Memory defies the wrecker’s ball
Review by Corinna Lotz
Ian Rawlinson grew up near the Kite area of Cambridge. It is a community with a bitter history of opposition against “development”.
This small, kite-shaped network of Victorian homes, pubs and shops became a battleground for a half-century of struggle by local people to hold on to a community.
Ian left Cambridge in 1982, aged 19, stifled by its restrictions and the atmosphere of the day. After winning a place at the Royal College of Art, he trained as a printmaker and an artist, travelling to Spain, Germany and Italy on study visits. The wrecker’s balls and bulldozers were moving down on the Kite as he departed.
Perhaps strangely it was not a glimpse of early Victorian churches and streets associated with the Kite before urban blight descended that motivated Ian’s return to his childhood memories. It was a bland 1950s street in London that sparked childhood memories of Arbury Court where he grew up.
Like Marcel Proust’s taste of madeleine cake in À la recherche du temps perdu, it was an accidental, apparently unimportant sensation that catalysed a pilgrimage in search of lost times. It was the starting point for Vessel, a multi-dimensional ensemble, the first exhibition by the artist in his home town.
Moved to track down photos of the Kite’s demolished streets and buildings, Ian became more and more aware of the lost charm of places like Adam and Eve Street, Emmanuel Street, Eden Chapel, Eden Street, Jesus Terrace and Paradise Street which were focal points of the area.
From blight to gentrification
The story of the Kite is in many ways the story of countless communities up and down Britain that have suffered forms of urban blight, due partly to de-industrialisation, but even more to big financial and property interests which ride roughshod over the lives of ordinary and poor people.
Some 55 years ago, an unholy alliance of major landowner Jesus College, Cambridge City Council and a property developer proposed that the whole area should become a regional shopping centre with parking for 10,000 cars.
Campaign groups Kite Community Action and the Kite Co-ordinating Council, opposed the destruction of their local community. Due to council indecision, a property blight ensued. By 1980 a number of streets and landmark buildings, including the beloved Waffles café, were demolished, despite opposition backed by personalities like Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Griff Rhys Jones and Clive James.
Local historian Ian Kitching records that the distinctive, early Victorian nature of the area was dealt a severe blow when Grosvenor Developments built the soul-less Grafton Centre in 1981-1983: "This ripped the community heart out of the area and destroyed a lot of terrace housing, shops and popular meeting places."
But a belated effort at preservation has recently changed the area's fortunes with some parts being saved. Now, according to local estate agent Redmayne, Arnold and Harris, "the Kite area has become one of Cambridge's most desirable residential locations". RAH is offering a 19th century servants' cottage on the market with a guide price of £825,000, despite the fact that it requires complete renovation.
Photographer Roy Hammans brilliantly captured some of the last houses in the Kite district before it was destroyed and the utterly soul-less Grafton shopping centre thrust upon it.
But whilst an admirer of Hammans’ work, Ian’s approach is different. In the effort to revisit his childhood memories, he has made his first film, also called Vessel. It emphasises the contrast between old and new by splicing black and white Super 8 film together with high definition colour footage of the Kite’s streets.
Over a nearly silent nine minutes, the camera tracks an eerily depopulated neighbourhood in which chimney pots and houses cast lonely shadows on walls and pavements.
Alongside the film, Ian is showing five drawings, in which the Kite’s street plan is stripped down to a few increasingly familiar and ghostly lines. It becomes a phantom metaphor for the encroachment of the developers. The image is partly rubbed out, a black square threatens to overwhelm it. But the grid reappears again and again as if defying destruction.
In these drawings and a wonderfully textured and distressed etching, the kite shape with its jagged grid of streets, not entirely visible and partly peeling away, is transformed into a totemic, mythical object. It seems like an ancient map, unearthed by archaeologists, waiting to be interpreted.
Ian has marshalled his considerable and varied talents in a range of media – print, film, sculpture, collage and drawing to make a work of installation. Vessel revolves around memory, the loss of a community that he once knew. Through repetition and variation, he endows an apparently skeletal image with a powerful sense of place and individuality.
2 May 2014