Foreward / from the archive / issue 4

There are two Brutalisms, and neither is thoroughly understood nor appreciated.  Late in 1953, the Smithsons published a scheme for a house in Fitzrovia, which, with its ‘bare concrete, brickwork and wood... the structure exposed entirely, without internal finishes wherever practicable’ would have been ‘the first exponent of the “new brutalism” in England’.  This was also the first appearance of the term. 

The approach was elaborated in the Architectural Design for January 1955.  Theo Crosby rejected ‘contemporary’ modernism in favour of formal classical proportion, as was being expounded by Rudolf Wittkower, and the Smithsons looked to the principles and spirit of Japanese architecture and peasant dwellings. 

The Smithsons wrote of a ‘reverence for materials’ without singling out concrete, and their modest (unlisted) house for Derek and Jean Sugden then being built in Watford is Brutalist in its unplastered brickwork, exposed concrete beams and simple tiled floors and timberwork.  It is a house easily taken for granted: simple yet radical, with an underlying balance between formality and awkward elevations were taken from de Stijl and the Maisons Jaoul. 

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With nothing else to build and a savvy for self-promotion, the Smithsons made Brutalism Britain’s most important contribution to international architecture after the Arts and Crafts Movement.  That international perspective is worth remembering as its greatest monuments are needlessly altered or destroyed.

How different is this original Brutalism from what can be called ‘High Brutalism’ in the manner that High Victorian Gothic evolved from the simple lancets of Pugin and his contemporaries?  The scale was expanded and the architecture became more expressive in buildings like Sheffield’s Park Hill and Castle Market, Manchester’s Piccadilly Plaza and Gateshead’s Treaty Centre, but while the continuing low budgets and greater size favoured concrete over brick and timber, the pursuit of honest forms and finishes remained. 

For a moment in the 1960s Brutalism’s cheapness and flexibility united the public and commercial sectors, and north and south; at the end of the decade, the Smithsons gave it an added intellectual nous with Robin Hood Gardens.  Yet was Brutalism ever as truly fashionable as now, in its moment of destruction?

© Elain Harwod

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL' 

Gone Modern / from the archive / issue 3

In 1957, the London Borough of Edmonton was preparing a gift for its young, commonwealth cousin to the west. The Borough’s namesake, the City of Edmonton, capital of the Western Canadian province of Alberta, was celebrating the opening of its grand new City Hall. The young city was presented with a mayoral chair hand-carved in oak and brandishing the coats-of-arms and mottos of the two cities.

It is hard to know for sure how the building’s designers would have perceived this prudent gift. They may have been slightly perturbed; how would the oak fit in with the ‘pre-cast concrete panels’, the ‘exotic American gumwood’ or the ‘polished red granite’ imported from Sweden?

This nine-storey curtain-walled structure with pilotis was a distinctly modern building with bold, bright colours, modernist landscape design and almost futuristic amenities, including central vacuum cleaning and adjustable office walls. As then-Mayor William Hawrelak put it: ‘The design of the City Hall is in keeping with contemporary architectural trends. Succeeding generations will be able to place it in its period of history and, by so doing, will pay their tribute to our citizens of today.’

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Edmonton had been booming since the discovery of oil ten years earlier. Between 1947 and 1957, the city’s population more than doubled. This period marked the rise of international modernism in the city. Businesses and city planners were eagerly looking to architecture to project the confidence and optimism that came with its newfound industry and growth. The bronze Canadian Geese statuary on the grounds of the City Hall were christened symbols of Edmonton’s ‘exceptional expansion and continuing progress.’

Since the 1950s, Edmonton’s identification with progress has rarely waned. The inevitable lapses in architectural development, which might otherwise mar this image, are dealt with accordingly. Latent economic and social anxieties are projected onto those buildings which signify the unrealised ambitions inherent to the preceding boom period – something which Edmonton-born historian Trevor Boddy has pointed out:

‘Boom/bust cycles as extreme as ours have a direct influence on architectural ideas and styles. With each new onset of mania, the look, even the layouts of the previous cycle are discarded as un-wanted mementoes of the depressing era of no-growth that followed those once-new buildings. Edmontonians come to hate their recent past with vehemence that does not exist elsewhere.’

Boddy’s comments were made in a catalogue for an exhibition at the Alberta Gallery of Art, called Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture & Urban Design, 1940 – 1969. Ironically, the exhibition was housed in a temporary location because it coincided with the gallery’s decision to demolish and replace what was arguably the best piece in its collection, a subdued but sophisticated 1969 brutalist building designed by local architects Donald Bittorf and James Wensley. It was clear that Edmonton could no longer see the relevance of a building that reflected the cultural airs of a previous generation.

In recent years, Edmonton has suffered the loss of many of its most significant modernist buildings. Mayor Hawrelak’s prophesy about the City Hall being an emblem of pride for ‘succeeding generations’ was proven wrong in 1990, when its haughty flying geese were demolished and the City Hall replaced.

The fate of other modernist landmarks is much less fair. When the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle was demolished in 2006 it was replaced with a parking lot. Designed by Edmonton’s most famous architect, Peter Hemingway, the Tabernacle was built in phases between 1963 and 1972, and warranted the local press’ accolade as Edmonton’s  ‘most striking works of modern architecture.’

In 2006, the city was ridding the slope of yet another building boom, fuelled by the controversial tar sands project north of the city (starting point of the proposed Keystone Pipeline). But unlike in 1947, when the untethered oil seemed to erupt from the earth like wild horses bolting from the gate, today’s extraction happens as a result of a laborious technology that squeezes oil out of a previously useless sludge of sebaceous sands.

Needless to say, it’s a specialised, large-scale industry, which has meant that Alberta has been largely isolated from the grim economic forecast that daunts much of today’s western economies.  In 2011, a new site and £200 million were announced for the reconstruction of the city’s natural and social history museum, the Royal Alberta Museum. It’s a larger investment in cultural infrastructure than any seen during the unanimous boom years a decade ago, perhaps the biggest since the original museum was built in 1967.

Characteristically, little has been revealed about what the government plans to do with the old building, which was designed by a once-formidable group of city-staff planners and architects. Like the former art gallery, the museum was executed in the pervading architectural language of the day – brutalism. But its use of natural materials, sculptural elements and pavilion-like layout also reveals a deft ability on the part of its designers for interpreting, rather than simply mimicking the idioms of mid-century design.

In response to a deluge of criticism, which has lambasted the designs for the new museum as ‘Dull. Dated. Uninspired. Generic.’ the province’s minister of culture retorted simply, ‘this museum is about what is inside its walls’ - a far cry from the lofty but considered architectural expressions that the government seemed so keen on conveying in previous years.

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Edmonton has long represented a curious blend of international aspirations and isolationism, adolescent brashness and assured complacency. At times the city seems eager to mirror the world’s arts capitals – as was the case with the City Hall in 1947, the museum in 1967 and even the new Alberta Art Gallery in 2009. At other times it seems indifferent to such measures of design. The current ambivalence about the city’s best modernist buildings and the apathy about the design of the new museum, the city’s newest flagship building project, are part and parcel of an acute growth complex. Counter-intuitively, they are both signs of the city’s sense of progress and its ‘maturing’ role in the global stage. In coming years, it’s unlikely whether Edmonton city officials will feel the need to entertain any twee gifts from its ageing and hard-up cousin across the pond.

© Christien Garcia

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

Bravo Lingotto!! / from the archive / issue 3

What does an architecturally prestigious hotel in Turin have in common with Paris’s Pompidou Centre and fans of 1960’s English film The Italian Job?
 In 1899, at the very dawn of an Industrial Revolution which arrived late to Italy, a new company – FIAT - opened the doors of its first factory in Turin, initiating an intimate relationship with the town – and with its celebrated company-owned football team, Juventus - which endures to this day. This glorified workshop was on Corso Dante and home then to the grand total of 150 day-shift employees. By 1904, an iconic logo had been created, an oval containing the company name over a blue background. (This colour and type-face were resuscitated in the 21st century after experimentation in the 1990s with a less successful abstract diagonal-line design.)

