This essay was originally published in Score Tae The Toor: a book and CD project inspired by Concrete Antenna, an environmental art installation housed within an Edinburgh tower, conceived by Rob St John, Tommy Perman and Simon Kirby. Contributors included King Creosote, Hanna Tuulikki, Jonnie Common and Stacey Hunter.
My grandad was a builder and, perhaps because of that, I’ve always felt a certain sense of propriety over concrete things.
He built the swimming pool in Stirling, my dad helped him, and I knew that for as long as I knew anything. It was always there, with its walls and its water, and it was always ours: a source of belonging, ownership, pride, on account of the hands that put it together. Hands that came home in the afternoon, that were scrubbed in Fairy Liquid and sugar, that spooned up tripe and stewed us apples, picked us bluebells, burled us by the open fire.
In 1980, he built the ice rink. I remember it going up, brick by brick: the building site, the wet cement, in which I was encouraged to leave a trace – my tiny hand-print, set in stone – and when it was finished, one day after nursery, I was the first person to walk on the ice. I knew that building inside out, I recognised its every angle and sigh, and it made me feel like I was part of the landscape. Like I was connected. It made me feel strong.
These recreational landmarks became monuments to my grandfather long after he’d gone; long after it became apparent that concrete things were far more permanent than lungs.
Those buildings aren’t there any more.
They demolished the ice rink to put up a school. They razed the swimming pool to the ground. Or rather, they hauled it down, brick by brick, and I watched it vanish over days and months –fascinated, disempowered and haunted. Walls became space, loss. Ghosts.
The swimming pool’s a gap-site now, but every time I pass it by, I will the building back into existence. I reconstruct it in my mind, repopulate it with the bodies and water and noises that left a trace, however ephemeral. Close your eyes and they’re all still there – the echoing voices, the wakes, the walls.
Memory, that gap-site says, can be more robust and abiding than concrete. It can withstand the wrecking ball.
Imagine there was a concrete tower built out of memory.
Imagine an installation whose foundations were ideas, research and recall; a sky-high repository for our collective and personal myths and narratives; a physical conduit that assembled infinite histories, places and sounds, from the ground right up, and down again.
I guess I was pretty much predisposed to fall for Concrete Antenna’s charms. Look at it, standing there, pulling us in, making the skyline all its own. It’s a landscape, landmark, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and central protagonist – the fourth collaborator alongside its co-creators Tommy Perman, Simon Kirby and Rob St John.
Its physical signposts, urban history / cartography, and songs from the city / songs from the sea are endlessly compelling – its sonic collage of bygone blacksmiths, railways, gas works, church bells, foghorns and fork-lift trucks is glorious (and ever-evolving) – but what strikes most is the tower’s warm and strangely human allure. It’s organic and industrial, abstract and solid, receptive and transmissive, made of memory and concrete. Those old friends. They feel like home.
Perman, Kirby and St John created the Concrete Antenna installation largely from recollections and vague ideas of the space over a six month period in 2014 / 2015, following a five-minute tour of the building site while the tower was still under construction.
It’s a monument to imagination – theirs, and also ours: what’s at the top of the tower? Whatever you like. There’s a window up there, but we’ll never see out of it. What is the building, anyway? It is not an ice rink. It is not a swimming pool. There is barely room to stand. It has no obvious function.
It does not seem concerned by this. Its voices, rhythms, tales and sounds speak volumes about what is there, and what is not, and what has gone before.
Have you heard the tower sing? It sings.
Have you heard its stories? It tells stories.
It told me this one, I suppose.
They kept one section of the swimming pool my grandad built. When they knocked it down, they preserved a mural that covered the front wall of the building, because, they explained, that element held significant value; it was, they said, art. The rest was just concrete, and so it is gone. But buildings (and the ghosts they leave) do not require a demonstrable purpose, to remind us what they mean to us; why they mean so much; what they stand for.
Related articles: Concrete Antenna feature, The Herald, Feb, 2016