Rioting and Architecture

by Mark Crinson, Art History

They broke every window in our street… You have to hammer at the window glass for twenty minutes to get an impression. They were able to batter them to such an extent they were able to break through the glass (i).

More than 130 people, many youths, were arrested in a night of turmoil which saw £500,000 of damage caused when the mob descended on the exclusive Emporio Armani (ii).

The rioters vandalized the centre of the city and have destroyed everything that came in their way. Fire bombs were thrown at shops and windows were smashed. The police was overwhelmed by the huge number of rioters that reached 2000 persons… After they have destroyed the shops, the looters have stolen electrical items, jewelry, designer clothes, mobile phones and alcohol. They have trashed high street shops and banks and smashed them to pieces and banks too (iii).

Armani Store and John Rylands Library , Spinningfields


Was architecture merely incidental to last summer’s riots? Did it seem not only to contain the things desired or reviled, but in itself to be loathed: the complacent bank and the sleek boutique, as much as the decorated sheds of retail parks? Could not some of the damage be seen as an attack – if often blurred and mis-targeted – on the architectural forms of our ‘rampantly feral’ capitalism(iv)? Images of burning buildings and broken glass certainly played a notable part in the media coverage, acting as both trace and symbol of broken Britain. Because this damage was largely to shops and high streets, however, it was easily subsumed to the politicians’ view that the riots were not symptoms of social breakdown but opportunistic outbreaks of acquisitive criminality. Yet, in such a complex sequence of events and causes, could not some of this building bashing be interpreted in a different way?

That the immediate target of much of the rioting, the membrane to break through, was glass, has not been commented on in the numerous blogs and articles on the riots. In a sense it’s too obvious and therefore ignored in the search for reasons and causes. Of course people smash windows when they riot, it’s much easier than smashing concrete or brick. Along with fire, the shattering of glass offers the most direct challenge to the materials of urban order. And now there is an awful lot more glass around – glass walls and floors, the aquaria of offices and shops, the time-denying gleam of glass towers. By extension, then, this smashing can be understood to deal a different kind of violence to a history of modern urban and architectural thinking. Glass was never just glass, never a mere building material – there was a poetics and theoretics to it (v).  Glass embodied many of the symbolic properties of modernity, including the interpenetrating magic of space-time itself. It meant intoxicating forms of living through the dematerialisation of walls and the exposure of previously hidden interiors. It would revitalize experience, offer a ‘new vision’, and promise new states of consciousness. It would clad the Stadtkron and other crystalline fantasies. It promised a new reconciliation of man and nature, a new oneness facilitated by modernity, and a life leaving behind old habits and traces. If it had once shown people glimpses of paradise and let in God’s light, now it enabled the panoptic gaze, ‘[spawning] new paranoias’ and new forms of ungodly exhibitionism (vi).  Its taut skins seemed to supersede oppositions of the mechanical and organic. It evidenced democracy and promised egalitarianism, a new social transparency, the open society, accessible government: as contemporary architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster still repetitiously insist, glazed walls signal ‘democratic values of openness and participation… [or] the accessibility of a judicial system’, ‘the transparency and openness of the democratic process’, ‘dignity, transparency and openness’ (vii). In all this glass was always closely bound into modernism’s dialectics of the rational and the enchanting.

If such is the rhetoric of modern architects and their clients, for others glass may not and may never have signified in these ways; it may actually be about false accessibility, about temptation and leading astray. One of the original arguments, for instance, against building the Crystal Palace – that free trade utopia, icon of modernist pre-histories, and paean to glazed showcasing – was that it would inevitably be stoned by the mob (viii). The 2011 smashing of glass might be seen, then, as an appropriation of the architects’ view of it, and if it was sometimes a refusal of that kind of rhetoric it was also a way of taking it literally. What is inside is desirable and must be got at even using illegitimate means? Democracy is just another means of delusion? Transparency is finally recognised as obfuscation? If so, then this doesn’t mean the end of a now long history of utopian glass thinking but another chapter in it. After all, even some architects might continue to welcome riots as ‘the awakening of cleanliness’.(ix)

