Tuesday, 10 November 2009

an evening of modernist delights - wine, films about concrete, iconic postcards...

the night before the tinag festival, the manchester modernists had their six month birthday party, their first proper grown up soiree, billed as a celebration of the city, with wine and nibbles, a couple of short films from the north west film archives and the launch of those lovely new postcards....

we were nervous. for the last few months we have held a variety of get togethers and they have all been great fun, we have met lovely people who love the city and have seemed willing to join in our rather peculiar events, but we have never so far held a party. parties are funny things - you invite people, you arrange entertainments, refreshments and distractions and hope that people will come and once there wont be disappointed or bored. we didnt know which would be worse - that no one would come and we would be all alone with our metaphorical party streamers, or that people would come and hate it! as 6.30 drew ever nearer, we distracted ourselves with last minute arrangements and waited with dread for the doors to open and a guest to appear.

by 6.30 the room was looking comfortable enough with about 20 people and we busied ourselves meeting and greeting and rearranging chairs and tables for the screening. then suddenly we were packed to the rafters, tables and chairs filled with expectant faces, whilst the back was a standing room only scrum. maureen gave a short welcome and then handed over to steve millington who had unearthed 2 fabulous short films, one depicting the clearances and rebuilding of hulme, the other being the story of the building of the mancunian way. they were both poignant, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, and evocative.

afterwards milling about and handing out sets of postcards, it seemed that everyone had enjoyed themselves, and we heaved a sigh of relief. as i hurried off to get ready for london next day, i left my little gang of modernists packing away and chatting to stragglers, the sound of good times ringing in my ears.....

thanks to everyone who worked so hard to help make it all come together, who gave their time and sponsorship and goodwill. and thank you for attending and spreading the word - we hope you enjoyed it and come again soon!

and many thanks to steve for his gorgeous films and fantastic introduction, which was described to me by one attendant as passionate and inspiring! brilliant and entirely pertinent as it turned out to much of what was hot on the agenda at tinag....

here's a transcript of his introduction -

Manchester Modernist Society Launch 22nd October 2009
Venue: An Outlet, Dale St Manchester.
Edwin Trout – Concrete Society – for his kind permission to show their film
Manchester City Council – permission to show other film
Marion Hewitt and Geoff Senior – NWFA
Institute of Place Management – sponsoring the event andAn Outlet – for hosting us

Cheers to Maureen Ward and Jack Hale for inviting me to introduce this event

There are two questions I would like to raise – what is the ideal city? And is it worth saving the modern city?

Hopefully in answering these question we can begin to explain exactly why we are here tonight to formally launch the Manchester Modernist Society, why we are about to sit down and watch a film about concrete.

What is the ideal city?

What is the ideal city? It is one of those questions that provokes intense debate about the nature of society, which often says more about the anxieties we share about urban life. What solutions might we pursue to improve the city– to eradicate the blockages that complicate our everyday lives, to improve the look and feel of the city and make living or working in it a more pleasurable experience. But how can we also make the city a more just place? And importantly how can the ideal city also provide a sustainable environment for future generations?

In answering the question – what is the ideal city – we uncover more questions – we start to engage in the big questions about how best to organise our economy and society - in questions about what constitutes social progress or spatial justice.

In Britain, over the last century, several visions of the city have emerged, presenting their Utopian version of what the ideal city might look like. Unsurprisingly earlier visions tackled the big questions of the day - the terrible injustices and squalor which emerged in the Victorian city during a phase of rampant and unregulated industrial capitalism - The Garden City movement, for example, Ebeneezer Howard's symbolic union of town and countryside – which combined the progressive elements of industrialisation with the traditional virtues of rural life.

In post-war period Britain, a radically different paradigm emerged – the Modernist Movement, advocating state-led technocratic fixes to rationalise and order the chaotic legacies of Victorian capitalism, through the construction of a new metropolis amidst the ruins of cities scarred by war.In practice – this reconstruction entailed the clearance of working class communities on a massive scale. The critique of this planning regime is well rehearsed – I don't want to dwell on it tonight, other than to mention Jane Jacobs' attack on modernist planning in the 1960s, and her argument that the messiness and diversity of the city is perhaps is intrinsic to urban life, something to be cherished and not cleansed out of existence. Whereas modernist visionaries such as Le Corbusier talked about the death of the street, Jacobs set out to save it. The spirit of Jacobs' work is still with us, through the growing influence of the New Urbanism movement in the USA and its impact on urban design and architectural practice.

