Tag Archives: Architecture

Why Detroit matters? Taking lessons from the motor city.

This is the sixth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Jacob Morris-Davies chose to write about Detroit …

Consider this, in 1940 you show Henry Ford this picture of Michigan Central Station, you say, “This is 2013, what do you think caused such a thing to happen?” To be frank his response would probably be along the lines of “the bomb”, “the apocalypse” or “the collapse of civilization”. Back then Detroit seemed indestructible, a freight train with unlimited momentum, but a train can only keep moving with tracks laid in front of it.

The transformation of Detroit over the last half century has been, to say the least, radical. What was once an industrial giant, the great manifestation of the American Dream, is now but a shell of its former self. Murder rates at ten times the national average(1), an alarming population decrease (it has halved since the 1960s)(2) and to top this all off on the 18th of July 2013 the city filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy(3). Why has this happened? Well that’s a complicated question, but an important one none the less. However, the question that should be on every economist, political scientist, sociologist and geographer’s lips is this. What happens next? Why? Because, if you think what’s happening to Detroit is unique, you’re wrong. At present, it may be exactly what’s around the corner for cities all over. If that’s to change, well, we better start paying attention.

How on earth did this happen?!?!

There are multiple possible explanations for the decline of Detroit, none of which are sufficient in themselves, here are just three of the main contributing factors.

Globalisation

Just as we saw the shift from city based economies to a national economy in the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the rise of the global economy. Lower wages in East Asia have led to the decline of American industries across the country. Detroit is no exception.

Corruption

In the past 80 years five Detroit mayors and four country executives have either been sent to prison, were subject to federal probes, or were removed from office.(4) Giving out contracts to family members and creaming off taxpayer dollars are just the tip of iceberg. The political class in Detroit have contributed to the debt the city now sees itself in through irresponsible governance and outright Al Capone style tactics, yes that has even included the occasional murder.

Urban planning

Detroit is too big to function in without a car and contains too few people to justify such a massive land area. This is a map from the early 2000s(5), Detroit’s population has fallen even more since then but the point still stands. It is too spread out to function as a city. You cannot function in Detroit on foot, it’s impossible. But doesn’t everybody have a car? No, not in the Motor City. This has reduced social mobility, fuelled racial segregation and divided the city’s population geographically and socially.

But, whats going to happen now?

Here are three possible futures for Detroit, although we may not see these changes for many years, it is the actions of today that will determine the path the city takes.

It will be saved

The optimist in me believes that with the right intervention Detroit can be saved. By this I mean the city revitalised and re-populated. For jobs to be created and its crime rates reduced. For its image to be restored, to become a city in which people want to live again.

The 2009 auto industry bailouts were just the beginning, getting Detroit back on its feet is not just a matter of economics. No matter how many jobs are created its image and structure will not fundamentally change. The way working, living and moving interact in Detroit would have to be flipped on its head completely. People need to live in the city, at present over half of Detroit’s police force live outside of the city limits!(6) If the police force don’t want to live in their city, why would small business owners, young professionals or entrepreneurs? It would be a massive project, but not out of the question, large-scale top-down lead redevelopment would be the answer, the city is too far gone for private revitalisation such as gentrification to work.

Ruralisation

This is happening as we speak. Locals are turning huge areas of abandoned and unused land into farms, to grow food for themselves and for selling on. It is conceivable in the near future the city limits could become a sort of rural/urban hybrid.

In fact this is nothing new, only to a large urban area. Regions such as County Durham in the UK have transformed in a similar fashion since the decline of the coal industry in the UK. Small villages centred around mines are slowly changing into rural commuter villages, who is to say this will not be the future of Detroit?

Collapse 

There is of course the third option, complete and utter collapse. This may seem extreme, something to far in the future to be taken seriously right now, but isn’t that the arrogance of all civilizations that have fallen? Not to sound overly dramatic but why do we think we are any different, maybe this is the death of the industrial city?

We are already seeing people tour the derelict areas of Detroit, calling themselves urban explorers and place hackers.(7) This too is also not new, think about Rome, Athens, Giza; human beings seem to have a fascination with exploring the ruins of past civilizations. That is not to say it has not made its mark in history through its industry, music and culture but the physical place of Detroit may in the 21st century cease to be.

