-industrial largely working class towns have skipped the dubious benefits of the prevalent regeneration models of the past 40 years. This reality, now more than ever presents us with an amazing opportunity to re-vision Barrow and places like it with the benefit of ‘hindsight’ for a world which it seems increasingly clear will have to adopt radical change.

An important part of readiness is opportunity…

There is a need for a greater degree of self determination within society and our rather rigid systems of government which define town planning and pretty much everything else. It is not possible to change society or places unless ‘we’ can help to release the potential of individuals and communities to act. This process can only be born out of a more general culture of trust, developed through mutual education, and facilitated through opportunity.

It was obvious that participants in ‘Re-Visioning Utopia’ found Barrow fascinating – this is not unusual in visitors to Barrow.

*Since 2002 we have brought and shared Barrow with many (Inter)national artists, architects and academics.: With the exception of some eastern-block artists, who have tended to see Barrow as a further reflection of a situation they find themselves in (and are currently hoping to escape through the next trench of Euro regeneration funding) they have almost unanimously wanted to continue an ecologically based working relationship with the town in a variety of ways: seeing the challenges as opportunities to develop high quality integrated ‘design’ solutions.

Art Gene’s visitors are, in some ways, currently a minority within Barrow – some of the things they value, appreciate and are inspired by are not widely appreciated here: However they are part of the demographic which ‘the town’ is seeking to attract to live and work here. Unfortunately the temptation to gentrify is all too appealing to many on the ground and many of our assets are being lost in ‘developments’ which all too often have stalled at the stages of demolition or site preparation.

Although many of us come to ‘Love Barrow’ not too many choose to live here. Therein lies a paradox which lies at the heart of the town, its relationship with its people, the natural environment around it and the visitor: ‘We’ can recognise its potentials, find it fascinating, inspiring and a beautiful place to visit, even to work, but by-and-large we don’t want to live here.


“Ideas that could be considered light, temporal, small scale, or mutable continually emerged, but these were actually concerned with permanence in the sense of building a situation that is durable and self sustaining – a methodology of sorts?”

Jo Ray


The ‘gentrification approach’ to solving this problem as exemplified in many inner-city environments is, I believe, unlikely to ‘succeed’ here – this could ultimately be our saving grace. There is a significantly low critical mass, a substantially poor working class demographic, and an associated lack of mobility in employment and housing: The phased ‘natural’ displacement of one population by a more affluent one, or manufacturing industries by creative ones which typically happens in larger cities, may over time have a broadly beneficial cyclical series of economically regenerative effects; as areas are deemed ‘up and coming’, then fade to be super-ceded by another newly ‘trendy’ area.

Mobility functions as an arbiter of change and is a signifier of an economically dynamic, perhaps even thriving society but rarely signifies a thriving community. Current models form societies of individuals who in many cases have the buying power to by-pass the needs of interdependent communities which thrive (or survive) on the support mechanisms of extended families.

Thinking Differently or It’s not necessarily what you think it is…

When the apparent ‘offer’ of society, it’s values and economically acquisitive aspirations appear to not be available – what do you fight for? You probably fight with each other…

I was recently told a story of a typical Karaoke night in a local pub, singing Black Sabbath. It went something like this:

“I was up there singing War Pigs… It’s mi favorite song. I’ve always loved em -Sabbath… and I was up there and then this guy flew at me across the room and was punching me – he was wrapped around my shoulders and I could n’t get him off he just kept kicking and punching me (laughter) But I just kept singing no matter what he did I just kept singing (smile) and I kept hold of me pint no matter what he did.”

“Why was he punching you”, I asked, “What did he want to do that for? What had you done?
“Don’t know” he muttered, in a blankly disinterested way
“But I just kept singing” (laughter) “no matter what he did I just kept singing” (laughter)…

My mistake was in thinking that the unprovoked violence was the story but it wasn’t. The story was that he just kept singing no matter what. Until we come to understand and recognise this potential for ‘difference’ we cannot achieve lasting sustainable change in Barrow and places like it. We need to find ever-more innovative and courageous ways to invite individuals and communities to help us in defining the course of the journey to be made. The story illustrates a single instance to me which suggests a different set of values, perhaps born out of an historic, culturally specific norm.

Barrow was and to some extent still is an industrial revolution ‘gold rush’ style boom-town where it was not uncommon for a weeks wages to be spent in one night down the pub. Perhaps high unemployment has saved a few livers since the 1980‘s but most likely they have continued to be funded by Benefits: Barrow is now the Incapacity Benefit capital of Britain; what is normal even acceptable cultural behaviour and values; what is remarkable, noteworthy or unusual within a variety of contexts and situations is often and all too easily misunderstood despite the best intentions.