As the Italian auto industry boomed, larger premises were soon needed. And so began, in 1916, construction of the celebrated Lingotto fabricca, named after the Torinese suburb of its address. From the off, Lingotto had grand designs to be the largest factory in Europe, What’s more, its unique, avant-garde design would channel the Fordist processes of mass production vertically (rather than horizontally), upwards through five storeys, culminating in a magnificent Futurist test-track on the factory roof! Raw materials would enter via the ground floor as in a Venetian canal-side palazzo; from here the production-line would wind its way towards the fifth floor, from which finished vehicles would emerge into the sky against a backdrop of rolling Torinese fog and majestic Alps (Only one other rooftop test-track has ever existed – in the most unlikely setting of Trooz, Belgium, where the now defunct Imperia car manufacturer ran a 1 km  roof-track from 1928-58.)

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The Lingotto factory was completed in 1922, the year of Mussolini’s March on Rome. The fame of its architect Matté Trucco, previously a naval architect and engineer, rests alone on this unique edifice. Built in reinforced concrete and covering an area of 400,000 square metres, Lingotto was a forerunner of the aesthetic of later celebrated Italian architect, Pier Luigi Nervi. The incredibly long building had two outrageous helicoidal ramps which led up to the track. Its audacity made a tremendous impression on foreign visitors and Le Corbusier immediately used an illustration of the factory to demonstrate his own principles in Vers une Architecture, published in the same year: ‘One of the most impressive sites in industry’, the master waxed lyrical, ‘a  guideline for town planning.’  Lingotto figured prominently in the first Exhibition of Rational Architecture held in Roma in 1928 and Gruppo 7 later declared it the only fundamentally industrial building in the whole of Italy with any architectural value.

Over the next 50 years, over 80 different FIAT models emerged onto the famous track for testing, including the illustrious Topolino of 1936 and the even more iconic and celebrated Cinquecento; the tiny, affordable car which revolutionised Italian social life during the Dolce Vita  years of the 1950s and 60s boom.  It was during these years, too, that tens of thousands of migrants from the Italian South moved North to Turin to become Fiat employees, Juventus supporters and Cinquecento owners, many of them taking up employment at Lingotto, or in the newer and even larger Mirafiori plant on the outskirts of town (a historical process beautifully captured in the 1960 Luchino Visconti film Rocco and His Brothers.)

Sadly, by 1978 the Lingotto parent plant was considered, by a now globalised FIAT, to have become old-fashioned after the introduction to its other factories of Robogate, a flexible robotic system for assembling bodywork, later celebrated in the Spirto di Punto TV ads of the 1990s. Lingotto’s closure in 1982 led to frenzied polemic about the site’s future, part of a wider international debate surrounding industrial decline and the perceived move across the Western world from modernist production to post-modernist consumption. Genoa born Renzo Piano, flushed with success after the completion of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and latterly responsible for the regeneration of his home-town’s waterfront area in time for Genoa’s turn as European City of Culture in 2005, won the open competition to revamp the site. He envisioned a modern public space for the city containing concert halls, a theatre, a convention centre, shopping malls, a hotel and new buildings for Turin Polytechnic. This opened in 1989.

Fancy a look? The Lingotto building is featured extensively in the Alberto Lattuada film Mafioso (1962) and, of course, during the getaway sequence of The Italian Job (1969). Or if you’re feeling flush, next time you weekend in Turin head for Via Nizza on the brand-new Torino Metro (station Lingotto M1, opened March 2011) and stay in Piano’s hotel, from which you can access the roof-top track and admire the cantilevered design, the 16,000 piece translucent roof and other utilitarian factory wonders. A gallery contains a series of poignant photos, prints and plans relating to the economic boom decades and the hotel’s guest rooms are unusually large and loft-like, reflecting the building’s heritage. And – wouldn’t you just know it - there’s shed-loads of parking!

Meanwhile, down the road at Mirafiori, FIAT continues to employ 15,000, (down from 27,000 in its heyday), many of them the grand-children of those first 50’s economic migrants. In a strange act of historical circularity, the company recently replaced the bicycle sheds it had gutted in the 1970s (when an earlier generation of workers had abandoned their bicicletti in pursuit of the automotive dream) due to increased demand from its contemporary bike-riding employees.

© Stephen Hale

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

Holidays in Utopia: St. Leninsburg / from the archive / issue 3

Leningrad is not a place that wears its history lightly. Re-wrapped in the resurgent riddle of St.Petersburg, its monuments and vernaculars compete for attention with the wonders of the older imperium and the interregnums of Petrograd and Perestroika. The mandated public memory of the vast and varied memorials sits uneasily with the fitful forgetting, which shrouds the purges that decimated this ‘hero city’. Here, one feels more acutely aware that every seeing is also blindness; that each light casts multiple shadows, within which lurk the myriad hauntings of many unquiet ghosts.

Away from the museum-like centre, confused and competing memories continue to swirl through the lived presents of Putin’s Piter. Metro-hopping South on the Red line reveals constructivist quarters linked by high-Stalinist stations, built as everyday palaces of the workers. Dusty urban highways cut through high-rise canyons where the decaying solidity of Stalinist bombast recedes before the anonymous eclecticism that characterises so many geographies of history’s end.

At the Western edge of the city, in the looming shadows of Brezhnev-era concrete expressionism, the social is most easily legible in the spatial. Beyond Vasilevskiy Island’s densely-packed southern grid, broad boulevards sweep through the Island of the Decembrists, hugging the contours of ‘sea-wall’ housing estates facing defiantly out onto the gulf of Finland. Behind the wall, uniform facades flank well-tended public gardens, tidy playgrounds and agora-like courtyards – spaces of meeting and negotiation for the young and old, sportsmen and slackers. This high-rise, yet high-end living is testament to the reclamation of common space from the trigger-happy hoods of the un-mourned Yeltsin era.

Caught between desire for stability and gloomy harbingers of stagnation, many compare Russia’s present to the Brezhnevian past, with public conscience sacrificed on the alter of slight material betterment. However, while many lament missed opportunities for other ways and other means, some see opportunity in this Russia, while many more focus on what can be done, rather than what still can’t be spoken of. These varied fictions - of present pasts and potential futures - are reflected in the uneven lustral geographies that twinkle nightly across the hulking and repetitive forms of what started out as party-sanctioned machines for living. Far from being oppressive factories of conformity, they are brought to varied life by the particularities of the people for whom they are home. This is a far cry from the tales of misery that such estates evoke under the totalising gaze of Western eyes. However, as goes Russia, so goes the neighbourhood, with even this recently reclaimed solidity beset by uncertainty. The soviet era estates are approaching the end of their projected fifty-year life span and if there is a plan to replace them, no one has told the residents.

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In city watched over by seven dead Lenins, every act of walking excavates, yet sediments anew, by turn revealing and obscuring the paradoxical traces of this particular urban palimpsest. Providing all-too temporary, personal hermitage from the plutocratic politics of the present, Brezhnev’s buildings are the discontented winter palaces of our uneasy dreams …

© Benjamin Tallis

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

The Modernists' Guide to Essex / from the archive / issue 3

I shall start with a declaration that sadly feels like it should be a confession. I love Essex. Essex is perhaps the most maligned and derided county in contemporary culture; it's become a shorthand for class prejudice and vulgarity; the target of countless cheap jokes.  I believe this is desperately unfair and I trust, dear modernist, you are open minded enough to seek the true beauty in the area. I can't claim there is no ugliness; of course like everywhere Essex is multifaceted and has its troubles but it also holds many thrills.  Frustratingly space here allows only a whistle-stop tour of a few of its delights, so here then, in chronological order, are five of my favourite places in modernist Essex.