Why does it matter?

You may ask why does this matter in the whole scheme of things, isn’t Detroit a one off case? Maybe, but probably not, it’s more likely the first of many. It’s not the only city out there with issues in planning, corruption, social division and industrial decline. Detroit should be taken as a lesson of what can and will happen unless city authorities, governments and businesses act now to ensure the long term prosperity of the urban areas they inhabit. Just as Urbanization and Suburbanization defined past generations it is conceivable that ruralization or the process of collapse will define the next. Detroit is the perfect case study for the future, whatever that may be.

What happens to Detroit is not just of consequence for Americans, urban decline such as this is a global problem and somewhat ironically one of the main regions that may be affected is East Asia. In recent years China for example has been organising its various provinces into specialised economic zones each centered around cities based on certain types of industry.(8) At the moment, it’s working well for them to say the least. However, in 20-50 or 100 years when Africa becomes a competitor, what then? Will they have the exact same problem on their hands as Detroit? Cities with one purpose in mind cannot last and adapt.

What is being urban anyway? What makes a great city? Why do we live in cities in the first place? Are cities not more than a group of people centered around one purpose? Detroit raises the questions, should cities be more holistic? Should they always serve multiple functions? Do they need a purpose other than just being?

Detroit was defined by its auto industry, why are we defining the places we call home, where we live and die in service of a single economic function? Should cities not be places we would live regardless of the work available? Many think so, many think cities can bring out the greatest and most beautiful elements of humanity. Because cities can have their own function which cannot be defined by any one factor, cities can have a purpose of there own, just by being.

Have a look at Richard Rodgers master plan for Shanghai(9), it approaches how cities are organised in an entirely different fashion. He suggests the overlapping pathways, connections and intersections of people, ideas and events make cities what they are. Not its icons, its industry or its history, but instead the way in which its inhabitants interact.

Why are these flows of interaction important? Well, because the cities of the future are being designed today. Cities must be economically and ecologically sustainable if they are to, but should they not also be socially sustainable? Detroit is at present none of these things, but why this is, where it’s going and what will works to fix it are questions that need answering to help plan our cities of the future.

What happens next? Collapse or re-birth, adaptation or abandonment, consolidation or ruralization, I do not know. But I do know this, understanding what is happening in Detroit now is essential to understanding how we should plan cities of the future. I will be watching; so should you.

References

(1)   – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/

(2) – http://www.freep.com/interactive/article/20130723/NEWS01/130721003/detroit-city-population

(3) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23369573

(4) – http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/23652333/from-then-until-now-a-look-at-detroits-80-year-corruption

(5) – http://growingcities.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/detroit-reassembled.html

(6) – http://tcf.org/blog/detail/reinventing-detroit

(7) – http://detroiturbex.com

(8) –  Wei Ge, (1999) Special Economic Zones and the Opening of the Chinese Economy: Some Lessons for Economic Liberalization, World Development Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1267 – 1285,

 (9) http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/Asp/uploadedFiles/Image/1950_Shanghai%20Masterplan/RSHP_A_JS_1950_L_E_MP.pdf]

* http://zfein.com

** http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/panic-in-detroit

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Pre-Worn: Art, Artists and the Post-Industrial Community

Homebaked Anfield

Homebaked Anfield

Guest blog by Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Biennial

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Biennial

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zurkin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

Hackney, London

Hackney, London

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in there own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the EastVillage art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in a bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.


[i] Sharon Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press,1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, RutgersUniversity Press, 1989)

[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and project manager with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban environment. You can view his websites here: http://kenntaylor.wordpress.com/ and here: http://urbantransitionuk.wordpress.com/

Suspended spaces

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre. Click to interact or add more spaces

by Sam Baars, PhD candidate, Institute for Social Change

At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.

