Sunday, June 07, 2009

I Know It's Over

A few appendices to my psuedo-Pevsnerian potter around Manchester for Building Design. First of all, I make no apologies for the Smiths quotation (and nor do the BD subeditors) - in the ultra-gentrified context of 21st century Manchester the Smiths seem to actually matter much more, their unforgiving wallowing in the horrors of Cottonopolis contrasting with the boosterism that Wilson was caught up in over the last years of his life; although the Fall, similarly, refuse to fit into the established narrative that goes Factory-Hacienda-IRA bomb-Urban Splash-Ian Simpson. However, when perusing an interesting collection on the lies the regenerating city tells itself, there was an alarming moment upon finding therein the acronym 'the NWRA' - the name of the 'North-West Regional Association', a Lancastrian regeneration quango, as opposed to the North Will Rise Again. This is surely no coincidence.

Appendix One: The Stunning Developments

This is in lieu of a Manchester special from the Ghost of Nairn. Although in the BD piece I mostly tried to pick the less egregious examples of regeneration architecture in the city in order to give it the benefit of the doubt, there is a huge, huge amount of appalling architecture in Manchester and Salford at the moment, and what makes it especially hideous is just how tall it all is, meaning that the awfulness is inescapable. Now Salford already has some appalling form on this, as you can see here - but at least their straightforward geometries mean their badness is more easily ignorable than what got built since 1996, and at least they rehoused people in something better than what they replaced - and at least nobody kidded themselves these towers were part of some elite, exclusive Lifestyle. I spent quite a lot of time trying to find out who designed some of the most egregious Mancunian yuppiedromes, which is unsurprisingly rather difficult. First of all, there's Skyline Apartments, which looks like this:

and which, when I posted it on Twitter, led to some incredulity, including disbelief that it was even a genuine building, and certainly the amount of exrescences happening here all at once - the mess of materials, the inept patterning, the glass protrusion at the top, the nails-down-blackboard yellow - is quite remarkable. The website for the towers promises all manner of opulence, including a 'Zen Room'. 'Prepare to be seduced', it begins, then suggests you have your celebratory drinks the moment you get in (it's furnished, you see!) and finally that it is aimed, of course, at 'savvy city dwellers'. Whether that means buy-to-let landlords I don't know. When I finally found out the culprits, it turned out to be Jacobs Webber, who when at SOM were responsible for this piece of shit. Below is the first image you see when you click on Jacobs Webber's website.

On a quick nip into a 'marketing suite' in Salford I picked up a selection of free property magazines, which I'm vaguely collecting for some future archive of the Blair Boom; amongst them are Urban Life, one of which had, without irony, a column by a local radio DJ decrying the 60s redevelopment of Salford as soulless high-rises, next to hundreds of adverts for new soulless high-rises. In another of them, Manchester Living, the Leftbank Apartments in Spinningfields are claimed to be 'home of credit crunch chic', which is something rather remarkable, given that only a year before they would have been marketed as 'luxury', and even now are faced with a horrendous ad of a leering couple asking 'like what you see?' (albeit with a new hint of desperation). But the real shocker is round the corner, in the form of Aedas' Manchester Bauhaus, a mixed use office/apartment complex. It's instructive here to compare slogans. The Bauhaus, Dessau, in 1926: 'art and technology, a new unity'; The Bauhaus Manchester, in 2009: 'business and life in perfect harmony'. The piece was writing itself by this point.

Then there are seemingly hundreds of shoddy high-rises in the vicinity of the Irwell, usually vaguely sloping: most prominent are the Great Northern Tower (now being used as a hotel), Abito micro-apartments, The Edge - all of them equally awful, all of them increasingly empty. I spent a bit of time in the company of newbuild chronicler Renter Girl, and got to see her notorious (but, on instruction, still pseudonymous) 'Dovecot Towers', which was as shockingly bleak as you would expect, and still with the flowers, now long dead, left for the suicide. For real negative equity dystopia she recommended the 'Green Quarter', a super-dense mess of blocks dissolving into Cheetham Hill, but we'd seen enough. In fact, we had seen a BNP van, complete with megaphone, speeding past the CIS tower in that direction.

