TCS Daily

Pau-City of Culture

By Austin Williams - June 19, 2003 12:00 AM

It was a foregone conclusion. I even had a bet on it. I can't believe that I was the only one to see it. After a year of waiting, my little wager paid up and now ten whole British pounds are mine. I'm not really a betting man, but I can't resist a sure-fire thing.

My wager was over the short-listed UK entries for the European City of Culture. I bet not on who would win, but on who would not win. I put my hard-earned cash down on the one city I knew definitely wouldn't get awarded points for its cultural status: Oxford.

Newcastle/Gateshead was the bookies' favorite to win, while Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham weren't so well thought of. But even with tough competition to lose this beauty contest, if you think about it, Oxford didn't stand a chance. In a competition for a modern city of culture, what does Oxford have to offer - a small, crowded, urban agglomeration, a mere 45 minutes commuting distance from London?

Ok, it's one of the oldest and finest seats of learning in the world; preserve of the Bodleian Library; home to a robust debating tradition; a living treasure of architectural splendor; a center of sporting excellence; and mainstay of intellectual rigor since the Middle Ages. So what chance did it stand? Just as in the famous Boat Race of 1967, it was up the creek without a paddle. Poor deluded fools.

Oxford's naiveté was so embarrassing at times that my bet seemed almost fraudulent. For example, the city's original bid document announced, "Known not only as one of Europe's finest historic cities, a great centre of learning and a microcosm of English architecture, but also as an exceptionally important centre for contemporary culture, scientific discovery, entrepreneurship and intelligent internationalism." Can you spot their mistake?

Chris Patten, ex-governor of Hong Kong, minister in the Thatcher cabinet, European Commissioner and now Chancellor of Oxford University, who should have known better, compounded the problem. "Oxford is one of the greatest European cities," he said. "It has almost uniquely contributed both to the development of our continental civilization and to our industrial heritage. It is a magnificent city that has played a part in our history and will, I'm sure, play an equally important part in our future." Chris! Chris! Chris!

If you want to win points for culture nowadays, you can't go on like that. If Oxford's principal rationale for consideration is its unique contribution to elite cultural heritage, then there is no way that the judges could conceivably tolerate such arrogance. The Culture Wars have long been lost and today, culture relates more to issues of social inclusion than it does of High Art. What after all, is high art anyway except something that excludes "the people"?

Liverpool, on the other hand, had the right idea from the start and it's no wonder that it won. Their bid proudly boasted that a "small army of volunteers" are backing Liverpool's Capital of Culture bid - by helping clean up the city. A mountain of rubbish and junk is expected to be shifted when the litter-busters get to work next week. The clean-ups have been organized as part of the city's G-Litter festival - a gigantic spring clean as part of its bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Now that's more like it. That's what I call culture. It's not just social inclusion but it's participation that has been turned into a cultural event. From the days of a festival of culture, Liverpool is helping to create the culture of festivals.

So not only is Liverpool home to The Beatles, skiffle, the crazy hep-sounds of the Mersey beat, a popular ferry journey, and, more recently, a ubiquitous riverside regeneration project, but it also is a peoples' city - where locals may be poor but with their great Scouse sense of humour, they're always ready to muck in. Jeremy Isaacs, chairman of the panel of judges, recognized that more is better when he announced "there was a greater sense that the whole city is involved in the bid."

As long as people join in; as long as it doesn't alienate anyone, it's cultural. Oxford, on the other hand, presented culture as if it is, in some sense, difficult. As if you might have to work at it in order to appreciate it. As if it might be worth something over and above the economic baubles that victory has brought Liverpool.

Fortunately, Oxford is learning its lesson, and developing a new appreciation of the language of cultural diversity and participation. Robert Hutchison, chief executive of Oxford Inspires, the group set up to promote the city's bid, believes that even though they lost, really they are all winners. He says, "As one of five designated European Centres of Culture, we shall be exploiting our high international profile to continue with our exciting plans. We are committed to staging a cultural festival across the whole county, which will involve local people and draw in visitors from across the country, Europe and further afield."

It seems that, after investing in the charade that is the City of Culture, there is no way out for the participating cities. Oxford now has to continue the game and further downplay any silly notions that culture has anything to do with truth, beauty, progress or any of those old-fashioned elitist concepts.

Hutchison finally seems to be getting on-message. "Alone of the short listed bids," he said, "Oxford's was about culture in the broadest sense, and our aim was to break the mould and set innovative agendas for a new kind of European city in this competition."

"Culture in its broadest sense." That's more like it. Perhaps if we can broaden the concept out so that it means absolutely anything to anybody, then Oxford might stand a chance next time.

Austin Williams is the Technical Editor of the Architects' Journal.

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