If you’re coming to Manchester by train you can enjoy some of the city’s most prominent suspended spaces before you’ve even set a foot down. Arriving into Piccadilly, the view to your left is dominated by the derelict Mayfield Station, empty since 1986 and with no firm proposals for redevelopment, while to your right is a hole in the ground the size of Piccadilly Gardens, occasionally filled with parked cars, which was to be the site of the 58-storey Piccadilly Tower before the recession brought construction work to a halt in 2008. On exiting the station to the north you’re greeted by the meandering S of Gateway House which, currently empty save for its ground floor shops, forms a slightly decrepit entrance to a smart city. To the west, nestled between some of the city’s most expensive hotels, are the broken windows of the Employment Exchange, whose tortuous journey from drawing board to construction was interrupted by the Second World War. The recession, which put paid to the Albany Crown Tower proposed for the site, has granted the Employment Exchange temporary respite from the bulldozers – and afforded this former labour office a glimpse of a recession-stricken Manchester in which unemployment currently stands at 12%. To the south of Piccadilly Station sits London Road Fire Station, a fume-blackened Edwardian gem which has been empty for fifteen years while various proposals for music venues, hotels and a museum have come and gone. Urban explorers 28 Days Later reveal that the building is now home to an impressive collection of stuffed animals.

Arriving by car, it couldn’t be easier to find somewhere central to park. Piccadilly Basin, once a hub of canalside warehouses and home to the headquarters of the Rochdale Canal Company, is, as irony would have it, now home to the parked car – a symbol of the victory of the twentieth century motorway over the Victorian waterway. There is a masterplan for Piccadilly Basin which includes offices, retail, apartments and leisure, along with the flagship Eider House, whose triangular site is currently home to Linda’s Pantry and a van rental depot. But until the masterplan is realised, Piccadilly Basin will continue to be a space for stationary vehicles. One of the few suspended spaces in the city centre not to be transformed into a car park is a meagre patch of grass and goose poo next to Tariff Street, which is a popular spot for barbecues in the summer and will become homes and shops when the masterplan eventually comes to fruition.

A short walk along the Rochdale Canal into Ancoats reveals the single largest suspended space in the city centre. New Islington is at last beginning to take shape, over a decade after funding was secured to transform it into a Millennium Community. While some set pieces such as the Chips building were completed by 2006, the rest of the project stalled as the effects of the financial crash a year later trickled through into the credit and housing markets. The site is still largely a wasteland of debris from the demolished Cardroom Estate, although new houses, a marina, a public park and a school are now in progress. Northwest along the ring road sits the skeleton of Nuovo, which has graced the entrance to Ancoats since 2007 and remains incomplete six years later after its developer filed for bankruptcy.

Turning back towards the city centre, immediately opposite these totems of space suspended by the (in)operation of private finance, is a suspended space of an altogether different nature. Between Dean Street and Port Street is a triangular plot hosting a single house (number 75) surrounded by temporary car parks. This suspended space isn’t a physical incarnation of the vagaries of the market, a la Nuovo and New Islington, but the ghost of a government plan. Sketches drawn up by the City Council in the 1960s and 70s show the proposed new Inner Circle Road blasting its way through this gap en-route to an interchange that would have wiped out much of Ancoats. As with many grand highway-building plans from that era, such as the extension of the M57 along the Hyde Road, even when the roads were never realised they often left behind scars of deterred development along their route.

Further towards the city centre, sandwiched between Port Street, Hilton Street and Newton Street is a small wedge of land occupied by Bradley House, Manchester’s Victorian take on New York’s Flatiron, and the Hatters hostel with its equally stateside metal fire escapes. There is a gap between these two buildings where a pub once stood – the Sir Sidney Smith, which became the Old Windmill and finally the Kensington before it was demolished in the 1970s. One of the smallest suspended spaces on the route, the Kensington gap is a temporary car park and home to a giant blue tit who arrived in 2012.