The Labworth Cafe, Western Esplanade, Canvey Island (1932)
Like the other sites I am highlighting, Canvey's fashionable heyday is over; it is no longer a bustling seaside resort but still I am enchanted by it. Largely cut off from the mainland, crossing the bridges means encountering an array of diverse environments. You can find dilapidated funfairs, lush nature reserves, behemoths of the petrochemical industry and a 17th century pub.  Of special interest to the modernist are the sumptuous curves of the International style Labworth Cafe, Ove Arup's only building. Designed to resemble the bridge of the Queen Mary it has undergone various modifications, including a lamentable change of typography during its 1990s renovation. However, I believe it is still a stunner. To appreciate Canvey’s melancholic charm at its best I suggest visiting on a blustery day and lingering in the Labworth over a large gin and tonic. The view from the window is not a twee seaside idyll but the blood, guts and toil of the Thames estuary. Captivating.

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The Bata Factory, Princess Margaret Road, East Tilbury (1933)
Thomas Bata had a vision to shoe the world – and a mission to marry Garden City paternalistic care for workers (and increased productivity) with a brutalist aesthetic. Zlin in Czechoslovakia was his capital but satellite towns sprung up across the world, including a stunning enclave in East Tilbury. A workers utopia, where the line between sympathy and surveillance were intertwined, it has been called “the most modern town in Britain...Life in Bata-world seems to have been a cross between a holiday camp and a prison camp. The town had its own newspaper, and there were activities and facilities galore, but beneath it all was an almost cult-like corporate philosophy” (Rose, 2006, The Guardian).  The shoe Factory is now closed and the Thames Gateway redevelopment threatens the area but Bata remains cherished by many residents.

The Roundhouse, Cliff Way, Frinton-on-Sea (1934)
Frinton confounds the usual Essex – and indeed Modernist – stereotypes.  It had no pub until 2000 and battled to keep wooden level crossing gates; it is associated with conservative values and exclusivity. However, it was here Oliver Hill was employed to design a seaside wonderland.  Ambitious plans were made for a resort, including a cliffside hotel to eclipse his Midland in Morecambe. Hill “ensured that the tone of the estate would do nothing to attract day-trippers from London, keeping Frinton for the well kept and well bred, whilst making the estate a showcase for modern British design”  (Oxborrow, online). Plots were allocated to the cream of contemporary architects and the Information Bureau (now The Roundhouse) was opened.  It showcased cutting edge design and featured a mosaic of the estate layout by Clifford Ellis on the floor.  However Hill's vision was frustrated by practicalities including a building society that would not fund concrete constructions, inexperienced builders, and a climate which put commerce above aesthetics. Work halted in 1936 with only a fraction of the houses realised; sleek curves and classic white modernist dwellings incongruous near rows of Victorian beach huts. A dream of a brave future the rest of the town failed to embrace.

The Lawn, Harlow (1951)
In my opinion the most splendid of The New Towns, Harlow's design was led by Frederick Gibberd. The Lawn was Britain’s first residential tower block; the nuance and care taken in its design is apparent in the south facing balconies every flat enjoys.  Harlow also boasts the first pedestrian precinct, an extensive cycle track network and an array of other notable buildings, although sadly the original town hall and sports centre have been demolished.  Perhaps most remarkably it has a lavish collection of public art thanks to the Harlow Art Trusts vision that everyone has the right to enjoy quality art and design every day. The Water Gardens stunning vista has been somewhat spoiled by adjacent redevelopment but there is still much to admire. William Mitchell's gorgeous concrete reliefs are an integral part of the pools and the surrounding area includes work by Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Ralph Brown and others. Sculptures can be found nonchalant but proud in civic buildings, schools and shops. The sadness of course it that this should be so unusual and that every town does not seek to integrate creative design into banal spaces.

Albert Sloman Library, Wivenhoe Park Campus, Essex University (1965)
From its inception the new university embraced the modern, aiming to widen participation and be as accessible as possible. They sought to create an environment that would encourage interdisciplinary working; initially a philosopher was appointed in every department. Kenneth Capon, the architect, took inspiration from San Gimignano in Tuscany, building a campus based on public squares and towers which would nurture collective endeavour and creative practice. The functional elegance of the library makes it stand out even in such exceptional surroundings. It also features – be still my beating heart! - a fully operational paternoster lift.  A stunning place to work and study.

Alas, there is no time to champion The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, The Dell, Silver End, or any of Southend’s fabulous ice-cream parlours.  But if you fancy a tour I'll meet you outside Rossi's at 6. 

Further love letters to Essex will be posted at www.sinesandwanders.wordpress.com 

© Morag Rose

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

Bust to Bust / from the archive / issue 3

When this article about the Liverpool International Garden Festival was conceived, I had a clear notion of how it would unfold: I'd describe the flash-in-the-pan Utopia created in 1984, something I presumed to be the last throw of the dice by a socialist council whose city had been decimated by a ruthless Conservative government. I'd then of course go on to bemoan the lack of a legacy, the wastefulness of letting the Festival site decay and the short sightedness of the model of regeneration that never thought, "but what next?". In the timespan it covers we have seen one complete cycle — bust to bust. The city’s regeneration boom, neatly bookended by two tourism-centred initiatives: the Garden Festival and 2008’s Capital of Culture. I was hoping to be cynical about this.

Unfortunately, I was wide of the mark. Thankfully, my lines of enquiry blew open my closed opinions.

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Firstly, I spoke with my Scouse family. Like many Liverpudlians, they are vehemently anti-Tory. Had my Auntie Edna known she was to die in middle age, she would have gladly taken out Margaret Thatcher first and spent her last joyous days in prison. As such, it was with great surprise that I learned that they had a lot of respect for one of Thatcher's ministers. Yes, it was in fact Michael Heseltine who decided something must be done to halt the decline on Merseyside when his own party wanted to simply cut it adrift.

Secondly, I talked to local writer and self-confessed "Liverpool anorak" Kenn Taylor. Both he and my relatives were as unanimous in their praise for the Festival as they were disparaging of the Derek Hatton-led Labour council of the day.

I'm aware that the 1980s aren't famed for their modernism, but they are still a part of the Twentieth Century story. In my opinion the futuristic Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome and huge, ARUP designed space-bullet of the Festival Hall just about scrape it into these pages by aesthetic virtue, and the philosophy of top-down Shangri-La creation by visionary outsiders gets it in on ideological merit

Heseltine wanted to ease the memory of the Toxteth riots of 1981 and turn Boys from the Blackstuff-era Liverpool into a destination for visitors and investment. Alongside saving and developing the Albert Dock, cleaning the Mersey Basin and creating new technology parks at Wavertree and Brunswick, it was determined that a Garden Festival, based on the German Bundesgartenschau — a bi-annual regional development initiative originating in Hanover in 1951 — was to be organised.

The site, a sludgy former oil terminal, was dredged and infilled in the largest urban reclamation project ever executed in the country.  Two hundred and fifty acres of parkland, sixty ornamental gardens, and numerous pavilions and artworks were created.

My granddad was bought a season ticket and went almost every day, such was local love for the Festival. Celebrities of the era, Acker Bilk, Worzel Gummidge, and SuperTed were all in attendance. For nine months Liverpool attracted over three million tourists, people who previously wouldn't have dreamt of visiting. There was pride in the city again.

In time the Festival ended and then… nothing. A pamphlet had proclaimed that the Festival Hall was to become "the centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre". Unfortunately the only sport and leisure that took place on site was quad-biking and dogging. Not forgetting the ill-fated Pleasure Beach amusement park that lasted from the late 80s to 1996.

