A Brief Cultural History of Spaghetti Junction
By Flatpack Festival's Ian Francis
I try drawing it, just to get my head around it. It's a dizzying tangle no doubt, but the nickname seems unfair. This is carefully woven tarmac, a labyrinth of lanes, an elegant puzzle. Perhaps an over-complicated solution to a relatively simple problem, the function of this junction has receded into the background as its cultural capital has grown. It's now a logo, a totem, a punchline. But if Spaghetti Junction was the answer, what was the question? And how has its role changed over time?
The PR around the launch in May 1972 presented the Gravelly Hill Interchange as the 'missing link', a motorway hub that would open up 1000 miles of new roads. And sure enough, its completion removed the last impediment to a frictionless six-and-a-half-hour drive between Glasgow and London, with not one roundabout or traffic light encountered en route. The junction itself was not really a 'motorway hub' though - it connected the M6 with Birmingham city centre via the Aston Expressway, along with a bunch of other smaller trunk roads. Its real function seemed to be symbolic. Welcome to Birmingham, Motor City - the home of what Jonathan Meades has called "autoeroticism without shame."
For locals the new structure provoked awe, annoyance and anxiety. A good deal of the coverage in the run-up related to worries about getting lost or stuck. The Evening Mail printed a four-page pull-out guide. Policemen appeared on the news making reassuring noises. Some Pathé news footage from 1971 shows the interchange almost complete, intertwining ribbons of virgin road captured from a helicopter. We see a solitary Rolls Royce driver living the dream; reversing up slip-roads, pulling U-turns, going the wrong way down the M6. Already it feels like a foretaste of life after the apocalypse, when this crumbling concrete behemoth will stand deserted as a monument to a mysterious past. Someone I know who grew up in that time remembers it being described in their house as "a Cathedral to the Great God Car."
Spaghetti Junction's big-screen debut was in Cliff Richard's ill-fated Take Me High (dir: David Askey, 1973). Although unimpressed by his first encounter with the Aston Expressway - "Just as bad as I expected. Even worse." - merchant banker Cliff is swiftly won over by the city's blend of earthy charm and rampant brutalism. Later we see him beneath Spaghetti, bombing along the Grand Union Canal in his mini-hovercraft like a provincial James Bond. The film's title makes very little sense until you see the cover of the soundtrack LP, with Cliff's head framed by a lattice-work of soaring flyovers (a full year before Kraftwerk's Autobahn came out, as Catherine O'Flynn has pointed out.) He seems to be inviting us to join him for the rollercoaster ride of our lives.
By this point the junction's cheerleaders were getting drowned out by the doubters, as it became a lightning rod for growing concerns about car culture. Gravelly Hill residents talked about lining their bedrooms with mattresses to muffle the constant hum of the motorway, and litter raining down into their gardens from passing cars overhead. A scientific study began to investigate the levels of lead in the blood of local children. Speaking in parliament in November 1972, Erdington MP Julius Silverman railed against the "intolerable noise, fumes and dirt" which the development had brought. "As an engineering construction it is superb. As a work of art it is one of the greatest monstrosities which any Government has inflicted upon any section of this country.” A few months later the city's Labour leader Stanley Yapp admitted: "If we had known what we know now, I am certain we would not now have Spaghetti Junction in its present form."
Just before Take Me High's release, the oil crisis hit in late 1973. As petrol tripled in price over the next year, and UK car manufacturing entered a steep decline, the assumptions underlying Birmingham's motor city strategy began to look decidedly shaky. Other cities including Leeds and Glasgow called an abrupt halt to their grand ring road plans. Where once the local media had been full of civic boosterism and stats - 500 pillars, 3 miles of slip roads, 175,000 cubic yards of concrete - road stories now tended to involve pollution, congestion, corruption or decay. It had become clear that corners were cut in the building of both Spaghetti Junction and the ring road, and maintenance costs were mushrooming.
A one-off BBC drama for Play for Today and later a series in its own right, Gangsters (dir: Philip Saville, 1975) catches the swagger and seediness of mid-70s Birmingham. The idea was to create a Midlands spin on The French Connection. During a slightly absurd car chase at the end, raised sections of the Inner Ring stand in for New York's elevated railways as our flawed heroes Kline and Khan pursue underworld kingpin Rawlinson to a showdown at Gravelly Hill. Traffic streams by in the background while Kline and Rawlinson tussle amongst the pillars, a baroque, lingering fight scene which calls to mind the wrestling in Women in Love (albeit in a canal under a flyover, rather than on a rug by the fire). Spaghetti Junction is established as a place where gangsters go to die, echoing persistent urban myths about the bodies that found their way into concrete struts during construction.