Outside the Piccadilly area Manchester city centre has many more suspended spaces: Origin, the Faraday Tower, the Tib Street Horn, Smithfield Market and the Ancoats Dispensary to name but a few. The intriguing thing about all of these suspended spaces is their variety. Firstly, they exist for different reasons. Most of these spaces are artifacts of market collapse – planned towers, Millennium Communities and entire swathes of canalside land all hibernating for the protracted economic winter. Some, however, are shadows of a centrally planned future that never left the page. Secondly, suspended spaces appear in different guises. Some are empty voids of bare earth or rubble – Picadilly Tower and much of New Islington, some contain buildings whose useful function has lapsed – Smithfield Market and the Employment Exchange, while others are home to structures that were grounded before they were even completed – Origin, Nuovo. Finally, suspended spaces accommodate a variety of interim uses, both official and unofficial. While car parks are de rigueur, such as at Piccadilly Basin, some are graced with public art – the Tib Street Horn, the Kensington blue tit, and, very occasionally, suspended space can become green space, such as at Tariff Street. Suspended spaces, by their nature as redundant, forgotten realms, have also been appropriated organically – The Kensington is a popular space for band shoots and Saturday night altercations, the London Road Fire Station and Faraday Towers are frequented by urban explorers, and a small patch of Piccadilly Basin is now home to a cluster of allotments.

Suspended spaces are an inevitable component of the cityscape: paradoxically, as pockets of inactivity they are a byproduct of a dynamic, changing urban environment. Stalled transitions between the past and the future, suspended spaces demonstrate what can happen when plans meet a hostile reality, but also how we can, at least on occasion, find innovative interim uses for the resulting land. Some suspended spaces are gems; others are eyesores, but they are a fascinating and important part of our city’s story. Take the tour, discover your own suspended spaces and add them to the map.

‘Anti-park’ to ‘Designer Park’? The proposed development of Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

by Clare Murray, PhD candidate in German Studies

The heavily contested decision to remove part of the longest remaining stretch of Berlin Wall to make way for luxury new flats has led to the re-emergence of some of the key issues that have characterised post-unification urban planning in Berlin: gentrification; the treatment of historical traces; and the significance of interim spaces. Underlying these is the confrontation between a market-driven, neo-liberal socio-economic structure and a rejection of that as a dominant framework which should shape the urban environment of Berlin. At the time of writing, the East Side Gallery has been granted a stay of execution but this is far from the only arena in Berlin where these debates play out:  just over five kilometres away the airfield of the former Flughafen Tempelhof is subject to a redevelopment plan which has pitted individuals, citizens’ groups, and some politicians against the Berlin Senate.

The site itself is of great architectural and historical importance: The airfield is a key site in aviation history having hosted pioneering flight demonstrations in the early twentieth century; Sagebiel’s colossal airport building, begun in 1937 and never fully realised, was one of the prestige projects of the Third Reich. A hybrid between stone-clad National Socialist monumentality and a technically innovative 1930s city airport, it remains one of the most iconic buildings in Berlin; the use of the airport by the American Air Force after the war, and in particular, its connection with the Air Lift have re-inscribed the site as a ‘symbol of freedom’ to many (West) Berliners; and the controversial cessation of flight operations in 2008 brought the site’s future firmly into public discourse.

When the airport closed, a unique asset was brought back into public use: a 270 hectare area of open space.  Its use as a military exercise and parade ground and then as an airfield had preserved the vast green area and enabled it to leap-frog almost two centuries of ideas about how public space should be constituted. It has now, however, been exposed to the forces acting on the 21st century Western European city. In 2010 the airfield was opened as a unique city park, enabling visitors to cycle and skate on the former runways and to play sport and picnic underneath now defunct signs displaying instructions to pilots. Citizens were invited to apply for space to establish interim ‘pioneer’ projects which currently range from a unicycle school to allotment-type ‘urban gardening’ facilities for residents without access to a garden.

On 6th March 2013 the ‘masterplan’ for the future of the site was unveiled at a lively public meeting in the former airport building. The plans confirmed the intention to ‘develop’ the former airfield in two senses of the word: to build new ‘city quarters’ on the field’s edges; and to alter its internal structure[1]. The Senate for Urban Development states that they are meeting demands for increased housing in Berlin and for improved facilities at the park yet both elements of this reconfiguration of Tempelhofer Feld are being met with resistance.