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Despite failing to use the land itself, all was not lost. Two vital things had come from the Garden Festival: the symbolic gesture that Liverpool wasn't dead; and a model for leisure-led regeneration. Whilst the Festival site languished, other Garden Festival Cities such as Stoke and Glasgow implemented the next phases of their development, and places like Manchester and Birmingham Urban-Splashed their way to success by adopting the development template that in some ways was pioneered in Liverpool.

It wasn't until it was gearing up for the Capital of Culture bid that Liverpool belatedly caught up with the style of cultural regeneration it had previously experimented with. A chain reaction had been catalysed that in turn has led to the events of 2008, alongside what Taylor calls "the single biggest thing to happen to the city in the last twenty years” - a shopping centre on a grand scale: Liverpool One. Although it pains me to admit it, cities are built on commerce, and in the absence of new industry the fact is that developing a huge shopping experience on privatised city centre land has helped Liverpool to draw level with its peers. At least it is reasonably architecturally interesting.

Far from merely framing the sequence of bust to bust, Liverpool, and in particular the Garden Festival, has arguably provided a direct model for the culture-led regeneration of the UK's cities. It's just that where the Garden Festival itself occurred was not where this happened. This boom of regeneration was the face of the supposedly limitless growth that certainly caused the recent bust, but we might now be in a position to ensure that the "what next" for the city — post Capital of Culture and Liverpool One — isn't the same as what happened to the Festival site.

© Dan Russell

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

Sixties Film: showing a Modern Britain / from the archive / issue 3

Many British films of the sixties were dark, dour and troubling, filmed in grainy black and white in bleak northern towns. Yet in some of the lesser-known films of the period colour and optimism emerges from the common scenes of densely populated urban centres. As crowded, outdated housing stock was knocked down and the old ways of living were replaced by a new consumer society, these films reflected the possibility of a brighter, more modern world.

Among the most swinging of a number of films set in Manchester in the sixties is Albert Finney's accomplished directorial debut Charlie Bubbles (1967), in which he also stars. Part road movie, part domestic drama and part whimsical fancy, it follows Finney's eponymous Charlie Bubbles, who has left his northern roots to forge a name for himself as a successful author in London, as he makes the journey back to his Manchester origins with a young American intern played by Liza Minnelli. Britain was undergoing big environmental changes at the time: whole areas of cities were being rebuilt to clear lingering Victorian and Edwardian slums and fill the gaps left by wartime bomb sites. In vivid colour, Finney and Minnelli tour the almost unrecognisable city where he grew up – driving past a marching band parading through wastelands of demolished terraced streets – and see the contrast with the new, high-rise, Modernist Manchester. The camera pans past Piccadilly Gardens, replete with five shiny red telephone boxes, en route to the then-new Piccadilly Hotel in Piccadilly Gardens where the characters stay in plush, wood lined rooms with views across the whole of the city. Modern Manchester looks vibrant and glamorous.

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The White Bus, which also moves from London to Manchester and Salford and was released in the same year, was likewise based on the writing of Salford author Shelagh Delaney. In Lindsay Anderson's surreal short film version of The White Bus, the main character embarks on a magical bus tour around Manchester and Salford. Passengers are shown the old — vast, vacant plots of rubble — being replaced by the new — high rise blocks of flats on stilts in areas like Kersal, with a celebratory voice over by the guide about how tower block living will solve social ills. The film flits in and out of colour like a dream.

Similarly playful is the charmingly naïve musical Mrs Brown, You've got a Lovely Daughter (1968), which follows pop group Herman's Hermits as they aim to make a name for themselves by using the proceeds from racing their greyhound Mrs Brown to escape their claustrophobic lives.

The film starts by zooming over an aerial view of Salford – including sights such as the ship canal - before coming in to land in the dense, redbrick streets where three generations of Herman's family live on top of each other in the same small terraced house. Herman spends his days working for an advertising company trying to sell consumers things they don't yet know they want (including a comical pink hat), and the bright colours and patterns of the sixties fashions sported by the Hermits and friends are absurdly colourful next to the dingy brownness of the house, which looks almost Victorian in its drab clutter. Herman is a jaunty figure on a personalised yellow motorbike – with a side car for the dog, Mrs Brown, as he drives past rubble and blank plots of land amongst the remaining terraced streets.

In the sixties, the shortage of housing and poor condition of many existing homes meant mass building programmes were taking place. In the film, some of the Hermits spend their days labouring on building sites. Herman's mother enthuses: “They're ever so nice. There's 2,000 going up. 250 little nests in each block with a telly built right into the wall.”

One of the more traditional films of the sixties, A Kind of Loving (1962), also makes a direct link between quality of life and living environment. Draftsman Vic Brown, who at the start of the film is still living at home with his parents in a cramped hillside terrace in a northern everytown, repeatedly expresses envy at his recently married sister's light and airy new flat: “She's got a lovely flat, she's dead lucky.”

The film captures the frustration of relationships confined by young people having to live under the constant supervision of the older generation, yet at the end Vic and his young wife, who had been on the brink of divorcing, decide to make a go of it – dependent on a renewed commitment to moving out of Vic's wife's mother's house and finding a place of their own.

The sense that things were changing and the young would inherit a new, better world, starting with a better living environment and adequate housing for all, is explicit in the film London Nobody Knows (1967), one of the most intriguing films of the era. James Mason travels through a London that in many ways still seems Victorian, celebrating its quirks and traditions such as egg-breaking and street entertainment in quasi-documentary style. The film ends by looking to the future. A parade of close-ups of children's smiles is juxtaposed with shots of a wrecking ball swinging through the other side of London's past – old slums and tenements, which are described as “out of date, inefficient, taking up too much space”. Mason narrates “These kids finally seem to be given a decent break” as the camera shows the type of spacious new homes with green space that will be built instead.

Mason then says “there's no need to be too sad about it as, after all, most of Victorian London was fairly hideous and we can also console ourselves with the knowledge that the same fate attends our least favourite modern monstrosities”. This sentence proved prescient and the optimism of the period short lived. Many high-rise solutions to the evils of slums soon became run-down themselves. Tower blocks such as Kersal Flats, celebrated by the authorities in The White Bus, had problems of their own and now, too, are long gone, turned back into rubble.

© Nathalie Bradbury

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

Gone to Pot: The rise and fall of Hornsea Pottery / from the archive / issue 3

In the late 1970s I often shopped in Lancaster. I might treat myself to a new vinyl LP or a bottle of Yugoslavian Lutomer Riesling. I usually ended up in Midas – a Habitat-style shop in Market Street – stuffed with coconut matting, Scandinavian glassware and the latest groovy products of Lancaster’s new Hornsea Pottery factory. Should I buy a Contrast cup and saucer, a Saffron storage jar or another commemorative mug?

At that time Hornsea’s Contrast tableware and other ranges were the epitome of contemporary popular ceramics. Martin Hunt’s and John Clappison’s designs won Design Council Awards. Sales were booming: over 50% were exported mainly to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. In 1977-78 Contrast was the best-selling tableware range, especially in the USA. It featured in British Government design exhibitions overseas. Yet by the early 1980s the Lancaster works had closed and Touche Ross were appointed receivers in January 1984. An attempt to revive the firm failed: in 2001 the site in Hornsea was sold for a housing estate. From boom to bust in a few years: what happened to Britain’s leading successful modern oven-to-tableware manufacturer?