Suggestive parallels to the recent riots can be found in Isobel Armstrong’s fascinating book Victorian Glassworlds (2008). The breaking of glass in riots leading up to the 1832 Reform Act and then during the Chartist-linked Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839, were clearly demonstrations of alienation from political process: ‘[the crowds] affirmed something about the specificity of their own experiences as well as, or through, shattering glass’ (x). The patrician attitude of establishment figures like the Duke of Wellington (whose houses and tours were a frequent target for stone throwers) was that such smashing up demonstrated the endemically irrational behaviour of the lower classes, justifying their exclusion from legitimate politics (xi). Although those riots did not have an element of material acquisition to them, it is the cathartic fury directed at glass that parallels the recent riots. Breaking glass generates a visceral excitement as barriers are broken and the building’s orifices penetrated: the façade can demonstratively be cracked, defenestrated. Armstrong suggests that the sound of glass breaking was more than the accompaniment to this somatic release, but also an ‘insistence of being heard… [being] redeemed from anonymity’, challenging the insulation of privilege through the direct agency of body against building. This kind of corporeal assertion contrasts with the property-owner’s order, ‘demonstrating that his are literally constructed categories, bound up as they are in his very buildings (xii).’

Like E. P. Thompson’s famous argument for the ‘moral economy’ of eighteenth-century rioting against the economy of the free market, Armstrong insists on the self-discipline and idealism of her Victorian rioters, their refusal to loot. This may not sit easy with comparisons to the summer of 2011, let alone to other crystal nights. A glib way to express this is to say that the commodification of labour has been replaced by the commodification of desire – a demand for change by a demand for trainers – though this misses the initial protests of 2011 and the sense of deep injustice around stop-and-search and the killing of Mark Duggan. That there were protesters and there were looters, and sometimes the two were indistinguishable, is what makes the riots of 2011 too complex, too diverse in cause and effect, for us to reach easy conclusions about. But there are some parallels with Armstrong’s account. Among its drives, rioting is about a taking over of space, an ownership of it and a sense of power through owning it, however briefly. Such was certainly behind the spontaneous taking to the streets of the powerless and the disaffected after Duggan’s death. And the group action of rioting, its ‘performative unity’ (xiii), raises the prospect not of the spectral rabble but of an urban collectivity acting on its disenchantment – as indicated by those instances of co-operative looting among rioters, even between members of different gangs (as observed in the recent Guardian/LSE report ‘Reading the Riots’). Is to riot in this way to reverse the expected behaviour of the disempowered subject and the individual consumer?

It’s clear that in Manchester’s case the spaces in which riots took place were the same spaces as the city’s much acclaimed ‘regeneration’; that’s to say, at the centre of the Victorian industrial city in those areas revamped in response to the 1996 IRA bomb and the threat of out of town shopping in the Trafford Centre. The post-1990s regeneration has been uneven, and largely focused on the central city. A new urban order has been created which seems mainly to be about the rebranding of central Manchester. Yet although it does not use shops to hide slums from the bourgeoisie, as in Friedrich Engels’s canonical account, it does share much with Engels’s notion of a ‘hypocritical plan’. The conspicuous demonstration of the resources and pleasures of affluence are narrowly bestowed on certain areas of the city, leaving the ‘underclass’ as marginal onlookers. In this context, then, we might adapt Armstrong’s idea that her Victorian rioting constitutes its own style or aesthetic into an understanding of the 2011 rioting as a form of architectural criticism. Was this an ironic way of dealing with the spaces of consumerism as disqualified consumers seized hold and upturned the effects and meanings of transparency? To put it differently, how does the shattering of glass sit with the hermeneutics of glass? Let’s look at one – admittedly limited – instance.

Among the areas of Manchester’s city centre attacked on the evening of 10 August was Spinningfields. The name is redolent of Manchester’s Cottonopolis past and the area, midway along Deansgate and between it and the River Irwell, was one of the most notorious slums of the Victorian city, one selected by Engels for particular attention. Spinningfields was re-zoned in Manchester’s postwar city plan as an area for Manchester’s courts and its legal profession, and it is this legal architecture that has been updated in the last five years, linking it to a considerably expanded business quarter. Two of the features of this form of regeneration are particularly important for the argument here. One is the extraordinary vista of glazed buildings that have taken over the area; and the other is a new kind of mixed zoning that has deliberately been built into this as the area touches Deansgate itself, for long one of Manchester’s main shopping streets.