Citizens’ initiatives such as 100% Tempelhofer Feld are leading the campaign against the proposal to build on the former airfield[2]. They have organised a petition for a referendum which will reach the second round in September. Green and Left Party politicians have submitted a motion to the Abgeordenethaus for a halt to the planning process while this petition is still running[3] .

The reaction is not only against the proposal to build on the site but also about the plan to reshape the 230 hectares that will remain as parkland. The 2013 ‘masterplan’ makes clear that the next few years will see increased intervention into the remaining park landscape.  The proposed system of pathways will shape how visitors use and experience the space, creating easily accessible areas which will be more intensively used than the expanse in the middle where there will be fewer paths. The 4 hectare water basin, which will collect rainwater from the building, will constitute the first major permanent feature on the landscape which does not attest to its history or former function. The 1000 trees, which are to be planted at the site’s edges to provide shade and seem to be positioned to serve a double function in screening the proposed new city quarters, will bring about a contraction of the site’s perimeter, diminishing the vast emptiness of the Feld’s panorama.

Those campaigning for Tempelhofer Feld to remain in its present condition fear the transformation of ‘anti-park’ into ‘designer park’[4]. The designation of ‘anti-park’ derives from the fact that, as an appropriation of left-over space, Tempelhofer Freheit, as the park is named,  is not the product of an over-arching  ‘park design’ process. Accordingly, several of the features that characterise the western public park are absent here.

In contrast to the taming of nature prized in the gardens of the baroque or renaissance period, the park at Tempelhof has been characterised by the celebration of the capacity of nature to reclaim and reassert itself.

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

Unlike the pathways of the nineteenth century park, with their graceful contours and simple variety which Joyce explains were carefully designed to encourage walking in the belief the working class would seek to emulate the comportment of their ‘betters’,  the default means of getting around Tempelhof are the former runways, shaped to fulfil an entirely different function. Similarly, while Joyce explains that a key feature in the design of nineteenth century public park was the variation of the (in)finitude of space, achieved through the strategic planting of trees to open and close the panorama, Tempelhof is characterised by the vast emptiness of its horizon[5].

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

In other ways, however, the ordering processes that Joyce identified in the nineteenth-century public park have been active at Tempelhofer Freiheit since its opening. There is, of course, considerable relaxation in the idea of what is ‘appropriate’ for a public park – ‘swearing’ and ‘dirty clothes’ are not banned, for example, yet the restriction of loose dogs and barbecuing to designated areas, unusual in Berlin, raised eyebrows. More pronounced is the issue of (in)accessibility that arose when it became clear that the park would have a perimeter fence with opening and closing hours;  ‘a people’s park –until the sun goes down’ wrote one newspaper[6]. The rejection of the idea that through the numbered gates and the non-porous boundaries of Tempelhof, the park and its visitors become countable, knowable and therefore manageable feeds into a wider theme which is particularly salient in 21st century Berlin; resistance to the homogenisation both of space and of the individuals that inhabit that space. Through the fence, Tempelhofer Feld is demarcated as a ‘place’ wherein particular norms of behaviour are expected and, to an extent, enforced.  This is consolidated by the fact that the public can only use the park during daylight hours, i.e. when they are visible, this suggests that when they cannot be seen, and thus monitored, the ‘general public’ may not conduct themselves ‘appropriately’ and should thus not be permitted to access the park.

Tempelhofer Feld is seen as a tranche of wilderness which through historical circumstance has persisted within the urban area. The proposed development is seen as an extension of attempts to manage its wilderness, to limit access to it, to shape how it is to be used and experienced and, most significantly, to repackage parts of it as a commodity.


[1] Up-to-date information and a PDF download of the masterplan are available at http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/ueber-die-tempelhofer-freiheit/aktuelles/nachrichten/standortkonferenz/

Flexible, Adaptable, Sustainable: Building for the Future

by Angela Connelly, School of Environment and Development

1 Angel Square: Central Atrium, (c) Matthew G. Steele

1 Angel Square: Central Atrium, (c) Matthew G. Steele

I recently had the opportunity to tour the newly opened (though only partially occupied) 1 Angel Square[1]: the latest addition to The Co-operative Group’s real estate portfolio. Led by the architects 3DReid, the tour began with an insight into the genesis of a building likened to a “sliced egg” or even a “walnut whip” (McLachlan 2013).