Hornsea Pottery beginnings were humble. The firm was set up by Desmond and Colin Rawson in 1949 in the small Yorkshire seaside town. Desmond Rawson, the elder and most creative brother, had trained as a textile designer before the war. His right hand was shattered by a bullet – he had only a thumb and two fingers on his right hand – and he learnt to handle clay and model in plaster during his remedial exercises. The Rawson brothers’ early products were twee novelty giftware: bunny rabbits by tree stumps, doggies in boots and ickle baa-lambs. You may find cheap pieces of the Fauna range in charity shops, if they survive, if you insist. In the mid-50s the range expanded into slipware and designs became more Contemporary: polka dots, elongated slip-trails and snow crystal motifs. The shift came in July 1955 when John Clappison, on summer vacation from the Royal College of Art, designed the Elegance tableware range: Contemporary style with glazed yellow interiors and striped exteriors made by applying and removing narrow masking tape strips into the biscuit before firing the external glaze. Elegance sold well; it was the first of Clappison’s innovative and stylish designs.

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John Clappison trained at Hull College of Art and the RCA. His parents were friends of the Rawsons and invested in their company. Whilst at the RCA Clappison experimented with screen printing ceramics – then very innovative – partly because Hornsea lacked the skilled workers of the Potteries. In March 1959 the Rawsons and Clappison visited Denmark touring the Royal Copenhagen and other potteries. He also visited Sweden in 1962 and was impressed by Stig Lindberg’s designs at Gustavsberg’s. By the early 60s Desmond Rawson was Hornsea’s Design Director; Clappison, and his talented colleague Alan Luckham, were full of Scandinavian designs; and, most importantly, Hornsea switched from fancies to tableware.

Social changes were influential. Increased car ownership meant that car customers could collect whole dinner services from the factory. Coach and rail visitors bought only small portable items like cruets and cream jugs. Open plan kitchens encouraged the display of attractively designed storage jars and dishes. Ash trays were widely used. Mugs, without saucers, ceased to be ‘common’ and became trendy, filled with ITV-advertised instant coffee.

Hornsea’s first full range of tableware, designed by Clappison, was the popular Heirloom design of 1966. It used Colin Rawson’s lucky discovery that a relief effect in a black pattern was possible by partially glazing some screen printed pots. Heirloom was a sensation when launched at the fashionable Ceylon Tea Centre, Haymarket, London. Heirloom was followed by Saffron (1968) and Bronte (1972). Saffron featured a caramel coloured pattern with orange and brown accents. It sold widely in Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams. The range included pasta and utensil jars: Elizabeth David’s influence reaching suburbia. Bronte, also by Clappison, had a darker embossed pattern. Copper oxide was used in the print mix creating a subtle green design of dots and scrolls, finished on a brown glaze.

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In 1974 Sara Vardy designed Fleur: a green-brown floral pattern resist-printed on a cream ground. Fleur sold very well in America where it was distributed by Kosta Boda USA. The best-selling Contrast range of 1974 was designed by Martin Hunt. It won a Design Council Award and every piece was placed in the Design Index. A new factory opened in Lancaster to manufacture Contrast but this was to be problematic. Contrast needed skilled workers to glaze and polish the unique Vitramic finish. The unskilled Lancaster workers made many costly rejects. The National Westminster Bank lent in 1976 to cover the losses.

Palatine (1974-6) by Mike Walker used the Contrast shapes and Vitramic glaze but its floral pattern was less severely masculine. Martin Hunt’s Concept range (1977-81) was the ultimate Hornsea modern tableware design. It had an elegant contoured and ridge shape with spot glaze applied to the vitreous body. The finish – a rich cream colour – was unique. Many pieces had swan-shaped finial knobs. Concept won design awards. It was produced on licence at Upsala Ekeby’s Rorstand factory in Sweden. With Contrast and Concept Hornsea’s stylish tableware easily competed with contemporary Scandinavian ceramics.

So what went wrong? Desmond Rawson, Hornsea’s dynamic but creative President, retired in 1981, aged 60. He had bouts of anxiety and depression and, frustrated with financial worries, his criticisms were resented by some directors who asked him to retire. Upset, his rejection played on his restless mind. On December 10, 1984, he was found dead from an overdose of pills mixed with whisky.

Hornsea struggled on but in 1984 the firm had debts of over £1 million and NatWest pulled the plug. There’s still a lot of Hornsea in use. You can find it on eBay or in car boot sales. Maybe there’s a fine piece of Contrast or Concept in your nan’s china cabinet?

© Aidan Turner-Bishop

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST

 

Sandcastle / from the archive / issue 3

From the river it holds its position confidently, a solidity different from the triplicate graciousness framing the Pier Head; broader, not on the waterfront itself but set back and massed from the higher ground of Old Hall Street, blocks spread and piled towards the approximation of a pyramid. Colloquially, and by the authority vested in the Mersey Ferries commentary, this is the Sandcastle, the ribbed aggregate panels of its cladding being sufficiently golden in colour, its silhouette simultaneously martial-like and playful, that the name sticks well to its target. It is also the Royal Insurance Building, the Capital Building, New Hall Place; slippery nomenclature for such a definite article. Alongside the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, this is probably the most prominent and accomplished brutalist building in central Liverpool from a period that didn't otherwise make much of an impact architecturally in a city experiencing rapid economic decline, and which had lacked any notable design confidence since the 1930s.  

Built between 1974 and 1976, architects the Tripe and Wakeham Partnership created for Royal Insurance an intelligent interpretation of a complicated brief, filling a large 2.8 hectare site with two stories of car parking (as a podium), placing large departments and circulation spaces on top, with additional functions placed higher up as separately readable volumes. The impression created is one of an exceptionally well arranged kit of individual rectilinear blocks. The rough texture of the ribbed panelling provides the piecework of thrillingly blank walls, but the bouncing interplay of solid and void provides the real interest. As the volume of the structure generally recedes up the storeys, buildings within buildings reveal themselves as a series of terraces breaks up the considerable bulk into the striations of a ziggurat.   

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Really, though, and despite the characteristic massing and texture, this was a building designed from the inside out in a strongly functional tradition. Significantly, these functions catered as much to the social and human needs of its users as to the perfunctory requirements of office accommodation; this was a corporate landmark representing the standing of a company by means of high quality design, amenities and relationships. At the entrance floor over the parking podium was a 200 seat cinema and training suite as well as a computer centre and a printing works for in-house publications. On the level above this was the heart of the scheme, a social and recreation centre for employees that included a gym, sports hall and function rooms. Office floors and management suites rose up on decreasing plan sizes between levels two and ten to a tapered summit.

Close attention to interior detail was invested across the entire project. The interior designer, Lyle Ellard, was committed to a generous application of timber features through the fit-outs of shared social facilities and office spaces alike, with five different species of wood used as either solid plank or veneers throughout the building. In the most repetitive aspects of the floor plan, the departmental office spaces, a consistent design approach was taken with mustard yellow carpet, screens, plants, sound absorbent ceilings, work stations and equipment all forming part of a unified aesthetic, each unit clad in a veneer of American cherry wood to create a sense of enclosure and demarcation across floors. Visual consistency was aided by cladding in solid teak the service towers rising up between floors and containing the lift foyers, providing a point of navigation.

Wych elm, with its warm, decorative grain, was used throughout the social and recreation suite; English Yew, meanwhile, was used on an abstract mural on the tenth floor which sought to communicate the idea of natural growth by the complex layering of multi-dimensional planks. As Ellard reported to Interior Design magazine, his approach was rooted in a philosophy that, first, looked to the users of the building as the most significant factor to be considered and, secondly, was concerned with the application of a brutalist aesthetic inside as much as externally. None of the finishes were intended to be maintained with polish but were intended to age within the lifetime of the building to reflect their intrinsic qualities.     

