The Original Modern

Grid image of arches -  Brian Rosa

Grid image of arches – Brian Rosa

by Brian Rosa, PhD candidate in Geography

Manchester is a city of superlatives: it was the prototypical “shock city” of the Industrial Revolution, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s model for everything that was abhorrent in the industrial capitalist city, and one of the birthplaces of the labor and women’s suffrage movements.  In its heyday, Manchester was depicted in literature of Engels, Alexis de Toqueville and later the paintings of L.S. Lowry, as an uninterrupted, chaotic anti-landscape of chimneys and smoke, strewn across a featureless topography. Its unprecedented configuration invoked equal parts awe and dread, moral panic, and tempestuous visions of the future. In 1833, Toqueville described the crowded conditions, poorly constructed housing, hulking factories, and environmental degradation of Manchester: “From the foul drain the great stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world.  From this filthy sewer pure gold flows.  Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage” (cited in Konvitz 1985).

Like so many formerly industrial cities that followed, the inability to eradicate the industrial history in Manchester was not out of a lack of desire. From the post-World War II period of deindustrialization until the late Seventies, Manchester city planners’ main goal was to not repeat the ‘indiscriminate building of the industrial revolution’ (Nicholas 1945, p.87), and to counteract the ‘image of grime and obsolescence inherited from the industrial revolution’ (City and Council Borough of Manchester 1967, p.39). In his 1978 description of Stockport, just south of Manchester, historic preservationist Randolph Langenbach described the demolition of the mills around Stockport Viaduct: “the destruction is so complete that one can only believe that it must have been the result of an intentional effort to expunge the 19th-century industrial image” (cited in Parkinson-Bailey 2000, p.203).

We can see these phantasmal landscapes in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants in Max Ferber’s walks through 1950s Manchester: “In Ardwick, Brunswick, All Saints, Hulme and Angel Fields too, districts adjoining the centre to the south, whole square kilometers of working-class homes had been pulled down by the authorities, so that, once the demolition rubble had been removed, all that was left to recall the lives of thousands of people was the grid-like layout of the streets….  On that bare terrain, which was like a glacis around the heart of the city, it was in fact always and only children that one encountered” (2002, pp.157–158).

Despite the wholesale erasure of industrial-era working-class housing, what is left of Manchester city centre still bears considerable evidence to its industrial past: the monumental warehouses of Whitworth Street have been converted to residential lofts and offices, the opulent Cotton Exchange building has been transformed into the Royal Exchange Theatre, and the Manchester Central Railway Station is an exhibition and conference center.  In the areas closest to the employment, entertainment and retail center of Manchester (and accordingly, of the Northwest of England), the “Dark, satanic mills” are now the realms of the yuppie.  Throughout much of the city, the soot has been removed from industrial facades to reveal red bricks, made more vibrant by consistently cloudy skies.

Just as “Cottonopolis” was the first industrial city, and accordingly, for a moment, world’s most futuristic city, it was also one of the first ‘postindustrial’ cities.  Since the 1970s, this city of red brick has become the master of municipal entrepreneurialism based on a sanitized industrial history—a new heritage industry emerged, repackaging the city in the sepia tones of nostalgia. Branding itself as “The Original Modern”, city boosters Marketing Manchester project an outward image as a risk-taking city that shirks convention and always has.   After decades of embarrassment and disavowal of its industrial dowry, the city’s well-branded “urban renaissance” has been predicated on a reinvention that both conceals and reveals its cultural heritage, in an amalgam of selective memory and outright amnesia.

In a visual and material sense, what symbolizes a demystified Mancunian modernity? It’s a more difficult question to answer than one might presume. Domestic scenes of back-to-back tenements are the realm of dusty dioramas in museums—mannequins behind glass, nestled among obsolete machinery. In Ancoats, just east of the city centre, the world’s first industrial suburb has been reworked as an “Urban Village” inviting in the new pioneers, real estate developers have built an ornamental extension to the Rochdale Canal, site of a former housing estate, to increase waterfront real estate.  In Castlefield, the central node of industrial era productive networks, simulacral warehouses provide residential lofts where real warehouses were demolished in the 1960s.

Amidst all of the erasure and reconfiguration, industrial-era transportation infrastructure looms large on the built environment of the city in the form successive layers of canals and elevated railways. Within the sea of brick, the scoliotic railway viaducts stand as the primary beacons of a bygone era that is still central to Manchester’s identity. Accordingly, the arches serve as a backdrop to many a Manchester mise-en-scène:  in the opening credits of every episode of Coronation Street, the everyday environment of Manchester is signified in the railway viaduct that is nestled in the background of a working-class neighborhood.  By the same token, the arches become so familiar in the everyday life of the city that they rarely seem to be in the foreground. From the ground level, they interweave through the urban tapestry, appearing and disappearing, but never far away.

Foregrounding the Backdrop

To identify the “original modern” in Manchester would be to excavate material traces of Manchester’s ascent into industrial modernity- the maelstrom of rapid change, technological discoveries, social upheaval, exponential urban growth, and the fluctuating markets of proto-globalization. The industrialization of Manchester was predicated on the development of a vast, networked transportation system and the colonization of the countryside, with the railway playing a central symbolic and material role in this upheaval.  As political philosopher Marshall Berman explains, if we move forward a hundred years from when Jean-Jacques Rousseau first used the term moderniste in its contemporary form “and try to identify the distinctive rhythms and timbres of nineteenth-century modernity, the first thing we will notice is the highly developed, differentiated and dynamic new landscape in which modern experience takes place.  This is a landscape of steam engines, automatic factories, railroads, vast new industrial zones; of teeming cities that have grown overnight, often with dreadful human consequences” (Berman 1988, p.18).  In this sense, the railway becomes the apotheosis of modernity, and nowhere more so than in Manchester.

We are left with the brick railway viaducts: structures that must have seemed so futuristic at the time, time-space platforms hewn from the same red brick as the temples to industry that they supplied. This infrastructure is not superimposed on the city; its presence continues as an imposition that still affects the reshaping of the city.

References:

Berman, M., 1988. All That is Solid Melts into Air:  The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin Books.

City and Council Borough of Manchester, 1967. City Centre Map 1967, Manchester: City and Council Borough of Manchester.

Konvitz, J.A., 1985. The Urban Millenium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Nicholas, R., 1945. City of Manchester Plan.

Parkinson-Bailey, J.J., 2000. Manchester: An Architectural History, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Sebald, W.G., 2002. The Emigrants, London: Vintage.


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