When I was growing up in the North East of England, my relatives were coal miners, shipyard workers and generally people who made things for a living (wage). Community was strong and proud, people pulled together to look after each other in the face of hardship and danger in their everyday lives. Ask the miners what they think a ‘basic’ civilised society is – they will say one which protects the weak and the vulnerable, pays a living wage and provides healthcare regardless of income.
Thatcher’s government took away the industry that supported the mining community through the political action of breaking the unions. Overnight it took the livelihood away from thousands of families, breaking the spirit of the community and changing the sense of place forever. Was this the action of a civilised society?
I was the architect for Woodhorn Mining Museum, Ashington. ‘Visit Northumberland’ tasked me with creating a special building to record the history of the place, explain the hardship and celebrate the sense of community. There are two unique collections on display, the Marching Banners and the Pitmen Paintings. Both are artistic expressions of the community, of pride on one hand and of the hardship of daily life on the other. Painting and tapestry – important forms of expression, both to comment and to ask questions.
For me a ‘developed’ civilised society holds any form of artistic expression in high regard, enjoying debate and challenge in the search for continuous improvement. Art has a role to play, whether it be painting, tapestry, writing, music, dance or architecture. Any truly civilised society cares about everyone and looks and listens to the artistic community in order to learn and make society better.
At Woodhorn I looked to celebrate the passing of an important part of our industrial heritage, whilst also expressing the danger of the mining industry through the form of the building with its sharp angular roof reminiscent of coal cutting blades. I had other ideas which did not come to fruition, perhaps the most poignant being the idea of giving new meaning to an existing statue, the figure of a lone miner commemorating past mining disasters. I suggesting cutting a path through the adjacent newly planted forest and relocating the statue at a point far from the building, equal to the vertical depth of the mine. The silhouette of the tiny figure in the distance would allow visitors to realise how deep the miners worked and just how dangerous the mining industry was. I was refused permission due to the need to protect wildlife in the new forest, on top of the disused mine.
A realisation hit me – the communities that were destroyed were built on an industry that was intrinsically unsafe and dangerous. There must now be better ways to find energy and materials and to create a sustainable community, where lives and health are not endangered. Secondly, we are transitory creatures who share the world with many other animals; a truly civilised society has the responsibility to protect us all by protecting the environment in which we live for future generations.