The Co-operative Group, we were reminded, has long been a visionary client. Whilst Manchester’s city centre still showed the scars of the 1940 Christmas blitz; rebuilding work being inhibited due to austerity, the Group commissioned what became the tallest structure in the UK: CIS tower. Opened in 1962, and Grade II listed in 1995, CIS Tower looms above a foundational podium: 25 storeys of glass, aluminium and black enamelled steel, a design that owed more in its conception to American skyscrapers than the concrete structures more commonly found throughout Europe (Forty 2012). Indeed, concrete and stone were not chosen because of their tendency to discolour owing to the polluting atmosphere (the Clean Air Act had only been passed in 1956).

CIS Tower fulfilled a wish that the building should add to the prestige of the Co-operative Group; improve Manchester’s appearance; and provide the very best in accommodation for their staff (Hartwell 2001: 241). The lush teak-clad interiors of the executive suites on the upper floors, designed by Mischa Black and the Design Research Unit, are now deemed inappropriate by the client because of the implied prestige and power they represent. More recently, when the mosaic tiles of the service tower needed replacing, the Co-operative Group retrofitted weather proof, photo-voltaic panels that generate electricity for the building in line with company commitments to tackle climate change. However, when it came to appraising the sustainable credentials of a portfolio of buildings that stretches across 150 years, it seemed rational to build afresh given the costs of refurbishing and retrofitting.

Whatever one thinks about the aesthetics of 1 Angel Square, its selling point is the outstanding BREEAM rating – the highest rating of any building in the UK – at 95 per cent (Wilding 2013). Some very old ideas in architecture such as passive ventilation and building orientation are integrated with the new. Building Information Modelling (BIM) aims to ensure that, up until the year 2050, the building will still function as originally intended given projected climate changes. 1 Angel Square’s double skin facade minimises heating and cooling loads by using brise-soleil. Further, the architects have fitted a closed loop energy system: the combined heat and power (CHP) units are fuelled by waste rapeseed oil produced on the Co-operative Groups UK farms. Not only adaptable to the future climate, the flexible (and democratic) office spaces are designed to be easily reconfigured or extended. This also responds to the perceived inflexibility of the CIS Tower’s working space given subsequent developments in technology and the changes wrought by mobile telecommunications.

Seduced by the superb views of Manchester available from the roof terraces on the 14th floor of 1 Angel Square, I nevertheless had a nagging question. It is not about sustainability, however that might be interpreted, instead, it is about “designing” flexibility and adaptability: how much can we anticipate? Here, my mind turns towards the past rather than the future.

Exterior Oldham Street October 2010

Exterior Oldham Street October 2010

The Albert Hall in Manchester

The Albert Hall in Manchester

The research for my thesis concerned a particular type of religious building. Not the traditional sort of church that immediately springs to mind with a Gothic spire, intricate detailing, naves, pews, and glory-unto-God. Rather, the Methodist Central Halls (those that do remain) are very commercial looking buildings. The first of their type is located on Oldham Street in Manchester. An innovative development at that time, the Methodists took the step of including rent producing shops on the ground floor – a necessity in a city with high land values (Connelly 2012). The brief for such churches, as I discovered, was relatively simple: the buildings had to be flexible and adaptable, sufficiently anonymous perhaps, should the Methodists have to sell the building. Alternatively, if a success, the rent-producing shops could be easily converted to religious work. They never were.

I suspect that most people who have had cause to enter the Manchester Central Hall recently may have done so to buy some music, attend a residents meeting, the Girl Guide’s HQ or perhaps a Weight Watchers meeting.  One lesson that I learned from looking at the Methodist Central Halls is that what one generation bequeaths to another is not necessarily a gift readily received. New becomes old, people move away, social practices change, the building becomes perceived as inflexible and constraining. Sometimes, someone new will come along with enough money and vision to turn it into something that has relevance today – as the bar chain Trof are doing with another old Methodist hall on Peter Street.