One of the shops targeted by the 2011 rioters was Emporio Armani, fronting Spinningfields on Deansgate. (Emporio Armani was also a particular target of the looting in Birmingham, as one of the quotes at the head of this article shows.) Apparently, rioters were baulked here by a line of security guards and only smashed one large window before heading off to easier targets. The shop fills the ground floor of No 1 The Avenue, an entirely glazed building but of a specifically 21st century type. It was designed by the London-based architectural firm Sheppard Robson and opened two years ago. Sheppard Robson is one of the many middling practices (though of large size) that diffuse (and perhaps defuse) vanguard styles for mainstream clients. In this case the building is a near-parody of late deconstructivism mixed with high tech, Daniel Libeskind crossed with Norman Foster. Such buildings must have a ‘concept’, and here this is based on a simple-minded game of slicing a parallelogram, flipping it and then misaligning the two blocks. The cantilever created by this misalignment provides a wedge-shaped canopy for shoppers, with a sharp-edged arris of glass panes pointing at the street. One detects that recent concerns about architecture and security have entered many architects’ unconscious – even in a shop like this there is a strange combination of vulnerability and aggression, come-hitherness and repulsion. Across the whole building and reinforcing its strident geometry is a jazzy diagonal cladding of trapezoidal glass panels. The skill of the architects here, if it can be called that, is to tantalize and enthrall. We look into the darkened windows to see the displays but also see beyond them to view parts of the shop’s interior. Perhaps it’s meant to flatter the consumer with a sense of discretion, entitlement, and hipped up slickness. Transparency as obfuscation, then: as teasing glamour, a heightening of emulative desire, with more than a hint of those intoxicating qualities that some modernists perceived in the potential of glass.

No 1 The Avenue is a local if not very distinguished example of a widespread phenomenon, named by Owen Hatherley as ‘pseudomodernism’ (xiv). Here, in a reactionary metamorphosis, the postmodernist love of the building as sign has now turned back to the surface effects of modernism – a veneer of its good taste or even of its political associations – so providing the boosterist built logos of our neoliberal age, its glass shards, obelisks and gherkins. As Hal Foster has suggested, the old transparency of modernism has become ‘spaces that are not only opaque, but that are illusionistic… [such space] purports to be about perceptual experience, but in many ways it does the perceiving for us.(xv)’ One cannot argue that these glazed buildings were the particular target of rioters; in fact many styles and periods of buildings were attacked. But there was a particular poignancy at Spinningfields that would emerge only a few days later.

Passage, Spinningfields

In the week following the riots across British cities many of the perpetrators of both righteous protest and opportunistic shopping were hastily brought to court as part of the avenging government’s attempt to show that it was in control. One of the busiest courts was the Manchester City Magistrates Court and Coroners Court located, as it happens, in Spinningfields just behind the Emporio Armani shop. The court building’s entrance façade is clad to its full height in glass and displays a multi-level escalator within, implying a kind of vaguely efficient and, of course, ‘transparent’ disposal of functions. On one side the court building turns a corner and becomes a menswear shop, on the other it terminates a wide pedestrian passage – while Armani is on the left, the new extension to the John Rylands Library is on the right (the library also fronts onto Deansgate). This passage is parallel with The Avenue, which houses several more luxury clothes shops, but the link between the courts and The Avenue is barred by a glazed wall, clearly an ad hoc measure to separate a restaurant’s outdoor space from court attendees snatching time for a last cigarette. The passage can’t be described as a street nor is ‘pedestrianised way’ quite right – too old fashioned for one thing – though it certainly evokes vague associations with older planning fantasies. Such passages are designed for shopping and certain other leisure activities deemed legitimate, a ‘right to the city’ is the thinnest of its effects. Manchester has quite a few of them, and quite a few were also the places where the rioting happened – in the pedestrianised Market Street, for instance, and in New Cathedral Street. The latter is not as cloistered as it sounds but actually a group of high-end shops on an elevated curve of walkway leading to the ersatz environment that is Manchester’s version of a cathedral close.

With these spaces, seductive and absurd by turn, the city attempts to ward off the rivalry of the out of town shopping centre, offering an urban density of commerce close by the cultural, civic and religious institutions of the traditional city. In Spinningfields the uniform material of different building types signals a uniform rhetoric of accessibility – whether of the judicial system (transparent justice), of a library (access to learning), or even of an ‘exclusive’ menswear shop (‘modern lifestyle… with a sense of classic sophistication’). Cynical and insensitive in social terms, the development is alternately ‘sensitive’ and ‘cutting edge’ in the terms of architects’ and developers’ jargon, the commercial and cultural cream for the business quarter beyond. In Sheppard Robson’s own publicity No 1 The Avenue is described as pivotal in form and location, ‘tying Manchester’s retail and business district with its civic core (xvi),’ and the building itself embodies this mixed-use, combining Armani with offices, a roof terrace, and a basement nightclub. (Another example, that epitomizes the absurd end of this fad for mixed-use, is close by – the oast house-style pub, clad in faux-distressed materials, that now fills the square in front of the older court building.)