While we're down here, it's worth paying some attention to the world beneath. Within the interchange's thirty-acre plot are six roads, two rivers, three canals, a fishing lake (formerly the reservoir which provided Birmingham's drinking water), several bridges and a railway line. Inevitably much was lost in the late 60s, including a factory, a pub, over 150 houses and the Dwarfholes - a network of sandstone caves which were the area's earliest recorded settlement, and still functioned as an air raid shelter during WWII. This wasn't a year zero approach, however - the pillars were even designed to leave room on the towpaths below for horse-drawn barges. To explore this place is to wonder at the chutzpah that decided not only a motorway but a five-level interchange could be built on top of all this. It is also to realise that Spaghetti Junction is not a rupture with history, but an amped-up, heavy metal riff on the many other crossroads and crossings that have occupied this spot for centuries.
By the 1980s Spaghetti Junction had been domesticated by a steady trickle of Jasper Carrott routines and sitcom gags, familiarity breeding contempt and a good deal of affection - even amongst those who lived right next to it. After years as a backdrop in thrillers and news reports it took centre stage in forgotten youth drama Knights and Emeralds (dir: Ian Emes, 1986), the road system more compelling and three-dimensional than the people in its shadow. The story concerns two marching bands, one white and one black, and the two star-crossed lovers who play drums for each group. In his Gravelly Hill terrace Kevin hears the siren call of Melissa's bongos from a nearby tower-block, and decides to cross the tracks. The inevitable climactic competition takes place at the West Bromwich Albion ground, where Kevin and Melissa and co take on a suspicious white crowd and win them over through music and dance.
The script is awful, the performances are all over the place and the racial politics are clumsy at best, but Knights and Emeralds has a weird kind of energy and it feels genuinely rooted. Ian Emes grew up nearby in Handsworth. While studying at art college he worked on the construction of Hockley Flyover, and remembers builders throwing sofas and washing machines in with the wet concrete. For his feature debut he takes every opportunity to place his cast beneath viaducts, railway bridges or cooling towers. Kevin and Melissa's first kiss takes place on a roof overlooking the Expressway, and Kevin's band rehearse in the Magnet Centre - once surrounded by playing fields in its days as a social club for employees from the nearby GEC works, but by this point a Greek Orthodox Church nestled up against the southbound M6. We get a rare sense of Birmingham being comfortable in its own skin, embracing the beauty in its own ugliness, and the film's love-hate relationship with its setting is summed up towards the end. "It's like a dungeon down here," says our hero. "It's Aladdin's cave, Kevin" responds his mate Aubrey.
Spaghetti Junction's status - iconic, but in need of rehabilitation - was confirmed in 1990 when the BBC's Late Show invited five architects to dream up alternative ideas for it. The results ran the gamut from the corporate to the avant-garde, from 16-storey clusters of offices and housing to a canalside service-station-cum-nightclub. Environmental architects Higson and Pearson proposed a rainforest of redwoods with rope bridges strung between the pillars and above them the Birmingham Gate, "a 200 metre-high latticed tripod which could be lit by lasers at night." The most classical solution came from Robert Adam, who also emphasised the junction as a city gateway with three monolithic towers linked by suspension bridges. The experience for drivers would be "thrilling, like flying through in a helicopter."
None of this actually happened, but a couple of years later the artist collective Fine Rats performed their own reimagining of the territory beneath the interchange. Over the course of one weekend hundreds of people experienced a series of site-specific spectacles on a suitably grand scale, from ghostly projections and son et lumière to an underground hair salon and "an aisle of dildoes urinating fluorescent pee", culminating in a bingo finale where greenhouses smashed to the ground from a crane. The reviewer from Art Monthly was impressed: "in reclaiming an enormous netherzone for their two-night festival of performance and installation, Fine Rats have not only shown how a wasteland can be incorporated into the meaning of the polis... but have surely initiated an annual event."
Sadly Under Spaghetti Junction was to be a one-off, and by the time I arrived in Birmingham in the late 90s the neighbourhood's big cultural attraction was Star City, an entertainment 'megaplex' being built on the site of the Nechells Cooling Towers. The official launch night in July 2000 was marked by the UK premiere of The Perfect Storm, with a helicopter depositing George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in the car park. Once they'd cut a ribbon and posed for photos with the mayor, Warner Brothers flew them back to London. Birmingham was left to enjoy its new gateway development, a candy-coloured wendy-house hellscape which peers over junction 6 and frightens passing drivers.