In contemporary Britain state-led urban planning is now an archaic concept. Since the advent of Thatcherism, we have witnessed the rise of the entrepreneurial city, elevating the role of private speculation in driving urban development, placing faith in the market to resolve urban problems, together with an emphasis on personal choice and individual consumption.The aggressive Neoliberal tendencies of the entrepreneurial city, however, were augmented by the optimism underpinning the arrival of New Labour, who appointed Richard Rogers to lead the Urban Task Force and produce a new blueprint for the British city - a particularly Blairite vision – which continued to foreground prviate sector leadership, but offered a vision whereby individuals operated within a framework of civic responsibility or active citizenship. Rogers, amongst others, also established a fascination within professional circles to hold up the mythical European City – as the urban ideal – the city as a 24hr centre of cosmopolitan culture and creativity, a city of boulevards, apartment blocks, museums and street cafes, a cappuccino culture. The thousands who have adopted the city centre as their place of residence – perhaps gives some credence to the realisation of this vision.

It is important that we acknowledge how these visions – are not ideologically neutral. Each comes laden with political or cultural values regarding the relationship between people and place. It is also important that we recognise how these movements have shaped the urban landscape, sometimes producing very successful projects, but also spectacular failures. Importantly we should avoid packaging the history of the city into neat parcels of time. Rather the development of the city is subject to continuities and discontinuities, which allow ideas and practices from one vision to bleed into another, to produce a complex and fractured city. The city is also an unfinished project, and will always be so. That said - undoubtedly we learn lessons along the way – mass clearance, for example, has shown us how communities can be destroyed overnight – but it then take decades to rebuild them.

It is easy to blame planners and architects for their failure to deliver our Utopia – whatever it may be – but you cannot ignore the wider context in which the city operates. The Credit Crunch, for example, alerts us to how powerful global processes push and pull the city in different directions - rendering it in a constant state of flux.

But the Credit Crunch has also lead to us to cross-roads – where do we go next in pursuit of the ideal city?

Half empty apartment blocks, aborted construction sites, the skeletal remains of once exciting new projects - litter the Mancunian landscape – concrete memorials to the failure of market systems to secure the city's immediate future. But a return to the state-led strategic planning of the Fifties and Sixties is out of the question – especially if we anticipate the next General Election result.

But urban living continues to beguile and frustrate us. The cost of housing, congestion, disintegrated public transport, areas of blight and decay, alienated working classes, poorly designed public spaces, poor health, deprivation, the surveillance culture, the ASBO generation – point to a general discontent with urban living in Britain. Our flirtation with city centre loft living – perhaps is just a momentary diversion. Some would accuses the British as being anti-urban – we don't really love our cities, because all the evidence is there that we don't care or tend for them – and at first opportunity - we rather be living out an idyllic existence in the countryside.

Is it worth saving the modern city?

We like to criticise planners and architects – for getting it wrong. Its something of a sport in Britain, like blaming the referee for a heavy home defeat. With hindsight we like to look back and ask - what might have been? If only this flyover had not ploughed this neighbourhood, if only we hadn't knocked down that building because now we would consider it to be an architectural gem.

This logic leads us to an assumption that somehow all heritage and conservation is intrinsically a good thing. But a sentimental obsession with protecting the past - hides an underlying danger of petrifying the city – a city fixed in time - according to a narrowly defined set a conventions about what constitutes esteemed architecture or urban design. Perhaps we should think of heritage as being something which is actively produced and contested. How we construct our common heritage, therefore, is not only about memory, but also forgetting.

The irony is that the 19th century architecture – so highly cherished in Manchester today – was put there mainly by industrialists who cared little for conservation themselves.

And for the planners who reconstructed Manchester after 1945 – the Victorian landscape established by these industrialists were part of the problem – grim reminders of labour exploitation and injustice, obstacles to be removed – to make way for progress and the city of the future.

So it is interesting that we find ourselves here at the launch of the Manchester Modernist Society, because my understanding is that - to be modern - involves a sense of being/self – that is always in movement – to celebrate a city, for example, that is always in a state of progression towards some better future. So there is a certain tension, therefore, in coming together to launch a society dedicated to raising awareness and protecting Manchester's historic modernist architecture. As good modernists shouldn't we just let it all go and embrace the future?

Without doubt the Modernist landscape of Manchester – is slipping away – illustrated by the ensuing battle to save Gateway House, for instance. Mass housing developments, Fort Ardwick, Fort Beswick, the Hulme Crescents – which replaced dense working class neighbourhoods - have themselves become victims of mass clearance and redevelopment. Many would argue that this is good thing – but a symbolical landscape - one defined by the Welfare State and a vision of social unity – has now subject to the logic of market forces. Public spaces and buildings of old are sliding away behind a veil of privatisation.