            ...timber is warm, pleasant and harmonious as well as being visually good. I wanted to surround the people who would work in the building with some humanity – not merely paint or plaster or other artificial   finishes…We were determined that we wanted the whole building to be as truthful as possible by using as  many natural materials as we could…

Within the last decade, the Sandcastle has been sold by Royal Insurance and passed through numerous ownerships and refurbishments. Out of paternalistic corporate hands, the sheer quality of the building has contributed somewhat to its undoing – as the cachet of its architecture has increased, so has its money-making potential. A new glass atrium on Old Street has undermined the original conception of circulation at podium level, whilst every available square metre of space on every floor has been commandeered for lettable office accommodation; shared social and recreational areas converted out of existence in the search for maximum profitability. As an emblem of a socially-aware corporate capitalism, the Sandcastle must be considered defunct; even with RSA (the successor company to Royal Insurance) as a major tenant, nothing remains of their largesse. Internally, the brutalism of Ellard's design concept has been undermined by a slick refit that has kept much of the timber detailing but seen it underlit with blue neon and accompanied by the shiny surfaces and palette of fixtures found in any office development of neo-liberalism's

hubristic noughties. Externally, though, we are left with a monument to an age of corporate patronage that sought to not to create an egregious building-as-logo nor maximise returns on floorplates, but something more substantial, a statement of values and meaning. Architecturally, it has always been successful and perhaps even loved a little, but the stability and values of the economic world in which it was conceived has passed; its aesthetic merits must now be disassociated with the comparatively benevolent incarnation of capitalism that provided its original rationale.

© Matthew Whitfield

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.

Matthew Whitfield

 

 

From the North / from the archive / issue 3

With all the hue and cry coming from the London based media about the BBC moving some of its operations to Salford many could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester and Salford are cultural wastelands. The bright young things of the BBC are being cast, it would seem, into a backward and primitive land with no hope of survival. This is, of course, absurd and perhaps those creating the fuss should be reminded that Manchester, for most of the 20th century, was home to not only nationally and sometimes internationally renowned TV production but, for a short time, a small but thriving film industry.

 1920's Manchester had a clutch of small but enthusiastic film production companies all keen to capitalise on the rapidly booming film industry. Companies would handle pretty much every aspect of film making and presentation, shooting the film , processing it themselves and distributing to the myriad of small cinemas cropping up around the region. Their enthusiasm to produce homegrown product was sadly not matched by any enthusiasm from audiences who showed a growing appetite for Hollywood productions and most of Manchester's small film producers disappeared. One that did survive was Mancunian films, set up by market trader James Blakeley in 1908 initially as movie rental business, acquiring rights to films and renting them to cinemas. James enlisted his sons Jim and John into the business and by the 1920's the three men had moved from just distributing films to actually making them.

It was John who handled directing duties and Mancunian Films inter war output was generally knockabout musical comedies with a couple of early appearances from George Formby, who later went on to become Britain's most popular film star. All the films were shot in London, something director John Blakeley grew increasingly frustrated with, and made on very limited budgets. They were universally hated by critics but northern audiences adored them, with their minimal plot, cheap laughs and uplifting musical numbers. Many Mancunian Films became vehicles for the wildly popular (in the north at least) Frank Randle and in some northern cinemas these cheap, daft films were often as popular as slick, expensive Hollywood films. Mancunian Films continued through the war and difficulties after the war in finding suitable studio space in London led to the company, in 1947, into buying a former Methodist Chapel on Dickenson Road in Rusholme and converting it to studios. The first film made there was Cup Tie Honeymoon and featured a young actress called Pat Pilkington, later wisely change her name to the more glamourous Pat Phoenix.

Mancunian Films carried on making films throughout the 1950's and 60's but it was facing a new challenge in the shape of television and although it would continue making films elsewhere, in 1954 it sold the Dickenson Road studios, rather prophetically, to the BBC.

Also in 1954 the newly created Independent Television Authority awarded Granada the contract to broadcast independent television to the North of England on Monday to Friday, with the weekend contract awarded to Associated British Corporation (ABC).  Granada at the time was primarily a cinema chain, headed up by the inimitable Sidney Bernstein. Bernstein was a wealthy media magnate but also a committed Socialist, so much so that he originally opposed the introduction of independent television because he was such a strong believer in public service broadcasting, a role and monopoly occupied by the BBC. Bernstein was, however, a pragmatic businessman and when granted an independent broadcasting licence decided to base his television operations in the north west, an area he had little or no attachment with,  mainly on the assumptions he would not only reach the largest concentration of people but also on rainfall charts that rightly or wrongly supposed people stay in the house a lot more in the north. Also, it theoretically meant his northern television operations would not leech custom away from his mainly southern based cinema chain.  His pragmatism also informed his choice of site for his nascent operations. He considered land at Kersal in Salford and around the Greengate area but plumped for a scruffy, unfashionable and consequently very cheap plot of land on Quay Street, an area previously dominated by Manchester's cattle market and abattoir. Despite the insalubrious surroundings Bernstein showed no reluctance in employing a well renowned architect to design his offices and studio complex and accepted a design which was distinctly modern, reflecting the modernity of the business in hand. The job was given to Ralph Tubbs, an architect who had previously worked with Erno Goldfinger and had sealed his reputation with his Dome of Discovery at The Festival of Britain. Bernstein, who was by all accounts a skilled draughtsman himself, took an active role in the design of his building spending a great deal of time preparing his own elevations and studying Tubbs’ plans in detail.

Granada House was one of the first buildings in the city to be constructed using the curtain wall method. The initial stage of construction was the low two-storey building on New Quay Street, with the larger eight-storey Granada House added later. The outer skin of the building is of light grey granite walls with the main facades glass, with their highly polished black gabbro sills, separated by white marble and grey limestone supports. High building standards have meant little or no renovation has been needed to the façade of the building, leaving the original outside fabric unaltered. 

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Meanwhile, just up the road on Peter Street, ABC Television had chosen a site for their offices. On the corner of Mount Street they built Television House. Now renamed and re clad it will hopefully not be resigned to a footnote in post war architectural history thanks to its association with the Reddish born architect, Norman Foster. Norman Foster's first job after after qualifying from Manchester School of Architecture was with the architects of Television House, Beardshaw and Partners, and it was the first building he worked in his short time there. Unlike Granada, who had a complex of offices and studios on one site, ABC took over the former Capitol cinema on Parrs Wood Road in Didsbury to house their studio facilities. ABC's output was decidedly populist with shows such as Opportunity Knocks and Armchair Theatre filmed at the Capitol Studios. ABC struggled to make any headway with just a weekend license and in 1968 they merged with Rediffusion to form Thames Television and closed down their Manchester operations.

For a while though Manchester could easily rival London for the quality and quantity of television being produced. The BBC famously started broadcasting Top of the Pops from their Dickenson Road studios and after their move to New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road the BBC produced a wide variety of material from Manchester from A Question of Sport to Songs of Praise. Its independent cousin Granada was also responsible for a wide variety of high quality productions. University Challenge and World in Action, Cracker and Prime Suspect, Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited were all produced by Granada and it almost goes with saying that the world's longest running TV soap opera, Coronation Street, is made by Granada.

Sadly the strong northern identity fostered by Bernstein, who insisted talent was either drawn from the north or those who were prepared to move to Manchester, has been undermined with the amalgamation of ITV regions into ITV plc. ITV of late has missed the OFCOM set target for 50% of its output to be produced outside London and whilst You've Been Framed is an excellent Granada produced show its unlikely something of the quality of Brideshead Revisited will be made by Granada today. Granada will soon be moving out of their Ralph Tubbs designed home in Manchester to a smaller and architecturally inane new building on the banks of the Ship Canal in Trafford. The fate of the Quay Street buildings is 'to be continued......'.

The BBC, however, are now seeking to reverse the creative brain drain to London by moving a small but significant proportion of their productions to Media City in Salford. The media landscape is changing out of all recognition and its unlikely an operation like Mancunian Films would work in  the 21st century and put Manchester back on the film making map. ITV no longer seems to have the will to produce high quality television anymore so it must be left up to the BBC to nurture and sustain the obvious talent we have in the north of England and lets us hope we are entering a new era of good quality film and television productions “From The North”.