Emporio Armani benefits, then, from its proximity to the Rylands Library and the courts. And they all benefit from an extraordinary CCTV concentration inside and outside the buildings, the vehicle of a new social contract assuring security and inviting affluent exhibitionism. We are in the heart of a 21st century panopticon here, one intersected by the complementary practices of shopping, surveillance, and punishment, and coterminous with an immaterial architecture of data formation and retrieval (xvii). And like most previous panopticons, of course, it courts failure, reproducing the conditions that brought it into being, its pleasures and disciplines emptied out and turned perverse because of the lack of a complementary political space.

In its great wisdom Manchester University in 2007 saw fit to build a minimalist glass box to house a café and shop as the most public face of the Rylands Library’s extension in Spinningfields. Sitting in the café one can take a table right beside the glazed wall and, eating one’s carrot cake, observe the human traffic into and out of the courts, as well as into and out of Emporio Armani. The rioters apparently sniffed at attacking this extension, probably because it had nothing obvious that could be looted and perhaps also because a library had no evident recognition factor – it clearly wasn’t a bank or Starbucks or Miss Selfridges. One might complacently say this confirms the marginality of learning in these our neoliberal times, but if so it is a marginality the university itself had already played into with the architectural appearance and the very function of its new extension. The original Victorian library’s glory, now made into a mere appendix by the new extension, was the way it addressed the street directly and then absorbed the visitor in its evocative entrance spaces. It used the gloomth of neo-Gothic tectonics to suggest the special mysteries of learning; access here was a matter of passing through successive spatial densities. Now the hidden structures of contemporary architecture suggest nothing but the lightness of modern being.

So, there is this extraordinary conjunction of functions more or less cheek by jowl in Spinningfields – designer clothes shop, magistrates court, and academic library. And inbetween these buildings, as if to cap the conjunction, is a mini glass shard, an enigmatic transparent pyramid that turns out to be the entrance to the underground nightclub – not so enigmatic after being boarded up following the night of 10 August. So in this 21st century corridor we run the gauntlet or we take to the catwalk. Glass is used to different ends, but the glazing also unites these institutions in a common play on a now meaningless accessibility. Part of the lost potential of this area might have been in the very dissonance of these institutions; that there might be something interesting about the clash of their values. But, post-riot, the leveling transparency had become guilty spectacle. This was where Manchester’s regeneration got differently confrontational, where the contemporary glassworlds of the law, security, consumerism, and learning were newly exposed in terms of who is entitled to use these streets in the manner for which they had been designed.

Georges Bataille defined architecture as the physiognomy of a society’s authority, and saw such events as the storming of the Bastille as a way of transgressing against the very nature of architecture: ‘it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters (xviii).’ It is perhaps no more than an interesting fantasy to imagine the riots as an uprising against our present phantasmagoric forms of transparency. But even to say ‘this shattered window is the work of my hands’ is to reveal a certain kind of meaning in the moments of madness.


i. John Henn, owner of a shop in Wolverhampton, as reported in The Guardian, 5 December 2011.

ii. accessed 8 December 2011.

iii.…, accessed 6 October 2011.

iv. David Harvey, ‘Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets’, The Bullet (Socialist Project e-bulletin), 535, 12 August 2011, accessed 10 November 2011.

v.  For the various mythologies that follow see Detlef Mertins, Modernity Unbound: Other Histories of Architectural Modernity, London: Architectural Association, 2011.

vi. The architectural practice Diller, Scofidio & Renfrew, as quoted in Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London: Verso, 2011, p. 98.

vii. The first quote is Richard Rogers, the second and third are by Norman Foster: as quoted in Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, pp. 29, 48.

viii. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 11.

ix. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization (1935), New York: Orion, 1967, p. 23.

x. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 62.

xi. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, pp. 65-66.

xii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 68.

xiii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 67.

xiv. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, London: Verso, 2010, pp. xx-xxiv.

xv. ‘Art lessons’, interview between Thomas Wensing and Hal Foster, Architecture Today, 222, October 2011, p. 14.

xvi., accessed 7 December 2011.

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