Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Collaborators, Quislings and Fellow Travellers

The most complete change an individual can affect in his environment, short of destroying it, is to change his attitude to it. Mark Boyle

Scepticism and disillusionment are often the pervasive ambience of harsh economic climates, and a city which shows the scars of decline seems likely to encourage only the most basic of constructions, devoid of any aesthetic sensibility. Manchester has long had an international reputation for commercial pragmatism regardless of the social and urban consequences, this development observed in its nineteenth century flood by shocked visitors, yet the image of the industrial city which has survived and is promoted now concentrates on the elaborately ornamented facades which mask the bare industrial spaces.

This sharp division between utility and decoration continues to haunt architectural and urban debates, and Manchester’s situation today is entirely typical, despite the oft-repeated claims to primacy or uniqueness. If ‘What Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow’ is to retain any validity, the design of the public realm has to be engaged positively by its citizens and its creative groups.

The historical and contemporary context is not unpromising. The projects of municipal paternalism and socialism which followed the laisser faire development of the city grew with its wealth and declined rapidly as its industry and economy withered. The current accommodation between public and private interests presents a series of opportunities, although the projects which are being carried through suggest a certain level of timidity. At the most fundamental level, the very utility of the vast schemes of housing provision from the 1960s onwards having been proved questionable, it can come as no surprise that civic adornment should take the well-tried route of the erection of monuments, as exemplified by the new concert hall, the indoor arena and the velodrome. Their glamour seems all the more hollow when compared to th curious constructions of the new Hulme, well-intentioned, traditionally-patterned and consumer-conscious.

Manchester is an ideologically divided city, but no longer in terms of party politics. The authorities work quite happily with private interests in the projection of an upbeat civic image, although the built products of this collaboration have a glum tawdriness. The ideological divide is now between those who believe that a ‘solution’ to Manchester’s evident problems lies in strategic planning and renewal, and those who place more faith in the qualities of the urban environment as it is, with its decay providing a scale of opportunity which will not destroy the city they value.

Advocates of a strategic approach follow a long tradition. Periodically Manchester has been the subject of planning studies which have sought to provide an improved urban environment. These have reflected changes in architectural fashion, and have comprised proposals for the central civic areas, slum clearance leading to comprehensive redevelopment, and most recently re-urbanisation. Because of their size the only partial and haphazard completion of these public strategies, as well as the fluctuating fortunes of commercial development, have produced the urban environment we now inhabit. Having spent the majority of their professional careers so far in periods of recession, the successive disappointments of these past strategies should persuade the generation of architects featured in this exhibition to avoid the repetition of those mistakes.

For where vitality is evident in the environment of the city centre it is only an inadvertent by-product of these strategies. In China Town, along Canal Street, around Tib Street, it has occurred as a result of the marginality of these areas to conventional property development plans. Neglected until comparatively recently by the authorities, the areas have presented a taste of authenticity, away from the more commercialized zones of the city, providing usable urban spaces and a characterful and therefore enjoyable environment.

The condition of general decline in which this situation thrives is common ground for many creative activities. However, in the particular case of architects, when the urban body decays they consume the available and useful parts, accelerating the organic process. This typically takes the form of small scale interventions and conversions which do not radically effect the urban pattern, although on occasion the very ephemerality of the inhabitations can aid the changes in perception through which the city develops. Similar patterns are repeated, seemingly continuously, with imperceptible transformations slowly accreting the urban pattern, reinforcing issues of placedness while subtly changing the life of the area. Nothing could be further from the anodyne image of conventional urban renewal.

Aware of the distrust with which the architectural profession is regarded by the public, in this exhibition artists and architects offer alternative perceptions and proposals for the city in which they work. Shared themes and methods are discernible: process is regularly declared to be superior to product, narrative is preferred to form, infection is seen as a valid tool for invention, but the sincerity of this research into alternative forms of expression should not be doubted. While it has the appearance of a certain degree of disengagement from ‘reality’ , its tentativeness is only a symptom of the cycle between development and disillusion which provides the definition to stylistic changes. This see-saw now moves at such a pace that forms are exhausted virtually the moment they are disseminated, diminishing the aura of the architectural and urban object, while fuelling the appetite for more. In contrast these architects and artists are attempting to get beyond this culture of intoxication to create work which is both passionately conceived and revealingly told.

What is unusual about the work on display, but in large part provides its purpose, is the collaborative engagement between architects and artists. Although academic and professional education often depends on the definition of separate and autonomous disciplines, the work presented here proposes that a shared experience of the city might encourage a community of ideas. Collaboration is a common-place between architects, engineers, landscape architects, surveyors etc. in spite of professional rivalries. Collaboration requires new methods to be evolved for communication between the parties and to others, and results in products which are ambiguously poised across disciplines. Collaboration can and does take many forms, but its most positive aspect in this context is surely the desire to diminish the perceived distinction between disciplines, and this process is a testimony to the commitment of the individuals and groups involved.

Whether these collaborations indicate foolhardiness or naivety, they suggest that people are inventive in pursuing their work. A cultural strategy which exploited these talents would produce an environment where the quality of the public realm could be improved through the stimulation of a debate about how the city can be used and enjoyed , rather than merely decorated. Incremental and open-ended, the economic benefits of such a strategy might take a long time to accrue, but as this exhibition demonstrates there are plenty of groups and individuals with the ability to ensure that such a course results in a city which is less alienated from its inhabitants.

‘Diverse City’ is an attempt to expose elements of artistic and architectural practice which could enhance the life of Manchester. Dealing with themes on the fringes of construction, the work is nonetheless tangible and, despite its difficulties and frustrations, attests to an architectural scene of considerable commitment, energy and potential.

From the catalogue of the exhibition Diverse City
Castlefield Gallery Manchester 1994

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