What such musings should highlight is that the relationship between building design and people is complex and not one-dimensional. Buildings should be regarded as systems that need to work as a whole and nourish the human beings who use it. They change slowly; often imperceptibly. And they need to be studied in their entirety: not only in terms of space but also time. Their meaning will subtly alter and this can be traced through narratives of buildings at work. As the sociologist Thomas Gieryn (2002: 35) points out:  “They [buildings] are forever objects of (re) interpretation, narration and representation – and meanings and stories are sometimes more pliable than the walls and floors they depict.”

When the ecologist Stewart Brand wrote How Buildings Learn (1994), he identified three forces that result in change: technology, money, and fashion. He inverts Louis Sullivan’s classic dictum: “Form ever follows function” to become “function reforms form” (Brand 1994: 3) and in doing so points out that how buildings learn over time is just as important as the question of how they are designed in the first place.   In a similar vein, Richard Sennett lauds the inventiveness and innovativeness that comes through the repair and restoration of old buildings (Sennett 2012).

And so, I come back to 1 Angel Square. The real test will also come through time; there will undoubtedly be a period of social learning whereby the occupants will have to adapt their behaviour. One hopes that it will indeed realise the Co-operative Group’s aims and that it can act as a catalyst to regenerate what has been a problematic area for the city planners. But I suspect that time, and occupancy, will also result in a slow realisation that the initial ideas are not as flexible as presumed: what new technologies are around the corner? Just how far, and what knowledge do we take into account, when planning for the future?

References

Brand, S. 1994. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (London and New York: Viking)

Connelly, A. 2012. “A pool of Bethesda: Manchester’s first Wesleyan Methodist Central Hall”, The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library  [special edition ‘Architecture and Environment: Manchester in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’], 89:1, 105-12

Forty, A. 2012. Concrete and Culture: A Material History. (London: Reaktion Books).

Gieryn, T. 2002. “What Buildings Do,” Theory and Society, 31:1, 35-75.

Hartwell, C. 2001. Manchester, Pevsner Architectural Series. (Yale: Yale University Press).

Sennett, R. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. (Yale: Yale University Press).

Wilding, M. 2013. “3DReid scoops highest ever BREEAM rating”. 17th January, Building Design [online]. http://www.bdonline.co.uk/sustainability/3dreid-scoops-highest-ever-breeam-rating/5048575.article

McLachlan, J. 2013. “Co-op’s vast Manchester HQ by 3DReid” 18 February, OnOffice [online]. http://www.onofficemagazine.com/projects/item/1917-co-ops-vast-manchester-hq-by-3dreid


[1] http://www.co-operative.coop/estates/Developments/1AngelSquare/

 

Angela Connelly is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester. She completed her thesis at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre in 2011, a collaboration with the Methodist Church Property Office and funded under the AHRC/ ESRC Religion and Society Programme.

She is interested in how people, buildings and institutions innovate and adapt over time. She is currently working on the EU-FP7 Project: Smart Resilient Technologies, Tools and Systems and is developing best practice guidance to flood resilience technologies for England and Wales.

Drawing a square upon the ground: the complexity of memory in a changing environment

Guest blog by Annie Harrison.

This article draws on the work Annie is doing for her MA by Research in Art Practice at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University and an associated artists’ residency at Lime, an arts and health organization. Annie also works as a Project Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester.

My art practice is concerned with place and memory.  Both contribute to our sense of belonging, which in its turn plays a part in social cohesion.  I am particularly interested in how memory is affected by the loss of place, and how the visual arts can aid memory in a rapidly changing urban environment.  In my MA, I am researching the site of the recently redeveloped Central Manchester Hospitals and working with hospital staff to recover what the Swiss artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memories’, the memories of ordinary people.

Dickens knew all about small memories. I recently came across this quote from the final chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. Kit takes his children to the site of Little Nell’s house, demolished in the slum clearances of the mid 19th century.