Manchester is being overlaid with a soft post-modern sheen - the smothering of concrete's hard surfaces, the smoothing of brutal edges – the bending of straight lines – the progressive sanding away of the roughness and brutality of the Modern City. This unique landscape – a product of its time - is melting into the air. We are left with remnants, bits and pieces – legacies of a social democratic state in the making – reminders of a time when a strong political ideology informed an attempt to socially engineer a more equitable society – a better society – solving urban problems through technocratic fixes – a genuine effort to capture the spirit of modernity in built form.

The solidity of modern architecture and its sheer brutalism - unlike Manchester's ornate Victorian gems – represent a challenge to contemporary speculators and urban planners – they are structures which are not easily converted into stylish apartments, or A-grade offices – European cafĂ© culture sits uncomfortably within a rain-soaked concrete precinct in Collyhurst, for example. Modernist buildings possess an aesthetic that jars against the creation of the entrepreneurial city – as a place to do business, to celebrate individualism, and promote wealth generation over social equity.

The Council Estate for instance – once was a form aspirational living for the working class – but here we start to chart the shift in our collective aspirations. Public housing is now a marker of illegitimate difference, a landscape of blight – a sink hole for failed and washed up citizens. Our attitude towards the council estate and other products of modernist planning - reflects the current disdain for all things public – which began perhaps with reform of the welfare state – and Thatcherite assertions that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and the choices they make.

I would maintain, that these modernist 'carbuncles' – or 'ugly gems' – form an important part of the history of Manchester. These structures continue to exert a looming presence, producing menacing shadows over Manchester's attempt to re brand itself as an open, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan place. These buildings have a ghostly – spectral presence in the city – haunting us about pre-Thatcherite days – a glimpse through to another world –an upside down place where state planning and collectivism took presidence. It is surprising then - that modernist architecture has become a figure of hate, vilified for its ugliness and alienating properties – a built environment that is simply not worth saving. A place which is best forgotten as Manchester engineers a 'better neoliberal' future. Perhaps then the Manchester Modernist Society might provide us with a way rethinking the city as other or different, perhaps even functioning as a mechanism through which to challenge and resist the pernicious elements private corporate investment and control of urban space.

During the mass clearances of the 1960s - formal and comprehensive archives were constructed by Manchester and Salford Corporations, of working class in areas prior to redevelopment, extensive film and photographic records, oral histories, and other testimonies – prior to the construction of the modernist city.

But as this disappears, there is an absence of systematic documentation of the lives of ordinary people, living and worked within it. For many Mancunians – their experience of the modern city was real and direct – as they encountered a built environment that gave form to the 'cradle to the grave' expectations established through the Welfare State – shaping our experience - from the moment of birth in an NHS hospital, times spent in clinics, dental waiting rooms, the doctor's surgery – educations forged within Secondary Modern schools or comprehensives – lives spent in tower blocks, shopping precincts, public squares, moments spent on concrete benches, in telephone boxes, within municipal buildings – libraries, courts, town-halls, fire-stations, swimming baths. The modern city transformed how we moved across Manchester – through a landscape of flyovers, motorways, bridges, underpasses, bus stations. Perhaps the Modernist can also alert us to the importance of documenting the lives and experiences of the people who lived through it. It is important, therefore, that we understand this disappearing landscape more deeply, acknowledge its richness and diversity, and challenge the common-sense assumption that it blighted the lives of a generation. And with its impending demise, it is essential then we do begin to acknowledge and raise awareness of Manchester Modernist Landscape – and how it has shaped the lives of ordinary people.

We need to be careful though not to over-romanticize – and avoid uncritical appreciation of modernist architecture. I still work in a City Council designed educational block – its not exactly a Workers Utopia. There remains a validity to the criticism targeted at modernist planning by the likes of Jane Jacobs. So we should avoid becoming too maudlin about this lost Utopian landscape. Ultimately the quest for the ideal city – is a dream, a vision – it will always be an unfinished and untenable project. But the Manchester Modernist Society can at least help us appreciate and document a time when politicians were more concerned with ideology than expenses, a time when a cohesive vision of the city as a place of social unity, justice and equity emerged, and provide us with a charter to challenge the dogma and injustices of privatisation and think about the city as a space of collective action.

Steve Millington
22nd October 2009
North West Archive Films:
Film NO. 1282 Hulme Redevelopment
Film No. 1222 The Mancunian Way.

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