Barrow itself was once described as the “Chicago of the North” to reflect its “Wild West” atmosphere during its “Boom Years.” If they’d have called it the “New York of the North” – then in the 1870’s Barrow Island would have been the “Bronx.” – Barrow Island website. 

Pride in this legacy or culture is not the glorification of mindless violence but rather can be seen as testimony to and a consequence of hard lives lived by physically and mentally tough people, who for generations, were needed, born and bred, to make an important part of our industrial and maritime heritage happen. The work-place’s piece-work competition and the mix of quickly amassed workers from different parts of the country with different identities, traditions and religious beliefs no doubt fueled Barrow’s reputation as a ‘wild west’ frontier town.

This story is in some ways not the easiest of examples: – I could have told of unprecedented achievements in education, at work or in sport; born out of the cramped terraced housing in some of the most economically deprived electoral wards in Europe; but I have used this example because it more clearly illustrates a point I wish to make about struggling and the value of having something to fight for or perhaps even simply something to do.

“I think a man only needs one thing in life.
He just needs someone to love.
If you can’t give him that, then give him something to hope for.
And if you can’t give him that, just give him something to do.”
Flight of the Phoenix

This sentiment would, I think, find resonance amongst those who have worked in Barrow’s ship yard albeit perhaps with a pint thrown in somewhere.


Barrow has an industrial history full of superlatives; the first British rigid airship was built on Cavendish Dock in 1911. In the same year the first British sea plane flew from the same stretch of water. The largest Iron works in the world in 1865: The first British sea-going concrete ship. Barnes Wallis worked on airship development here during his early career with Neville Shute, now better known for his novels and Wallis later oversaw the manufacture of the famous bouncing bomb here during the second world war. The first and almost every other British naval submarine has been built in Barrow since the launch of HMS Holland in 1901. Many famous and historic naval surface ships and cruise liners were built here for clients across the world and submarine production continues to be the mainstay of the town’s economy.

Despite the grand designs, creative leaps of imagination and entrepreneurs it has taken to amass these and many other superlatives; none of it could have been possible without the skilled and unskilled labour of many thousands of workers: ship all of whom had dreams few of which were realised.

This was dangerous, hard physical work, many lost limbs and some lost lives. No doubt both the conception and the realisation of ships for to travel under, on and over the water required a massive effort and struggle. The town’s important role in times of conflict no doubt gave it something to fight for.

There has been a very proactive effort in recent years in the agencies of government to counter what they have perceived to be ‘social exclusion’ amongst economically deprived communities. This has seen unprecedented levels of grant aid for social and infrastructural ‘development’. Part of this effort has financed ever greater levels of arts engagement around which we have continually attempted to find and refine a useful role for Art Gene and our associates. This has required a lot of learning and even more un-learning as we have over 10 years created an ever closer relationships with individuals and communities.

Part of that learning has led us to understand that these communities are not ‘socially excluded’, any more than they are ‘culturally deprived’. The use of these terms is divisive. They certainly have some different values, lifestyles and aspirations which are essentially hidden from the legislators, who cannot penetrate the economic divide and have, in effect, been ‘excluded’ from that which they do not tend to recognise, or value and fail to understand. We have found there is much to be learnt from their cultures and dogged resilience as we move further into economic depression; something which they all too familiar with.

Put simply elements within all classes and cultural sets have values which are of more or less merit than others. The effort needs to be in seeking out the mutual benefits of bringing together the positive in each.



“Situations cultivated within the unique environment of Barrow could mean a more appropriate ‘fit’ and avoid the waste synonymous with a solution that is ‘one size fits all”

Jo Ray



Unsanctioned Vernacular Architecture

There is however another aspect to this understanding of the value of struggle. Superlatives are difficult to achieve. Things which result from doing something for the first time are far more interesting and exciting: because they are new but also because they embody a striving within the fabric and method of their construction: Dreams made real despite the odds. There are countless examples of this; the ‘flying banana’ is in my view more interesting and uplifting, no pun intended, than the later chinnook.

Of course I recognise that being ‘more interesting’ is not the aim of helicopter development but nevertheless something important is lost in a process of refinement: the ‘humanity’ and vision (the struggle to ‘be’). Without wishing to come across all Marie Antoinette the lifestyles that these structures facilitate are primal, in touch with the elements and the natural environment – one could even say with the origin of our primary and innate need to form shelter for ourselves out of whatever is to hand.