© Eddy Rhead

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.

Foreword / from the archive / issue 3

If you regard yourself as a Modernist, then you're fairly obliged to like or at least take an interest in the contemporary. It doesn't imply neophilia, to be sure, but it does mean a stand against the old world, against reaction and in favour of some kind of 'new' force, whatever that might be. To be modern might mean embracing Salford Quays, the Beetham Tower, Chips and their ilk. Modern as in modernisation, that strangely neutral term used by Tony Blair to purge the Labour Party. Surely it couldn't mean an interest in the past – could it?

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One of the stories Manchester tells itself today is that it is, as the slogan goes, 'Original Modern'. To be 'Modern' here leaps between the city of the future created by graft, accident and greed two hundred years ago to the one created by much the same forces over the last 15 years; Manchester Liberalism, neoliberalism, often using the same spaces – now a cotton mill, now a unique urban luxury living solution (forgetting the 12 hour + shifts that accompanied the first or the housing crisis that accompanied the second). There's not much room in that Modern for the Modern that happened inbetween.

Conversely, it's just possible that it is precisely that modernism inbetween that is truly worthy of the name – rather than Old Corruption newly enlivened with barcode façades or slatted wood & aluminium balconies. A modernism that committed itself to socially useful things – education, public housing, the National Health Service, rather than shopping and property speculation – is something to fight for. The other modernism didn't just want things to look new; it wanted new, better content. A modernity of quality rather than (monetary) quantity. It might break with the image of Mancunia as metropolis of boom-time chancers, from cotton magnates to scallies, but it reconnects it instead with the city that pioneered socialism, the co-operative movement and communism at the same time. It might look to the untrained eye like nostalgia; but it might be plotting for a different modernity altogether.

© Owen Hatherley

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.

 

William Mitchell: artist, designer, inventor / from the archive / issue 2

In the 1960s and '70s Mitchell, who had studied Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art, pioneered new techniques and materials, working with other professions such as architects, engineers and builders. In another edition of Tomorrow's World, Mitchell balances on a plank of wood above a building site in Croydon, where he is installing a textured concrete wall in an office block. The most remarkable episode, though, is that in which he demonstrates a new technique he has come up with for advertising – an unrealised plan that would have illuminated Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens with a 350ft by 65ft sign comprising thousands of light bulbs triggered by films and photoelectric cells. You can still see the holes on Piccadilly Plaza where the bulbs would have gone.

 

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Planners across the UK – and as far afield as America and Hawaii – wanted a piece of Mitchell for their developments, and he undertook hundreds of public and private commissions. These range from the small, functional and unobtrusive – clocks in schools, motorway detailing – to the grand; the massive doors to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (the design for which had to be signed off by the Pope) and later, the Egyptian Room at Harrods. Mitchell was so prolific he can't remember the exact location and details of each artwork, but there are several in some of Manchester's most striking and iconic buildings – a bold fibreglass mural in the entrance to the CIS Tower, panels around the lift shaft in the snaking Gateway House on Piccadilly Approach, and sculptured decoration covering the Humanities Building at the University of Manchester.

Mitchell's most publicly visible work in the city is his Minut Men, three giant concrete monsters outside the University of Salford. Mitchell had to set them on fire to get the plastic moulds off* (something he notes would never be allowed today, especially so close to the main road!), and the figures are extraordinarily detailed, covered with patterns and inlaid with mosaic. He explains: “I wanted to do something with the material which was not indicative of trying to be something else. As it was new, let it be new. It had as much to do with the practicality and being outside. I also had to take into account, was it waterproof and was it vandal proof?”

Often, says Mitchell, his artworks used a “very, very involved process”, a challenge to himself to prove they were possible. He remembers: “It was almost an exercise in character building, the artworks were so hard to get to the finish off!” Another unusual use of materials can be seen in the epic mosaic, gleaming with objects such as bottle tops and textured by the addition of gravel, which climbs the full height of the staircase in the Piccadilly Hotel in Piccadilly Gardens. Made of bits of furniture and pianos set in resin, Mitchell wanted to show “there was still the possibility of doing hand craftwork” and says “there's a richness to it”.

Mitchell finds public art to be a problematic concept: “One of the troubles of public art is the public are not asked whether or not they want it.” Yet you can tell Mitchell is proud of the artworks which people have taken to heart: he was pleased to hear of a fashion show being held in front of the Minut Men in Salford, and recounts that Salford students defended the figures from attack by rivals from Manchester University. He even tells a story of tenants taking it upon themselves to clean one of his artworks in a council block. Mitchell also considers his fantastical creatures for the water gardens in Harlow, Essex – modern day gargoyles for a new town – to be a success. Too often, he says, artworks of the period were “thought of as brooches to stick on the building”, whereas art needs to “give a sense of the international, community and place”. Harlow was different as “they were starting to put an infrastructure in, an environment”.

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Some of Mitchell's works have already been demolished, whereas others are in buildings that have fallen out of favour and face uncertain futures. He's stoical about artworks being lost when buildings are knocked down, although he thinks it's important that “some are kept to give an idea of what the time was like and the type of things you could do”. The social and historical significance of these remarkable artworks is now being reassessed. In Islington, London in 2008, one of Mitchell's works for a school was the first mural of its kind to be listed in its own right, not in the context of the listing of the building to which it was attached. In a library in Kirkby near Liverpool too, a mural has recently been restored and reinstalled. It had languished in storage after the library, ironically, “took it down to be modern”. Those trying (unsuccessfully so far) to get the Turnpike Centre in Leigh listed, which, when it was opened in 1971 featured a new, open-plan library design, also highlight Mitchell's distinctive concrete frieze on the front.

Mitchell still receives requests for commissions and is currently working on a book, which will be “part instruction book” (“always paint the concrete”, he insists) and “part adventure book”. There couldn't be anything more appropriate for this brilliant artist. As he sums up his long career, “It has been an adventure!”

* The Allerton Building which 'encloses' the Minut Men is by Halliday Meecham and the project architect was John Parkinson-Whittle. It was JPW who commissioned Mitchell to make the sculptures. At least two, maybe three of the fibreglass moulds survived and today hang happily on the wall of a bungalow built by JPW in Didsbury!

© Natalie Bradbury

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Stella Maris / from the archive / issue 2

Is a piece of Salford’s maritime heritage about to be scuppered or can we find a new use for our brilliant ‘Star of the Sea’?

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Whilst London swung and Bobby Moore polished his boots, Harold Wilson won the general election and Britain launched its first Polaris submarine, Salford and her docks were still more likely to be associated with the kitchen sink drama of ‘A Taste of Honey’, in which the schoolgirl played by Rita Tushingham, becomes pregnant by a young black sailor. The slums are grim, the rent is unpaid and the children are manky.

Yet, in the 1960’s, to be modern was cool, Apollo was fab, the Post Office Tower was a groovy place to hang out and, odd as it might seem, the Catholic Church was hip to this modernist vibe. Liverpool’s new Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King is a supreme example of the Church’s approval of the architecturally new. Also, in 1966 the final touches were being added to one of Salford’s most unique and yet discrete modern building, the Stella Maris, a pristine new Seaman’s Mission, built by the Diocese of Salford, to serve the sailors who came and went through the mighty Salford Docks. In June 1966 Father Keegan proudly opened the Stella Maris as a residential and recreational club for seamen, situated at the corner of Oldfield Road and Chapel Street.

