Tag Archives: Modernism

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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British Modern Remade

Martin Boyce, Dark Unit and Mask, 2003, detail, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Photo Anna Arc.

 

Curator Helen Kaplinsky talks about her exhibition at Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill estate which makes no secret of capitalising on the emergence of a new concrete loving class.

In 1980 The Firestone Factory, where sports cars were manufactured in the 50’s and 60’s was demolished. The factory was one of many on a stretch in Brentford known as the Golden Mile, in the 1920’s the preferred location for industry, gloriously celebrated in Art Deco style. Soon after the demolition of Firestone the Historic Buildings Committee of the Department of Environment recommended 150 inter-war buildings for listing and Modernism officially entered the canon. In 1998 English Heritage listed a whole raft of post-war buildings, most of them not quite as glamorous as Firestone. In fact they had distinctly unglamourous associations, slum estates, otherwise known as British public housing: Trellick Tower (Erno Goldfinger, 1968-72) Spa Green Estate (Lubetkin & Skinner, 1946-50) and Alton Estate (LCC Architect’s Department, 1952-60) – all in London – are examples. However, London was not the only forward looking planning office in the country. Sheffield city architect Jack Wormsley had a vision to raise the Victorian slums and put the ‘socialist republic of the north’ on the map for its courageous urban planning.

Sculpture in the Home, Arts Council exhibition at New Burleigh Gardens, London. (c) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

 

I’ve curated an exhibition from the Arts Council Collection within two show flats in Sheffield’s redeveloped Park Hill, commissioned by Wormsley, completed in 1961 and today the largest listed building in Europe. The exhibition includes works all the way from the advent of British Modernism when the Arts Council Collection was founded in 1946 up until today. My approach was in part inspired by a series of exhibitions run by the Arts Council in their first decades, the 1940’s and 50’s. Sculpture in the Home, as the name suggests, featured artworks in a domestic environment amid modern furnishings in order to encouraging a cultured consumer class to purchase small scale sculpture for the home. The exhibition at Park Hill includes works by some of the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists such as Lynn Chadwick who also featured in these early Arts Council programs, as well as Constructivist artists Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin who were, like the architects of Park Hill, proponents of a pragmatic but nonetheless optimistic British version of European Modernism.

Alongside these works are muddied and nostalgic ruminations on Modernism by contemporary artists such as Toby Paterson and Martin Boyce.  The pioneering architectural work and furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames are of particular interest to Boyce. With Dark Unit and Mask (2003) Boyce remodels a small replica Eames storage unit and a little known Eames’ design for field splints produced for the navy during World War II. The splint becomes objet d’art reminiscent of the African and Oceanic artefacts collected by Picasso and his contemporaries with a mounting formed of fragments from mid twentieth century Ant and Series 7 chairs by the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen.

Most unexpectedly for visitors, I have included some key post-modern work. Only when the stories behind production are discussed does the relationship to the site of Park Hill speak. Homage to the New Wave was made in 1977 while Andrew Logan was living and working at Butler’s Wharf at Bankside, London in a community of artists, musicians and punks who occupied the post-industrial wasteland on the edge of the Thames. In 1984, Butler’s Wharf was purchased by founder of Habitat and former owner of Heals furniture store, Terence Conran, who converted it into loft-style apartments. The post-industrial space became chic, and punk was absorbed into the culture of consumerism, a move which Logan’s sculpture seems to foresee by making a unique commodity from the safety-pin, a symbol of the radical provisionality of punk.

If you hadn’t noticed already Brutalism is back in fashion and not just because English Heritage says so. In the 1950’s, British architects of Park Hill, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, then still in their twenties, fell for the aspirational promise of Le Corbusier. They believed society could be made better and happier through their well considered designs. Saving Park Hill from demolition in the 1990’s was seen as crucial to preserve the legacy of post-war Britain and its idealist architecture. Yet its huge scale made it too monumental to be a simply a monument, it must be occupied. Manchester based developers Urban Splash have led on a large scale renovation project. However it has not just been that good old British pragmatism which has made British Modernism a cultivated taste today. These buildings are a valuable aesthetic, they are useful for now. Most of the public housing I’ve mentioned has undergone a transformation since changing from public council housing to private. The aspiration embodied in the Brutalist Modernist soaring hulks of concrete and glass are a remade Modern. As Urban Splash have very convincingly argued they are desirable duplex apartments close to the city centre and their *unique selling point* is retro modern appeal which perfectly matches our affordable Ikea furniture.

Exhibition Details

BRITISH MODERN REMADE — STYLE . DESIGN . GLAMOUR . HORROR.

Park Hill Estate, Sheffield, 4th May – 16 June 2012.

An Arts Council Collection exhibition curated by Helen Kaplinsky.

Exhibition Press Release.

Associated Event

Symposium with Steven Gartside (Manchester Metropolitan), Jaspar Joseph-Lester and Dale Holmes (Sheffield Hallam University), Lisa Le Feuvre (Henry Moore Institute) and Matthew Poole (University of Essex). Chaired by curator Helen Kaplinsky. View Programme.

Tuesday 22nd May 2.00 – 6.00pm, Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery.

Railways, Red Barrel and Robin Hood: Interrogating the Modernist revival

Guest post by Kenn Taylor.

With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.

It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?

Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.

DRU Railway Logo

This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.

Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.

The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build anew Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.

Watneys Cock & Lion

For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work forLondon’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.

Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.

Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.

Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Streetwhich I meet at the other end of the line.

As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk ofBritain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.

Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘ laissez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.

Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.

Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.

Robin Hood Gardens, London

I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.

 

Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.

We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was ahigh pointof British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.

The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.

Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly-coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.

Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.

 

Kenn Taylor is a Liverpool-based writer and researcher with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban enviroment.

http://kenntaylor.wordpress.com/
http://urbantransitionuk.wordpress.com/