A new film explores the overlooked spaces and histories of Britain’s most famous road junction – and meets the people who call it home. By Francesca Perry
It’s been a long time since city ring roads, motorways, flyovers and were considered delights of the modern age. Most are now associated with nightmare traffic, dangerous pollution or seen as a physical blight on the urban landscape – a nightmare in concrete. Where parks were once destroyed to build roads, highways are now being removed or buried to create parks. We have gone full circle.
But what are we missing by automatically rejecting these hulking giants of car-oriented modernism? These road-dominated places are still places: life happens on, beneath and around them; they bear the traces of the past and shape an ongoing present. Without seeing them simply as engineering or eyesores, some have explored such places for their unique character – attempting to understand the strange urban ecosystem they support around them.
Even in 2002, psychogeographic author Iain Sinclair was exploring the “liminal space” of the London Orbital, the M25 motorway. A decade later, Assemble’s “Folly for a Flyover” project explicitly celebrated the undercroft space beneath where the A12 crosses the River Lea in East London, holding cultural public events in a space usually dismissed as an urban planning afterthought where anti-social behaviour thrives. This Spring, the Disappear Here project brought together artists and poets to reflect on the significance of the Coventry ring road.
And now the attention turns to Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction. As part of the Lost But Not Forgotten project looking at hidden spaces and remote landscapes across Europe, new short documentary “Living Under Spaghetti” ventures below the famous Birmingham junction, meeting the people from the local area and hearing their memories and experiences of living near (or under) the city’s busiest transport route.
Although officially named Gravelly Hill Interchange, the tangle of roads on the northeast edge of the Midlands city became known primarily by its nickname – a nickname that has since been used for similarly complex junctions around the world. As well as the main roads of the M6 and A38(M) which the junction was designed to connect, the location is a confluence of multiple other routes, including local roads, the rivers Tame and Rea, Hockley Brook, the Cross-City and Walsall railway lines and Salford Junction, where the Grand Union Canal, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and Tame Valley Canal meet. It is a complex and layered labyrinth of routes.
Commissioned in 1958 and opened in 1972, a number of properties were demolished to make way for it: 160 houses, a factory, a bank, a block of flats and a pub. “I remember as a young child, going with my mother towards what is now Spaghetti Junction and there would be all different shops there,” a resident explains in the film. “There was the Ansells Brewery, HP Sauce and then slowly all that disappeared as Spaghetti was built – and now there’s absolutely no sign that they were ever there.”
The junction holds a mixed place in the hearts of local Brummies and UK residents alike. When it was opened, there was apparently “giddy excitement” about it, complete with dedicated guided tours. Now, it is known as an ugly eyesore, intimidating driving nightmare and dinosaur of urban planning – but it is also a famous landmark, feat of engineering, daily route, and home to many. “I think people deep down have an affection for it,” Steve Price, Highways Agency traffic office manager, told the BBC. “Spaghetti Junction belongs to Birmingham.”
The film immerses us in the strange world of the junction. As cars speed noisily above, so residents sit peacefully in their canal boats below. “I’m sitting here feeling quite calm and all these cars are rushing all over the place,” one canal boat owner says. “Most people just fly over the Spaghetti Junction, don’t realise what’s here. For me, it’s so peaceful, it’s feels like time stops down here.”
Both physically, historically and socially then, Spaghetti Junction – in the words of another local resident – “really is a layered thing.”
“Living Under Spaghetti” is directed by Joe Sampson and produced by The Progress Film Company as part of the original series Lost But Not Forgotten