“self build’ / ‘shedding’…not as nostalgic style fetish, but a recognition of the ‘rightness’ people can generate for themselves given the opportunity to do so”

Jo Ray



The unsanctioned vernacular self-built sheds of Barrow, are typically the embodiment of the struggle to build a dream home or ‘hidey hole’ for the first and perhaps only time.

They have more in common with the early Barrow airship Gondola seen below than they do with the present day achievements of sophisticated nuclear submarine production which have been refined through countless experimental craft for 110 years.

During the charrette there was a lot of interest in the sheds of Barrow: this is evidenced in over a thousand photographs taken by participants of unusual buildings and other quirky details of the self-builders art.

These structures which abound in Barrow, search out a dream of freedom and conversely a ‘belonging’ to a ‘wilderness’ and oneself, after the factory whistle.

Adversity is a major factor in their aesthetic and being: but the dearth of opportunity afforded and ‘permission’ given by both society and critically to oneself to self-build a ‘dream’; to have a greater degree of self determination and control over ones life, has a greater effect which reaches far beyond those deemed ‘socially excluded’.

They take the professional ‘builder’ back to the origins of their personal journey and fuel a questioning of the merits of education and legislation which have a negative and pervasive effect on our output and aspirations.

The rationale of the eternally unfinished project…

Not to be confused with the inability to complete which is a perfectionists disease:
I have known quite well.

Self-built unsanctioned sheds have historically always met with the disapproval of ‘the establishment’ and continue to be legislated against. Many were originally built on squatted land in the first years of the 20th century (and many have been removed) – they are and have been, after all, not without their problems; bad sanitation being amongst the most prevalent.

The structures typically exhibit their history: phased additions in different styles (much like many of our most revered historic buildings) cheaply built, year on year, leaving them in a continual and responsive state of flux. They reflect the changing types of cheaply available and easily acquired (’recycled’ or second hand) materials. Each has a different and particular aesthetic, and ‘heart’, evidencing time… their creator and investment of a wholly other kind than the monetary.

They are structures ‘lived’ and living structures: the best of them record untutored inventiveness in action. If we look closely they offer us a different perspective and inspire us to be creatively free when considering what, how and why we make. They have a valuable contribution to make in the consideration of future ecological buildings and sustainable communities.


“Sheds are the ultimate in functional architecture, building around yourself – a model for exploring self-build in a community-wide sense; vernacular architecture. Also they can embody both permanence and temporality. Self-build – is the most ‘un-architecty’ architecture? The anti-imposition. ”

Alison Hand



Searching for the particularity of place…

Searching for the particularity of place is much more than an aesthetic enquiry. It is a hugely complex fusion of human activity interacting over time and through nostalgia with geography and circumstance. We are all essentially competitive creatures – we live under an adversarial system of government, play competitive sports and regularly go to war. It should come as no surprise then that places are often evaluated in adversarial ways people vs place; industry vs nature turning this conflict into symbiosis and recognising the complex mutually beneficial relationships that already exist is perhaps our greatest challenge.

As I mentioned in the Re-Visioning Utopia Discussion Paper: ‘people to some extent become the places they live’ – but similarly some places become an expression of the people which ‘live’ them more than do others.

‘We all adapt to our environment and become desensitised to it. To some extent we become it.

This goes for beautiful places as much as ugly ones’ If we (the professionals) do things for people: it seems we often get it wrong. Consulting them can, if done well, increase the ‘sense’ of ownership. If we work with people to develop their skills and ability to form and shape sustainable lives, homes, workplaces, communities and towns: ones which continue to evolve to meet changing needs and growing dreams beyond the period of our involvement. This is of course much easier said than done.



“Identifying and developing an ecological sustainable approach to capitalising on the indigenous human, vernacular-infrastructural and hidden assets of amenity value in Barrow: those which most characterise the particularity of the town. How to reveal, value and sustainably build on that particularity without diluting it was the focus of Re-Visioning Utopia. ”

Alison Hand



Building Meaning

Throughout the Charrette unsanctioned self-built vernacular architecture and the ‘natural’ environment, were most catalytic in the participants’ conceptions of a future Re-Visioned Utopia

It seems to me that if we concentrate on changing the ‘pictures’ (how places look and are imagined/seen/perceived) around and within people and our environment rather than trying to directly tackle social problems head on with inappropriate tools to hand we might have more success. These pictures are of course not merely those captured in the physical reality of the world but perhaps, most importantly, those images to which we attach our hopes and dreams.

