Contemporary Cities and Infrastructural Imaginaries

by Martin Dodge, Geography, School of Environment and Development.

On way to academically approach the city is to interrogate the infrastructures that keep its inhabitants moving, working and communicating. Engaging extensively with the materiality and technicality of infrastructure subsurfaces of the city is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences (1). It is also somewhat unusual to focus attention on infrastructure that never came to be and technical systems that remained on the paper plans.

Infrastructure typically exudes physical permanence, at least to superficial visual inspection, and on the engineering overview plans and construction schematics, it can appear so believably real. Moreover, the functioning of technical space and built structures as infrastructure for the city often equates to cultural permanence, which is generated by a widespread lack of technological comprehension [or even awareness] in the general public. The very essence of infrastructure is that it can be seen as invisible and ignored in the conduct of our everyday tasks. In established industrialised cities, like Manchester, the ‘basic’ utilities of water, power and communications are seemingly present everywhere, always ‘on’ and working, which appropriates an imaginary of infrastructural permanence and stability. In contrast to this image of permanence and stability, systems of infrastructure are in reality delicately balanced, prone to failure, highlighting the vulnerability of urban processes that depend upon them. As such, one of the defining aspects of utilities and structures, which achieve the cultural status of infrastructure, is that they become ‘visible upon breakdown’. (2)

Over the last couple of years I have conducted research that has sought to uncover the histories and technical extents of several infrastructure systems in Manchester and the impact these have had on the shape of the contemporary city(3). A particular focus has been on the water supply and hydraulic infrastructure (4). More recently, and in partnership with Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) we spent several months delving into the engineering details and concrete materialities of a number of iconic projects and several unrealised infrastructural dreams within post-war Manchester. The immediate goal for the research was build up narrative understanding and a visual record of the four key modes of communication – road infrastructure, railway transportation, passenger aviation and telecommunications –  and to display the results publicly to reach non-academic communities who want to learn more about their city. The results have been assembled as Infra_MANC a new exhibition exposing infrastructural imaginaries of Manchester and it is due to open next week in the CUBE Gallery / RIBA Hub. The exhibition sets outs to analyse the conception, planning, construction and promotion of four infrastructural projects: the Mancunian Way, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian underground telephone exchange and fanciful dreams of a city centre heliport.

The conception of the Infra_MANC exhibition

Two of these infrastructural imaginaries become real being built largely as planned and at considerable financial cost, but proved to be rather ineffectual by completion.  The other two projects were to remain unrealised dreams of city planners, to be forever infrastructural imaginaries lying inert on paper plans, drawings and maps. All four were imagined as large scale pieces of infrastructure, that were envisioned create new spaces for communication, with two being buried underground and two being up in the air to facilitate movement above the congested city. They partially overlap and intersect across and through the central area of Manchester. One has now become something of an infrastructural icon for the city [the Mancunian Way (5)], another is a source of intrigue for some [the underground telecommunications ‘bunker’ codenamed Guardian], and the two unrealised infrastructures are significant in that they offer scope retro-futurist urbanism, imagining how the city would be different had they been built.

Overview map. The four infrastructures being interpreted in the Infra_MANC exhibition are displayed on a 1950s era street map of Manchester city centre. [Source: Map compilation created by Graham Bowden, Cartography Unit, University of Manchester]

We have chosen to approach the materiality and imagined forms of these four infrastructures by analysing them primarily through visual artefacts of engineers and original mapping of the planners, much of which is never normally published or even meant to be exposed to the public. Undertaking primary research in archives, seeking recollections of those involved and borrowing key items held in private collections, processing some new photographic images, we have striven to present the distinctive aesthetic of a Modern city as viewed through the professional eyes of the engineer, the technically-applied architects and the transport planner. Many of the drawings we have chosen for the exhibition are highly technical – apparently de-humanised and seemingly a-political – showing only what was to be manufactured, concreted, wielded together and hammered into the ground. Whilst harsh as first sight, infrastructure can often have sculptural qualities to its insertion in the landscape, while the angular forms, materials and architectural styling speaks of the age in which they are conceived (6). Infrastructural plans, sectional diagrams and drawings depict fluidly shaped lines of pipe routing, sinuous steel reinforcing and muscular concrete supports, along with arrays of cryptic acronyms and hand-drawn annotations that truly invite scrutiny and thought from non-expert viewers. There are rewards that arise from the time one must take to decode the content of such engineering schematics and planners diagramming of space; we would argue it brings a new kind of infrastructural sublime to the fore. Of course, one might counter-argue that it is not sublime space one is seeing displayed, but merely infrastructure being laid bare to be easily objectified as a kind of pornographic exposure of the workings of the urban entrails. We leave it to the judgement of visitors to the Infra_MANC exhibition and readers of the accompanying catalogue to reach a verdict.