On the eve of Spaghetti's 40th birthday in 2012, Fierce Festival mounted a sequel of sorts to the Fine Rats happening when they invited artist Graeme Miller to lay down Track, his "moveable participatory installation." 100 metres of rails ran beneath the M6 and parallel with the Tame, a team of T-shirted volunteers slowly pulling camera dollies bearing horizontal audience members. Despite the rattle and roar overhead I remember a feeling of submission and peace as I lay down to be tugged along through the edgelands, trees and sky giving way to a soaring concrete ceiling. The main thing that struck me that day, given the chance to gaze up at this structure without distraction, was the sheer number of cracks. This has been an anxious refrain throughout the junction's existence, forever adorned with scaffolding and in need of patching up. Every now and again someone from the Highways Agency will pop up on the news to speak in soothing tones: "This structure is designed to last in excess of a hundred years." Next year we'll be halfway there, and a century really doesn't seem that long for a cathedral.
Aside from ongoing concerns about its longevity and its environmental impact, Birmingham is more bullish about the junction these days. Along with the late Central Library and the now-dormant New Street signal box it has become a popular subject for art prints. Steven Knight, the city's unofficial global spokesperson, sung its praises after making it look moody and magnificent in the opening sequence of Locke (dir: Steven Knight, 2013). "Spaghetti Junction is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen at night... I would love an artist to come along and to do an installation and make a work of art of it.” Fifty years ago MP Julius Silverman also described it as a work of art, but in far more damning terms. The Gravelly Hill Interchange is the product of a particular moment, and having witnessed the loss of so many brutalist landmarks Birmingham is perhaps beginning to appreciate it as a rare asset.
In fact an artist has been working beneath Spaghetti Junction for several years on and off. On a grey Thursday in March 2014, former A&R man and KLF prankster Bill Drummond made a 'ceremonial entrance' along the Grand Union, following in the slipstream of Cliff's hovercraft on a raft made from his own bed. A cargo of 400 daffodils was deposited halfway down a canal tunnel, illuminated by a saintly shaft of light from the road above, to begin a three-month residency with Birmingham gallery Eastside Projects which encompassed bed-building, drum-banging, cake-baking and many other apparently simple activities. This was the launch of The 25 Paintings, a 14-year world tour during which the same "jobs" will be performed in cities including Belgrade, Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur and Damascus - all places with personal significance for Drummond. It seems that this subterranean canalside spot will remain a thread throughout. He has returned at least once a year since to paint a new sign on the tunnel wall, announcing the next chapter. In 2016 he brought a Romanian group called Band of Gypsies, who Brummies may remember busking at the bottom of the Pallasades ramp. It was a week after the Brexit referendum, and they were filmed performing a raucous, moving take on Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
While Steven Knight may have been envisaging something grand like the Angel of the North or Adam's towers, Drummond's preference is for barely visible termite art. "For me, there is little difference between the games at the Colosseum, Soviet realism, U2 playing a stadium gig, a Spielberg movie, a Jackson Pollock hanging on the walls of MOMA, or for that matter whatever is currently drawing the crowds in the Turbine Hall. It is all the big bullying art of the dominant culture telling us who knows best." As it happens Spielberg was also under Spaghetti Junction during the summer of 2016, shooting Ready Player One's climactic chase scene between the very pillars used in Gangsters four decades previously. Asked why he had picked Birmingham, the director's answer would have warmed the heart of our Yankophile post-war planners: "There are few places in England that can pass for America, and Birmingham filled the bill."
So why did Drummond opt for the monolithic Spaghetti Junction as the basecamp for his self-styled 'small art'? As a student in the early 70s he hitch-hiked between art school in Liverpool and home in Corby, and this stretch of the M6 left an abiding impression. "It was for those few seconds as I stared down at all of the twisting and turning highways beneath us that I knew I was experiencing something that rightfully should only be experienced by my future great, great grandchildren." He goes on to recount a 1973 trip when he found himself lost beneath these highways, bedded down for the night on the towpath and had a Black Sabbath dream in which he discovered the gateway to the Underworld.
Although I've never glimpsed Hades down there, the wonder and future-shock which Drummond describes definitely rings a bell for me. Like many others my first encounter with Birmingham as a kid was via junction 6, in my case from the north. I still think this is the best way to approach it, ideally at sunset, following the exit up and over till you hit the crest and see the whole place basking in pinky-orange light - gasometers, tower-blocks, Villa Park and the city centre beyond. My Big Ben. My Golden Gate. My Spaghetti Junction.
A Brief Cultural History of Spaghetti Junction, by Ian Francis, appears in a new book called 'Back To The Future', an informal collection of essays, illustrations and photos about architecture, housing and modernism in Birmingham. Photo: Tom Bird
'I Choose Birmingham' is a free weekly email about the best things to do in Brum. Subscribe below.