There is remarkably little precedence for investing in these images and drawing out the dreams they reflect. It is common practice to invest as little as possible in conception and engagement, preserving resources for tangible product. Unfortunately this usually results in a poorly designed product which is ultimately wasteful of resources and squanders dreams: crushing them in the machine.

It is time to start doing the right thing. Most of us have a sense of what that is but seldom manage to articulate it or make it happen.

We all need something to fight for which we can come to believe in and ultimately love. We also need to be loved, validated and proactively included in the creation of our futures. This goes for communities, artists, architects, academics and regeneration professionals: the challenge is in beginning to work effectively together in Re-Visioning Utopia whatever that may best turn out to be.


“Our cross-disciplinary adventure was an exciting and cumulative process; ideas started to emerge which took on a life of their own, drawn out of the space between disciplines and through the challenge of thinking how you maybe don’t normally think. Sometimes hard won ideas – lots of frowning but also lots of laughing.”

Alison Hand


Jason Taylor: (UK) Designer/Artist
Tom Lonsdale: (UK) Chartered Landscape Architect/Placecraft/Places Matter
Kenji Sherma: (UK) Architect/Planner
Manuel Tardits: (Japan/France) Architect:
Alan Thompson: (UK) Artist/Philosopher/Architectural Designer/Writer
Alison Hand: (UK) Artist/Academic/Architype Architects/Art Gene Board Member
Walter Menzies: (UK) Sustainable Development Advocate/Photographer/Writer
Marianne Heaslip: (UK) Architect
Armelle Tardiveau: (UK/France) EC Architects/Lecturer in Architecture
Martin Gent: (UK) Artist/Performer
Maddi Nicholson: (UK) Artist/founder Director: Art Gene
Stuart Bastik: (UK) Artist/founder Director: Art Gene (UK)
Carlos Lopez Galvez: (UK/Colombia) Architect and Academic/Institute of Historical Research
Steve Harris: (UK) Consultant/Harris Associates
Ruth Pringle: (France/UK) Artist

Charlie MacKeith: (UK) Architect: Research Design
Jo Ray: Artist/Academic (UK)
Daniel Mallo: (UK/Spain) EC Architects/Lecturer in Architecture (Spain/UK)
Lowri Bond: (UK) Artist/Projects Officer: Northern Architecture) (UK)
Sophia Lycouris: (UK/Greece) Artist/Academic/Dance/Choreography
Hannah Hull: (UK) Artist

“Utopia: most utopias are in our imagination because they have been written up as dystopias. Utopia in Barrow was the simple opportunity to think hard about something different and what could be. Art Gene’s practice was mirrored by the process. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. ”

Charlie MacKeith


As the event progressed some Charrette some participants began to feel uncomfortable. They felt they were being asked to Re-Vision through devising a ‘grand plan’ or regenerate and ‘speak for’ the people of Barrow. We felt it was important to free creativity by asking participants to use their combined skills to envisage a place they would be more likely to want to live; using Barrow as a test bed on which to hang their ideas. Replacing professional responsibility with personal vision allowed thoughts and ideas to move freely.

“As an undercover “Other”… We should remember that we are the very lucky few who have experienced such a way of thinking and working for a sustained period.  The last time someone may have been allowed the mental freedom to be creative was when they were at primary school and being given that freedom can have a remarkably positive effect.”

Kenji Sherma

Artists, architects and other professionals charged with delivering ‘regeneration’ are often substantially dis-empowered and restricted in their working lives by the strictures of the ‘environment’ in which they work.


“Intent and artists: each working session, like the one we attended, should take changing ‘professional’ groups (environmental scientists, structural engineers, acousticians…) with artists as the constant partner; it is ‘professionals’ that need to test themselves through working with artists; get different professionals together and they’ll not learn from artists. ‘Professionals’ need to learn to re-evaluate the strictures of their training and practice. What the unlearning (or re-learning exchange) does for artists only an artist can say.”

Charlie MacKeith


The charrette was intended as a breathing space: one which was embraced enthusiastically. It is our hope that some of that creative freedom will be retained and further supported through on-going relationships with Art Gene and independently between participants and having a lasting positive and affirmative effect in their future work wherever that may be.


© Art Gene
Tel: +44 (0)1229 825085

Art Gene

Bath Street,


Cumbria, LA14 5TY England, UK

Donate here

Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

Registered Charity: 1135536

Registered in England: 4359454

All images, artwork and text on this website are protected by copyright and may not be downloaded or otherwise reproduced or distributed without the permission of Art Gene. © Art Gene associates, artists and partners, 2022.