Our role as exhibition curators has focused on trying to find the right kind of plans, maps and schematics of infrastructure and we have spent many [happy] hours in libraries and online catalogues tracking down obscure technical reports, as well as wading through mundane committee minutes and correspondence between public officials and technocrats. Most importantly, we have been able exploit several valuable, locally-held, archives that have been little or never used before, including, firstly, the collections held by the Transport Museum Greater Manchester  relating to 1960s and 1970s activities of the city and regional transport authorities. While the museum is best know for its big buses, restored trams and other large metallic objects, it actually has accumulated a sizeable archive of textual materials, including important documents, printed ephemera, unpublished reports and working plans. This material has little or no cataloguing at the moment but has yielded some valuable artefacts for this exhibition. [We are most grateful to George Turnbull in facilitating access and guiding the research at the museum.] However, the most significant archival resource that has underpinned this exhibition project is the huge collection of plans of the Manchester City Engineers and Surveyors that were photographed onto microcards in the mid 1980s (7). Stored at the Greater Manchester Record Office the multiple filling cabinets contain tens of thousands of separate plans, maps and drawings. Many of the most interesting plans displayed in Infra_MANC came from this source, including key material regarding the unbuilt Picc-Vic underground railway stations and the sites of potential city centre heliports being considered by Manchester Corporation in the mid 1950s. This collection also contains much else we are sure and merits greater scrutiny for those interested in the recent urban history of Manchester as narrated through it built structures and unrealised plans. Unfortunately, the microcard collection is rather physically inaccessible and lacks readily usable indexes.

Imagined infrastructure under Manchester. An architectural render for a subway station on the Picc-Vic line that very nearly got built under the city centre in the 1970s.

We have also consciously taken on historically-focused description, seeking to understanding how the infrastructures were imagined in different times and socio-economic circumstances. We begin with the optimism of the immediate aftermath of war, the reality of construction in the 1960s and the disappointments with the economic downturn of the 1970s, all against a backdrop of increasing paranoia of the cold war. The 25 year period at the heart of Infra_MANC encompasses the fortunes of Britain in the post-war era and lurches wildly from far reaching vision and ambition, to failed dreams and urban disappointments.

We hope, however, that visitors to the exhibition will come to understand something of the infrastructure of Manchester via our curation of  original maps, engineers schematics, architects drawings and marketing ‘machines’ that we have brought together in an attempt to expose the role of communications infrastructure in the contemporary city and to introduce historical context to these overridingly technological propositions.

Exhibition Details:

  • Infra_MANC // Post-war Infrastructures of Manchester, an exhibition curated by Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) and Martin Dodge (Department of Geography, University of Manchester), with support and help from MMU, Museum of Transport Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester County Record Office and Manchester City Archives.
  • Dates: 27 February – 23 March 2012. Free entry, open from Mon-Fri. 10-5.30, Sat. 12-5.
  • Location: CUBE / RIBA Hub, 113-15 Portland Street, Manchester, M1 6DW.

(1) Although see notable work by Steve Graham, Maria Kaika and Matthew Gandy.

(2) Star, S. and Bowker, G. [2006] ‘How to infrastructure’, in Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. [eds] Handbook of New Media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs [London: SAGE], p.231.

(3) Some of the results were presented in a successful public exhibition Mapping Manchester: Cartographic Stories of the City [June 2009-March 2010, Rylands Deansgate Library; co-curated with Chris Perkins]. Ongoing research is feeding into the Mapping Manchester book project discussed by Chris Perkins in an earlier Cities@Manchester blog post.

(4)  See discussion presented in Dodge, M. and Perkins, C. [2012] ‘Maps, memories and Manchester: The cartographic imagination of the hidden networks of the hydraulic city’, in Roberts, L. [ed] Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance [Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan]

(5) Millington, S. [2011] ‘Mancunian Way: On the road to Manchester’s lost utopia’, in The Modernist, Issue 1.

(6) In relation to the sculptural forms and concrete aesthetics, see the sublime materiality of water supply infrastructure captured in Stanley Greenberg’s photography.  [Greenberg, S. [2003] Waterworks: A photographic journey through New York’s hidden water system [Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press].

(7) The creation of this collection is partly explained in this article: John, S. and Guest, P. [1986] “Mapping Manchester’s sewers: The engineering archives project”, in Manchester Region Local History Review, 2(2): 33-37.

2 thoughts on “Contemporary Cities and Infrastructural Imaginaries

  1. Pingback: Contemporary cities | Winnersatgamin

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