Appendix Two: The Bloxham Organisation

I was also referred to a talk by Urban Splash's Nick Johnson where he explained the history of the recently bailed-out* Manc developer through the Sex Pistols' 1976 gig, through Factory et al...anyone who has seen the Joy Division documentary will be familiar with the argument that, in Manchester, property speculation is the new rock and roll (though not all ex-Factory associates are so vacantly boosterist - cf 'Various Times', a fantastic Benjaminian essay by Liz Naylor). Renter Girl also dispensed various morsels of sadly deeply defamatory (can you sue a blog for libel? Either way I'm keeping schtum) gossip about Urban Splash, all of which I'd love to repeat, but won't - just suffice to recall Lester Freamon's words in series three of The Wire on the subject of Stringer Bell - 'shit, he's worse than a drug dealer - he's a property developer'. After seeing them fuck up Park Hill, it was interesting to see some of their successes. The redevelopment of the Mills and Warehouses in Castlefield are decent enough, and if nobody is going to make stuff there I suppose there are worse things than them being occupied by what Tom Bloxham once called 'decision makers'. It's marginally better than them being demolished - although the gated-off nature of much of Castlefield makes it less fun for flanning about in than it ought to be.

This little bear, with a lapful of gravel, sits in New Islington, although is apparently not FAT's fault. I've said much of what I want to say already about New Islington, a farcical attempt at building a 'millennium community' on the ruins of the Cardroom council estate in Ancoats, a pop-PPP farrago which has levelled an area of social housing in one of those gentrification frontiers on the edge of the ring-road, replacing it with one (apparently very hard-to-sell) Alsop block, two small closes of houses, and a whole lot of verbiage - the promised self-build enclaves, high streets, parks, schools and health centres weren't built during the boom, so sure as hell won't be now. Irrespective of the awfulness of the place, a few words about FAT's scheme there are probably required, as what with regularly linking to them and all it might seem that I was being uncritical...In the context of New Islington their houses look great, obviously, and only partly because almost everything else around them is so awful - and the use of a sort of trompe l'oeil wall/screen to pull the terrace of clearly very modern houses together is clever without being smug. These houses show more actual ideas than all the other recent buildings in the city put together.

Yet the low-rise nature of it (something also used by the very different and similarly decent, if rather less intellectually interesting dMFK housing, also based on consultation with estate residents, and also with a rather paranoid, fenced-off relation to the street itself) makes it seem rather beleaguered, given the vastness of the Mills and the Yuppiedromes, and there's something deeply odd about creating a low-rise suburbia in the heart of such a huge city - but then people ask for some odd things. Sadly the bears and other Urban Splash furnishings imply something infantilising about the whole affair, something more apparent in U.S' own patronising propaganda than Charles Holland's own description of the place's rationale (entirely coincidentally, he gave a talk about it the same day we visited). Even then, the documentation of the alleged 'wrongness' of council tenants' interior furnishings as a source of architectural inspiration had a (no doubt unintentionally) queasily anthropological element, especially given that this 'wrongness' is purely in the eyes of the architecturally educated. There was one irresistible irony. After showing some Martin Parr-esque photos of one Cardroom resident's particularly eclectic interior furnishings, it turned out that, when the FAT scheme was finished, he filled his new house with modern furniture. 'Because I was moving into a modern house'. Because you have all this stuff when you can't afford to throw it away.

Appendix Three: 'the Quays'

Best walked to through Trafford, where you get to see many curious things, including the bizarre Yeltsin-Constructivism of Old Trafford, where domineering symmetries, bared structure and outrageously kitsch statues prove the enduring ridiculousness of the world's least interesting football team. As for the Quays, the leisure extravaganza built on the site of the Manchester Ship Canal, a now useless masterwork of Victorian engineering - aside from Wilford's messy but occasionally interesting Lowry, a building which is from some angles clumsy and straggling, in others sharp and striking (and which has some fantastically spacious and well-designed toilets, and I can forgive a lot for that) and Libeskind's minor but at least vaguely memorable Imperial War Museum, my main thought was 'wow, this is bad enough to be in Southampton'. Otherwise I have little to add to Meades' take. Although to nuance his claim that in Manchester we can see the future - rather, after the crash, we can see it as the ultimate failure of the very recent past, a mausoleum of Blairism.

* Re the Urban Splash Bail-Out. The Homes and Communites Agency has spent an astounding £2.8bn on bailing out property developers over four months: obviously the option of this publicly-owned body just building stuff themselves is tantamount to Communism.


Blogger RenterGirl said...

Thanks for the link Owen. It was good to meet you, and a pleasure to show you around the distopia that is Newmancland. Your observations are, as ever, spot on. And as for Dovecot Towers, I am glad that now I have a witness to the horror. I think many people imagined I was making it up.

8:50 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Sheeeiiiiiit... "home of credit crunch chic" reminds me of the old adage "a capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with"... hell indeed.

10:53 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I salute your unapologetic-ness.
"With ostrich head-dress
A face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That draped down to his chest
They are a tentacle mess"
I love the pop-modernist lovecrafianism.

Speaking of Smiths citations:

2:37 am  
Blogger Alex said...

Rather amused to find someone in the depths of "Various Times"'s footnotes who I know from his later life as a stupendously tabloidish tech journalist.

