Saturday, 18 April 2015

The post-industrial landscape of post-modern Manchester 1979-1996

a paper prepared for the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Chicago 2015

‘the Spirit of materialism and indifference to beauty'

The visual culture of industry was a phenomenon that had its earliest expression in the development of the ‘industrial sublime’ at the end of the eighteenth century, Joseph Wright of Derby being the foremost painter associated with its depiction. Two hundred years later the growth and development of industrial heritage as a cultural phenomenon depended on industrial decline, or at least its transformation and subsequent technological obsolescence. Its spread was facilitated, furthermore, by economic and urban stagnation, leaving the remnants of industrial centres ripe for incremental reoccupation when wholesale redevelopment was no longer an option. With the cessation of actual production and manufacture, and its noise, smell and dirt, we are left in cities such as Manchester with a form of industrial picturesque, sanitised, regular and vacant. (Figure1)

The industrial aesthetic had played its role in the definition of modernism but also of postmodernism. Its relationship to the past had always been somewhat problematic, generally being emphasised as a break with traditional forms of architecture, a ‘truth’ that lay behind the historicism of much architecture. With the publication of The Functional Tradition by J.M.Richards (1958), however, industrialisation as an historical phenomenon that emerged from traditional landscapes was brought into view, especially in the photographs of Eric de Maré. Coupled with the development of Townscape (from the same stable at The Architectural Review) an aesthetic appropriation of ‘as found’ situations, that is contextualism, was contrasted with the modernist ‘tabula rasa’ (Erten 2014).

Beyond purely aesthetic background, the political context of planning and architecture in Manchester is worth consideration. Manchester City Council has been in the control of the Labour Party continuously since 1973 and faces little effective opposition. Between 1979 and 1997The Council was therefore ostensibly politically opposed to the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s and John Major’s Conservative governments. In addition the Greater Manchester Council covering the larger city region, had control over some planning and infrastructural issues between 1974 and 1986. The main legacy of the GMC in the city centre are two clear examples of post-industrial regeneration, firstly the conversion of the former Central Station into the Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre (G-MEX, Essex, Goodman and Suggitt Architects 1980) now part of Manchester Central, and the establishment of the Museum of Science and Industry in former warehouses and market buildings in the Castlefield area (Building Design Partnership, Thomas Worthington and Sons 1984-86). (Figure 2)

The political attitudes of the City Council at the start of this period were resolutely ‘Old Labour’. However in the years 1984-87 it could be characterised as ‘Hard Left’, adopting confrontational policies towards the Thatcher government (though never quite as extreme as the position of Militant Tendency in Liverpool during the same period). In this period the council promoted many anti-discriminatory and equality causes, but the re-election of Margaret Thatcher in 1987 for her third period in government brought about a sea-change in attitudes. The city council adjusted to a more business-friendly position, and was required to work in collaboration with private developers and the Central Manchester Development Corporation, created by the Thatcher government and given control over a significant portion of potential development land within the city centre. (Blakeley and Evans 2013). The remit of the CMDC would run until 1997, at which point urban regeneration policies shifted significantly with the election of the New Labour government, and the alliances and projects produced in Manchester became exemplars for the Urban Task Force Report commissioned by the Blair government in 1997. (Kitchen 1997) (Rogers 1999)

‘innovative nostalgia’

A post-modern expression of industrial heritage in new buildings in Manchester came to civic prominence in 1981 in the city’s main public space Albert Square, with the construction of Heron House (Leach Rhodes and Walker). As an element in a long running master plan, (Gosling 1962) this project saw the architects abandon their earlier Miesian and Brutalist modes to produce a commercial building that referenced the inexpressive regularity of the Manchester mill, with a rough brick elevation with punched rectangular openings. A ground floor arcade presented a civic character to the square and a new processional route through the city, but might readily be seen to derive from wharf-side precedents in Manchester’s extensive canal network. This combination of new commercial space (courtyard car-park, offices and ground floor retail space) in old industrial clothes was an innovative piece of post-modern townscape that owed some slight debt to the rational architecture movement of the mid 1970s with its emphasis on the return to the sharply defined European urban block.

