BT Beans, a sculptural group outside BT’s Glasgow headquarters at Alexander Bain House, was a one of the unexpected and strange discoveries during our lockdown neighbourhood dérives with John. In this post I’ll touch a bit on contemporary psychogeography, new ways of (photo)walking in lockdown and my experience of this surprising artwork in the heart of Glasgow International Financial Services District (IFSD).
For weeks we followed our customary evening itinerares along the Clyde Walkway: to the right to Kingston Bridge, to the left to Glasgow Green, straight on – past the Central Mosque to the City of Glasgow College, and back. While the rest of the city was boarded and empty, the local dwellers, caught by the pandemic in the inner Glasgow, flocked in numbers to the riverside and Glasgow Green for their dose of exercise.
Pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, young families with kids, couriers delivering takeaways to the south of the river Clyde kept the waterfront fairly busy. Maintaining the two meter distance from strangers to keep safe from the virus, while dodging the ringing cyclists and trying to take some photos, felt quite stressful.
During daytime, when John toiled behind his computer in our living room, I designed a self-study programme catching up with urban theories and research for my city photography and street art writings. Jumping from Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project I found myself reading Guy Debord’s articles on psychogeography in Situationist International Anthology and pouring over the pages of Phil Smith’s Walking’s New Movement.
Will Self, a writer, journalist, TV personality and an active proponent of contemporary psychogeography, suggested in his recent online lecture for the Institute of Art and Ideas‘ annual philosophy and music festival that the dérive, or aimless playful stroll, could be a “solution to social isolation in pandemic Britain.” Self fell into the shielded category due to his medical condition and had to be extra strict about his self isolation regime so he took his walks in early hours of night on the deserted London streets.
Deliberately diverting from his usual urban “routes of time and money”, he immersed himself 360 degrees in his neighbourhood, drawn by instinct and inclination. Armed with psychogeographic strategems, he discovered long Regency terraces and old architecture in the cityscape of the concrete, steel and glass, allowing himself to register and savour his emotional response. “There is nothing boring about your immediate environment,” he summed up:
Dérive is not just a nostalgic praxis. You may not be getting on a plane, or even a train, for quite a while yet. So you might as well live in peace with your environment.
Even before watching Will Self’s talk, only published in August, I started craving those serendipitous and unpredictable encounters promised by psychogeographic walking, however limited it was by a square mile, maximum two, of COVID-19 lockdown limit.
I was not alone in my restlessness. During the same period other photographers, unable to travel, sooner or later discovered the joys of heightened creative awareness on their pandemic photo walks. Dallas Thomas from Sydney admitted to becoming a photographic flâneur in his own home town, where he lived and worked for 44 years, on Dear Susan blog:
Places in the past I would have classed as not photogenic have all of sudden become of interest. It shows me what I have been blind to in the past. The moral of this small article is don’t underestimate your own doorstep.
Michael Comeau, a portrait photographer, didn’t shoot a single portrait since the COVID-19 restrictions were announced – instead he “photo walked” for miles around New York City which reinforced his sense of play, free from pigeonholing himself as only one genre practitioner and enjoying the randomness of his experiences.
It took some negotiating with John, who, like most British people, loved his river and green spaces and regarded the urban with a mild suspicion, to cross the street to wander into the urban jungle of Glasgow IFSD in Broomielaw, the self-proclaimed “Wall Street on the Clyde” (ha-ha!).
Only ten meters away from the crowded waterfront we sunk into an urban desert of glass and metal. Not a single person around. All business offices locked. Construction sites abandoned. Silence. Void of its usual functions, the IFSD’s attributes of efficiency and flow felt strangely de-familiarised. We found themselves randomly zigzagging between James Watt and York streets, looking with wonder at the weathered facades of old tobacco warehouses caught in the millennial regeneration spaces.
And then, amidst the grey sea I caught something pink, and red, from the corner of my eye.
It was a “stone circle” of five coloured standing structures, irregular in shape, that looked like a mystical neo-pagan ritual ground in front of the entrance to the BT headquarters at Alexander Bain House. A Stonehenge without henges. A megalith interpreted by a contemporary artist. An urban business shrine.