3:47 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:21 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

Glad you spotted the shocking Bauhuas new build - did you see the Granada TV studios, which I think is just around the corner?

Perhaps one of the better buildings in Manchester? Or maybe it's just me.

Oh, and the GMEX or Central Station, was built by the same company who built St Pancras - The Midland Railway - it's a like smaller version.

3:40 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Thanks all - was expecting some defence of New Emerging Manchester, which is conspicuous by its absence.

We did pay our respects at Granada, yes, and it's not just you - thought it a fine, if unpretentious, building, and good to see its original signage, too. CIS buildings also very smart. GMEX I'd seen on an earlier visit, though sadly I didn't make it to the apparently great Oxford Road station.

7:14 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

I feel the need to reply to a couple of points, particularly as this post seems to have mysteriously got more critical since I first read it!

I'm not sure where you are coming from with the "paranoid relationship to the street" issue. The houses have a very traditional (for the North West) relationship to the street with the facades hard up to the pavement. They also have big windows which overlook the pavement and, more than that, the facade has a highly public and assertive role. Hardly paranoid, unless all terrace houses are. The 'front door' is, admittedly, for cars not people but that is for other reasons such as the L shaped plan, the need to have a front open space that can also be a parking bay if required and a desire, formally, to subvert the otherwise traditional frontages with abstract arrangements of windows.

As for the "queasily anthropological" aspect of my explanation, well there's more than a hit of inverted snobbery there, no? If I was referring to any other source of inspiration than DIY adaptations then this accusation would never come into it. It is everyone else's obvious discomfort with this material that is the problem, not ours.

Finally, that fucking bear is not our fault.

8:39 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

It did add a couple of points within an hour or two of first posting this, because I was worried it would seem I was being too nice to my blog interlocutors (and I'd fully expect you to be equally ruthless about my book!) - but I never blamed you for the bear.

As for the anthropology, we've talked about this in 140-character form and I totally see your point on this, and partly admit to accusations of inverted snobbery...Yes, it does all flirt close to something that makes me uncomfortable, and that is maybe an indefensible discomfort - but it is done with conviction, which obviously makes a big difference. The problem is that it's done in conjunction with a wider scheme which I don't think is done with the same care and conviction, and I can't blame you lot for that.

As for the relationship to the street - it was the doors giving onto cars I was referring to, and the way that the dmfk houses seem very fenced-off (as in the pic) - well, it seemed a bit security-influenced to me. I'm perfectly prepared to admit that a) security could be a major factor in Ancoats and b) that I'm entirely wrong.

2:50 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

Granted the bear issue should now be officially put to bed.

The dmfk houses have a slightly different relationship I feel as they are actually fenced off (although they are generously laid too). We were very conscious of ours maintaining a street line and being very formal in that sense. All the plan quirks and set backs are accommodated behind the formal front. I'm aware that symbolic illusion plays a big role here which may open up the accusation of appearing friendly while being not.
Mostly though we wanted the front doors off the elevation so the scale was more ambiguous! Gratuitous formalism really.

The problem with New Islington is that it isn't complete. The current desolation does no one any favours.

Yes, we did talk about a lot of this, but I thought the anthropological issue was a big one and worth commenting on out in the open as it were. I'm aware it gets a lot of backs up.

I think though that the houses are very modernist - in the tradition of Loos' Vienna housing schemes, Bruno Taut etc. They are socially engaged and dead serious. Not post modern at all really.

6:06 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Even if it had been complete, I suspect the end result would have been something akin to Erskine et al's Millennium Village; there are worse fates I suppose, but then Urban Splash's barrage of twee propaganda and the attendant Blairite Mixed Communities/we're-going-to-save-a-sink-estate stuff (plus U.S weird, and rather creepy desperate desire to be loved) means they're such a tempting target, although there are certainly far worse and less thoughtful things happening in Manchester and (especially) Salford - the difference is they don't have the same press presence, aren't as publicity-driven.

I think though that the houses are very modernist - in the tradition of Loos' Vienna housing schemes, Bruno Taut etc. They are socially engaged and dead serious. Not post modern at all really.

For what it's worth, I agree.

7:01 pm  
Blogger steve said...

Great post - thanks for the link to the Liz Naylor essay. Funnily enough, just watched 'A Taste of Honey' again and re-saw it in terms of a commentary on the British housing permacrisis and the Naylor article illuminated the idea even further.

6:00 pm  
Blogger Culla said...

the Bank of England pub in the BD article was our stop-off en route to the new City ground, but i guess it didn't quite fit in with the New Islington stylings and had to go. There has already been so much change in this area since Eastlands was built, but the development that will bring most progress is arguably not the ground (and it certainly wouldn't have been the supercasino!) but the tram line to Ashton that keeps being put back

anyway,some nice regen images from Society Guardian here

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