A more problematic example from this same early 1980s period is the Whitworth Street car-park where the concrete floors of the parking decks are concealed from the street by a window frameless brick façade which continues the height and scale of a street of late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial warehouse and office buildings. The brick façade returns one bay along the adjoining side streets but while this might be considered a post-modern gesture, it is a common feature of the neighbouring terracotta clad Edwardian buildings such as Bridgewater House (Harry Fairhurst 1912) that adjoin it. It is therefore both contextual and, in a Venturi-like sense, ironic . (Figure 3)

The term ‘innovative nostalgia’ had been applied (by Chartered Surveyor Weekly in1983) to the publically funded ‘Old Labour’ project for the redevelopment of Central Station as G-MEX and it might now be seen as a useful term to characterise much of the work produced in this period with its contradictory combination of new and old directions. Although the planning policies in the city had taken a more conservative direction following the perceived disasters of the mass housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s, full blown post-modernism with classical features was not itself regarded as appropriate and the specific architectural language which did develop was seen as very rooted in the physical fabric of the industrial past and the aesthetically expressed idea of the ‘industrial’, creating a recognisable brand style firstly for the music business, then small scale loft-style refurbishments and eventually more corporate clients with larger projects. The influence of graphic designers for Manchester-based Factory Records, particularly Peter Saville and Trevor Johnson, and the extension of their client base outside the music industry should not be underestimated. (Figure 4)

The choice of the name ‘Factory’ had, of course, a local resonance but it was a reference to a much more prominent cultural stage. Adopted by local television personality and new music promoter Tony Wilson as a nod to the Warhol Factory and the transgressive and transdisciplinary countercultural scene in New York, it was applied first as the name of a punk era club night before it became the name of the record label with a code number FAC _ used for recordings, events or in the case of FAC 51 a nightclub. Wilson was also influenced by the Situationists, although this movement provided him with slogans and an avant-garde cachet. In terms of the Situationist exploration of marginal urban spaces as somewhere that ludic possibilities could be exploited the selection of Whitworth Street West as the location of the Haçienda nightclub (Ben Kelly 1982), between a railway viaduct and a canal was highly evocative. (Figure 5)

Marking the connections between Warhol and Debord, the commodification of culture and its simultaneous disavowal, the construction of the Haçienda nightclub brought the post-industrial aesthetic development to a definitive moment. A double height industrial space with I-beam columns and skylights were a somewhat uncomfortable environment when converted into a pioneering nightclub. Against the normative aesthetic of plush fabrics and mirrors, Ben Kelly’s interior used industrial surfaces and graphic signage to extend the visual language created for posters and record sleeves by Saville. The interior owed a debt to Constructivism but its early manifestation also contained one or two classical post-modern references. The brick exterior, retained from the original building, which had last seen use as a yacht showroom, was appropriated into the aesthetic template in the same way that the post-industrial cityscape had been used to provide suitable contexts for band photographs by the likes of Kevin Cummins and Anton Corbijn.

An eclectic palette of materials made the Haçienda style. Brick, painted brick, glazed brick in primary colours, grey painted concrete, painted steelwork and checker plate flooring, then occasional inserts of more sensuous materials, polished marble and wood veneers, neon lighting, established a local architectural language which became associated with small to mid-scale urban regeneration work in the hands of younger architectural practices. The possibilities of the nightclub’s site were perhaps best exemplified during the Haçienda birthday parties when footbridges were constructed from the fire doors that a gave on to the canal towpath to an empty building site across the Rochdale Canal where a fairground had been set up for the night. (Stone 2014)

‘We must do something about those inner-cities’

It was not only industrial buildings which became the focus of regeneration strategies. Railway viaducts and canal wharves also attracted the attention of designers especially in Castlefield where the conjunction of canals and viaducts provided a very dramatic setting. Often described as Piranesian, much of the building stock of the area was owned by a local bookmaker Jim Ramsbottom who had bought it as the low level industries it still housed slowly died. With judicious forethought he began the careful long-term development of the area, its largest structure the Eastgate Building being converted by Stephenson Bell Architects in 1992 to office use, with the careful insertion of new elements to improve accessibility in terms of both the buildings, the civic realm of the surrounding public space and the legibility of the area as a regeneration quarter. Eventually residential developments, and bar and restaurant components would provide a complete segment of post-industrial lifestyle planning. (Figure 6)

Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987 had led to the creation of a series of regional development corporations, principally in northern English post-industrial cities which had suffered hitherto under her savage de-industrialisation policies. In Manchester this process took the form of the Central Manchester Development Corporation that was heavily determined in its area of operation by the parallel courses of the Rochdale Canal and the railway viaducts between Castlefield and Piccadilly Station. Investment was concentrated in this area which had previously been identified by the private finance Phoenix Initiative although the substantial costs involved in the remediation of land and difficulties with the canal and rail infrastructure meant little new building resulted initially. (Parkinson Bailey 2000)

The new political situation anticipated New Labour with its search for a middle way combining public funding and private delivery. Expressed through the Conservative government’s creation of the CMDC the aesthetic appropriation went up in scale to commercial office projects using public support rather than the individual, small-scale privately funded project. However, the refurbishment of mill and warehouse buildings for office and, increasingly, residential use established an extension of the Haçienda aesthetic, now internationally renowned and finding itself fortuitously sitting in the CMDC’s zone of operation, where the planning control of Manchester City Council was suspended. The impetus to the redevelopment of Castlefield, came particularly through the insertion of new and fashionable bars under the viaducts and preferably having a canal side aspect. Their ambience was inspired by the nightlife of Barcelona to the extent that one example of the genre was called Barça (Harrison Ince Architects 1996) and was situated in a space now designated as Catalan Square. This trend of urban intervention reached its apogee with the construction of Quay Bar (Stephenson Bell 1998) as a purpose built bar which was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in that year but which was demolished as early as 2007, its site by then having become too valuable for residential development, although the subsequent economic crash has prevented it being replaced.