In absolute terms, it was hardly a discovery. In normal times there were hundreds of BT call centre workers, visitors and managers circulation past this monument, a daily sight. However, for me it was an interruption, a ceremonial complex, at once out of place among the urban structures and fittingly present in the lockdown people-less stillness. I walked inside the circle and turned, abandoning rational knowledge and invoking those intensely subjective thoughts and emotions characteristic to the psychogeographic dérive. And I prayed silently to the unknown urban spirits of this Broomielaw business district shrine for the end of the pandemic.
Back at home, I edited the photos and googled our mysterious find. The web search revealed that we came across the so-called BT Beans. Apart from a few images and cursory mentions, there is very little information available online.
I excavated a 2005 thread on Hidden Glasgow forum where perplexed Glaswegians thought the artwork was reminiscent of Barbapapa or, as someone wrote, “TellyTubbies [sic] that have been left in front of the fire.”
In 2007 Thomas Nugant whose photo of Alexander Bain House was used on geograph.org.uk commented: “Apparently provision of publicly accessible artworks was a condition of planning consent for this BT call centre building. I have no idea what these colourful blobs are supposed to represent.”
McCreath Family Glasgow Public Sculptures directory lists the sculpture under the title “BT Beans”, sculptor unknown, and the artwork is described as follows:
These unusual sculptures are found right outside the British Telecom building. The colours are similar to those in the BT logo. Inside the building there is a giant beanstalk, from which they are supposed to have fallen. They apparently represent the prosperity and growth of British Telecom. Not much more to say about them really!
Indeed, the circle of coloured blobs outdoors are the BT Beans, a public part of the sculptural group referring to the popular Jack and his magic beans story, the last fragment of which, the giant beanstalk from which the beans have fallen is kept in the atrium of Alexander Bain House.
Significantly, the photographs of both the indoor and outdoor elements were included in the 2011 PR article celebrating the opening of the re-organised British telecom call centre launched by Jim Wallace, deputy first minister. This confirms indirectly the importance of the prosperity and growth message of the Magic Beans artwork for BT’s corporate identity.
The claim that the Beans’ colours are related to the BT “Connected World” logo is less apparent. I found an early image of the BT building bean sculptures which features the old “Piper” logo, introduced in 1991 and in use until 2003. Alexander Bain House on the Broomielaw opened in 2001 and was part of the Millennial renovation project for the City of Glasgow, which means that the “Piper” logo was current when BT commissioned its Beans and the Beanstalk around 2000-2001 to honour the planning consent.
However, the building accommodated the BT call centre with more than 1000 employees who serviced, among others, the clients of the company’s rapidly growing mass market internet division BT Openworld. It is BT Openworld that was branded with the multicoloured globe logo, designed by Wolff Olins, since 2000. The internet service carried the colourful globe on its bills, vans and marketing materials, that is in the time when the BT Beans were created.
In 2003 the BT Openworld emblem was adopted by BT as a whole to reflect the company’s global ambitions and its power of bringing people together across the world. The logotype colours carried a set of five new “brand values” and “people values”, cited in Lora Starling’s Logo Decoded book  as:
- Trustworthy – keeps its promises
- Helpful – listens and responds
- Inspiring – creating new communications possibilities
- Straightforward – keeps things simple
- Heart – cares and is committed to what it does
Were these five BT values represented by the circle of Magic Beans, to be seen by BT employees daily? I do not know. But the prosperity and growth promise they stood for evoked mystical powers that I intuited during our lockdown drift.
Does the Beans magic still work? Apparently so – a multi-million-pound refurbishment of Glasgow Clydeside BT HQ was recently announced, bringing new jobs to the area and confirming Alexander Bain House as a key operational base for the company in Scotland.
On my bookshelf
Knabb, Ken. Situationist International: Anthology. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.
Ratingen, Witold van. Loitering with Intent: The Histories and Futures of Psychogeography. www.academia.edu, www.academia.edu/33898419/Loitering_with_Intent_the_Histories_and_Futures_of_Psychogeography. Accessed 24 Aug. 2020.
Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking. Triarchy, 2015.
Starling, Lora. The Logo Decoded: What Logos Can Do to You. BalboaPress, 2011.