The house is gone, but he has the need to locate, not just remember it.  Placing the memory gives it substance, and he wants to pass on the whole memory, not just the story.  I recognize this from my own history.  Whenever our family travelled along the M6 to Birmingham, my mum would point out Frankley Service Station and tell us about her grandfather who worked for the water company and lived in a tied cottage at Frankley Beeches.  The memory was only ever recalled and retold in its proper place.

The locating of visual images in particular places has long been used as a memory aid. In traditional memory techniques, a familiar environment is recreated in ones mind, and inhabited with visual triggers. For this method to work, a pre-existing relationship between place and memory is not important, because the connection is established by the method of remembering. However in his book, ‘How Modernity Forgets’, Paul Connerton writes that the pace of modern life and the rate of change of our surroundings is causing a crisis of memory because our lack of deep familiarity with place makes this technique more and more difficult.  (Connerton, 2009)

It is not only in such specialist techniques that place is an important trigger to memory.  In the documentary, ‘The London Perambulator’ Russell Brand describes returning to the place he grew up and seeing a wall next to an ambulance station.  He suddenly remembers walking along the wall as a child, holding his mother’s hand and says ‘it was as if the memory had been left there … as if it was an object rather than something that had been carried in my mind.’ (Rogers, 2009)

Last remaining hospital corridor from the 1908 building

In my research I take people to the remaining parts of the original 1908 hospital site, and show them photographs of places which have now been demolished.  These actual places and photographic representations of place elicit not only rehearsed memories about the site like my mother’s story about Frankley Beeches, but other memories, forgotten in the interim, which are discovered as if they had been left in the place, rather than carried in the mind of the interviewee.

I interviewed a retired nurse who trained at the hospital and went on to have an extraordinary career, nursing in ward zones across the world.  Nevertheless, visiting the site triggered a small memory, more than 50 years old, of looking through the hospital railings and seeing policemen arresting prostitutes working on the other side of the road.

Sketchbook drawing of the hospital railings

The ‘new’ memories that my interviewees discover are triggered by particular places but when the places are gone, and there are only photographs to rely on, the possibility of unrehearsed memory is limited, whereas every stone, every view, smell, light condition, sound of the original building, could have been the trigger for some new memory. The loss of place leads to the loss of memories and weakens the sense of belonging, of being connected to a wider community.

Dickens suggests that when place changes, it leads to confusion. Certainly, people who suffer from memory impairment are often confused and distressed by being moved away from their familiar environment. Even a new kitchen or redecorated room can dislocate them from the past memory that they use to guide them in the present.

When I interviewed a psychiatric nurse whose association with the hospital stretched back almost 30 years he confidently showed me the place where the old unit used to be, where they used to play football with patients, where the patients used to run a car-wash as part of their therapy. But later we met his colleague who identified completely different locations for the same sites.

Manchester Royal Infirmary Outpatients Department (1948)

Visiting the post graduate training centre, the receptionist knew that round the corner, you could see the façade of the old Outpatients Department, but had no idea that the new entrance where she was sitting was built on the side of that very same building and that the lecture rooms she directed students to, were where people queued for treatment.

Returning to Dickens’ novel, Kit not only needs to find the exact place where the house stood, but he attempts to memorialize it by marking out its shape. The urge to describe memory by some physical manifestation in place is also a common experience. For example, people are drawn to leave flowers at an accident site – sometimes with a photograph or a poem. This same impulse inspires me to create work that memorializes lost sites. In my artwork, I, like Kit, am attempting to draw ‘a square upon the ground’, and in the process, I am insisting on the value of small memories, and their importance to people and to society.

For more examples of Annie Harrison’s art work, see her website: www.annieharrison.co.uk.

References

Connerton, P. (2009) How modernity forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, J. (Writer) (2009). The London Perambulator. London.

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.

References

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

ii. http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2011/08/09/birmingham-riots-100-arrested-after-night-of-looting/ accessed 8 December 2011.

iii. www.londonisburning.co.uk/…, accessed 6 October 2011.

iv. David Harvey, ‘Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets’, The Bullet (Socialist Project e-bulletin), 535, 12 August 2011, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/535.php 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. www.sheppardrobson.com/projects/page.cfm?projectID=100052, accessed 7 December 2011.