‘Welcome to Brand Manchester’

The consequence of this period and the post-industrial style that Manchester adopted were quite mixed. On the one hand it provided a shovel-ready architectural language that could be appropriated for larger scale projects when opportunities presented themselves. The encouragement of ‘loft-style’ but entirely new developments provided some curious hybrids of industrial and domestic elements especially in the property boom following the 1996 bomb. Manchester’s ability to recover from the effects of the bomb was taken as evidence of the resilience of a city that had suffered less than her near neighbours Liverpool and Sheffield during the Thatcher and Major governments, and had a leadership that had quietly abandoned much of its 1980s political radicalism.

Less positively the eclecticism of the best examples of the period was easily misunderstood in the more commercially focussed developments which followed, resulting in a post-industrial pastiche signalled especially by the deployment of glazed brick and tile used less as a reference to the maximizing of light in the heavily polluted industrial past, than to the fashionability of its post-modern use by Ben Kelly at his three buildings for Factory Records. The urban memory, and heritage value it evoked, was a drastically truncated one where an aesthetic stood as a hermetic code to post-industrialism rather than industry itself.

The leading graphic exponent of this style, Peter Saville was appointed to create a brand for the city, and although it was claimed that ‘cultural archaeology’ was not part of the concept the excavation of personal and collective memories seems very significant but conscious now of the pressures of globalisation. Paradoxically for a brand named Original Modern in true post-modern terms the manifesto claims ‘It’s not just invention, but re-invention’.The concept might have moved beyond the imitation of forms, as much as a result of ennui with overused industrial imagery, but the underlying emphasis is on economic productivity rather than cultural value which might be seen to strike a deep chord with the city’s commercial ethos.

If anything of the spirit of the 1979-1996 period survives it is in the Northern Quarter that was bypassed by the post-bomb regeneration and developed more incrementally and characterfully in its core areas during the economic downturn. (English Heritage 2001) (Figure 7) The survival of the industrial street scene, narrow brick built streets with cast iron fire escapes, has meant somewhat improbably that it is frequently the location for major film shoots requiring grimy ‘New York’ backdrops (Alfie 2004, Captain America 2011, Genius 2015) The midrise scale, close street network and warehouse building stock has meant that a low-key hipster aesthetic has become the norm, although now only housing faint echoes of the mediated industrial aesthetic pioneered by Saville, Kelly and of course Warhol. (Figure 8)

Eamonn Canniffe
6 March 2015


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Blakeley, G and Evans, B. 2013 The Regeneration of East Manchester: A Political Analysis Manchester, Manchester University Press

English Heritage. 2001. The Shudehill and Northern Quarter area of Manchester ‘an outgrowth of accident’ and ‘built according to a plan’, English Heritage Architectural Investigation Reports and Papers B/066/2001.

Erdem, E. 2014 ‘Townscape as a Project and Strategy of Cultural Continuity’ in Pendlebury, J., Erten, E. and Larkham, P. (eds.) Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape London and New York, Routledge

Gosling, D. 1962 ‘Manchester Re-United’ Architectural Review August 1962 page 116-120

Hartwell, C. 2001. Manchester: Pevsner architectural guides. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

Kitchen, T. 1997 People, Politics, Policies and Plans: The City Planning Process in Contemporary Britain London, Sage.

Nicholas, R. 1945. City of Manchester plan. Norwich, London : Jarrold & Sons.

Parkinson-Bailey, J. 2000. Manchester: an architectural history. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Richards, J.M. 1958 The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings London The Architectural Press

Rogers, R., et al. 1999. Towards an urban renaissance: final report of the urban task force. London: E. & F.N. Spon.

Saville, P. 2009 Original Modern Manchester: Marketing Manchester

Stone, S. 2014 ‘The Hacienda; The Manufactured Image of a Post-Industrial City’ Interiors Vol.5 Issue 1 March 2014

Figure1. Castlefield, Manchester: Rochdale Canal and railway viaducts

Figure 2. Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester in former market buildings

Figure 3. NCP Car park, Whitworth Street, Manchester

Figure 4. Peter Saville: Poster for ‘The Factory’ Russell Club, Manchester

Figure 5. Ben Kelly: FAC 51 The Hacienda

Figure 6. Stephenson Bell: Eastgate, Castlefield, Manchester

Figure 7: Northern Quarter, Manchester

Figure 8. Dale Street, Manchester

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