Built to replace a decrepit older building in Ordsall, and so unlike the shabby world of A Taste of Honey, this new Mission was, in the spirit of the times, a modern, bright social centre with a bar and a heated swimming pool, topped by twenty four new individual residential rooms to accommodate the transient seafarers. So modern and well equipped was it, that soon after opening, it boasted colour television, something for which most of us waited until the mid ‘70s or longer. The Stella Maris offered a library, dancing and cabaret; the amenities were “at the disposal of ALL seafarers without distinction”, and it was advertised that the “hostesses will do their best to make the seafarer’s stay in the Port of Manchester a happy one”. It was an unusually international centre for an inland port in the south east of Lancashire.

The architect appointed was Desmond Williams.  Desmond was no stranger to the Catholic Church and many of our schools and churches have come to life off Desmond’s drawing board, not least the Grade II listed St. Augustine’s Church at All Saints in Manchester.

The Stella Maris took inspiration from the occupation of its ocean going residents and is designed to resemble the bridge of a ship, an inspiration also taken up by the Manchester Liners’ HQ, on Trafford Road.

With the decline and eventual closure of the Salford’s Docks in the 1980s, the need for the Stella Maris centre disappeared and in June 1981 the mission was closed. Thankfully, a new use was found, with the building being recycled into the St. James Street Salvation Army Centre, offering a support and a home for another itinerant group of men. However, twenty years on, times have changed and the Salvation Army has moved on from the provision of ‘hostels’ in favour of a more independent mode of living, and once again the building’s future is threatened, as the Salvation Army prepare to move to new premises.

Much of the heritage of Salford Docks is now history, the ships, sailors and dockers are long gone, the dock buildings have been flattened and only the dock gates and Dock Office remain. Yet, out on the corner of Oldfield Road, there is a half forgotten piece of Salford’s Maritime heritage - if the Stella Maris had been built closer to the docks, it too might have already been demolished.

In 2009 with £700,000 provided by the now defunct North West Development Agency, Salford City Council bought the Salvation Army Centre with a view to the redevelopment of the site – that is to say, to demolish the building.

Not only is it ecologically bonkers to tear down a perfectly sound building, it is economic madness to use public money to pay for the demolition of this rare piece of Salford’s seafaring heritage, built by a ‘listed’ architect. The Urban Regeneration Company and Council have ‘retained’ other buildings on Chapel Street that are burned out, roofless and derelict, yet the structurally sound Stella Maris has been declared ‘unfit for purpose’ despite not considering any future alternative use.

A local collective of artists, community groups, tenants association and architects have suggested an creative future for the Centre, as an artists’ ‘hostel’ - a cultural home from home in which international and local artists can live, work and experiment. However, the council states that it is ‘locked in’ to a financial agreement, in which the only possible outcome is the building’s demise.

The Stella Maris is located within minutes of a dynamic local neighbourhood, a major university and a vibrant creative arts community yet by the end of March 2012 Salford City Council intend to demolish the building. In an area already saturated with vacant lots, and with no definite proposals to redevelop this site, can there instead be a serious re-consideration to re-launch our Star of the Sea?

© Jack Hale

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Post script: Stella Maris was subsequently demolished and replaced with housing named Carpino Place after the Archbishop that formally opened the Stella Maris in 1966.

Conran Before Habitat / from the archive / issue 2

I had been living in England for only a few weeks when I found myself snooping around a charity shop in Didsbury. I have been collecting Mid Century modern pieces since 1990, and was curious to see what Britain had to offer for this period.  In the course of my searching I came across a strange item. It was a large platter with a 1950s style pattern on it, full of dynamic and colourful vegetables arranged artfully across its front and it was signed Terence Conran on the back. Of course, I knew who Terence Conran was –hadn’t I lusted after various items in his NYC Conran Shop (the one that was underneath the 59th Street Bridge arches)? I also knew of the Habitat store, which had been a British style setter since the 1960s and 1970s. So what was this piece? Surely this wasn’t a 1970s piece? So, could it be a recent reissue for Habitat in a faux retro style?

We had so little space in our tiny flat, and we were so short of cash, having just moved to the UK from the US that I couldn’t even bring myself to spend 50p on the platter. So I left it among the plates and chipped cups convinced it was a recent Conran design.

Only a few weeks passed before I realized my mistake as I was being introduced to a whole new world of mid century British design. Rummaging through a used bookstore I came across a book that included 1950s designs as a collectable category. And there was Terence Conran’s platter: the Salad Ware pattern for Midwinter. I’ve regretted that mistake ever since! Clearly Conran had a story before the Habitat shop with which I was not familiar.

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I moved to Manchester for my husband’s job at the University of Manchester. One of the joys of this experience has been to learn about Britain’s rich design history and material culture. I knew of Kathie Winkle and Clarence Cliff, but not about Poole or Portmeirion. I knew that Dior’s New Look dress style of the 1950s was a response to wartime fabric rations, but not that Britain experienced rationing until 1954. So here was new information for me to gobble up: Terence Conran had been an influential designer well before the opening of the first Habitat shop in Chelsea in 1964 and the publication of House Book in 1974.

As a young designer Conran looked to the Continent for design influences. His interpretation of European modernism was palatable to British high street shoppers. This was a softer minimalism –simple, but accessible.  Not avant-garde, but comfortable. His design was a strong visual contrast to dark and fussy prewar interiors or severe wartime designs of the Utility Scheme.

Conran freelanced for Midwinter as a recent graduate from art college in the early fifties and contributed to their fresh and optimistic palette of the postwar era. Some people might say that his designs at Midwinter do not represent his best work. It could be argued that some of his Midwinter work was too kitsch, like Salad Ware, or too staid, like Plant Life. Certainly the strong visual patterning of Conran’s Chequers (1951 as a fabric, 1957 as dinnerware) shares similar influences to his contemporary Jessie Tait’s work at Midwinter such as her Mosaic pattern. Yet, many Conran pieces from this period have become design classics. For example, my favorite of the period, Nature Study, combines whimsy with simplicity in a way not found in these other designers’ work.  It is less “cutesy” than Hugh Casson’s representational work, like Riveria, and less busy than Jessie Tait’s Primavera or Homespun. In later years, Conran himself often downplayed his work at Midwinter. When a six setting dinner service  of Nature Study sold for £1200 at auction in 1997, Independent journalist John Windsor relayed the news to Conran, “When I told Sir Terence, he thought for a bit, then said: ‘In my opinion that's considerably more than it's worth.’”

In spite of Conran’s assessment of his design at Midwinter, his 1950s work successfully combined form, colour and nature in a way previously not seen in high street British design. This combination was a breath of fresh air after the restrictions of rationing and the constraints of the utility era. The cheerful, but not fussy pottery designs at Midwinter most certainly evoke the optimism and clarity of the post-war period. Importantly, this aesthetic would later be reflected in the Habitat years of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2011, we observe the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, which celebrated a new design direction for the country. Ironically, we will also mark the closure of Habitat stores on the high street, as the company went into administration. I have to confess I never bought anything from Habitat in recent years. Once my husband and I got settled in Manchester and were finally earning a modest salary, the furniture seemed too expensive for what you got. The design felt less like cutting edge Conran and more like an upscale IKEA (its former owners). Good, but not great, design and considerably more expensive than IKEA. The quality wasn’t there for the price, and the designs no longer felt innovative. Conran’s Habitat was in some ways a victim of its own success, being reproduced for cheaper in other high street stores, and no longer leading the way.

But no matter what happens to Habitat, Conran’s early work is still highly collectible. And a few months ago I came across some chipped pieces of Nature Study at a car boot. You can bet, this time, I snatched them up!

© Laura Gaither

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Hard Brilliance / from the archive / issue 2

King Street is fast approaching the end of its typologically distinct function as the financial centre of the city. As Lloyds, the last of the great Victorian banking halls, clings precariously to its original programme in the age of self-service, telephone and internet transactions and Edwin Lutyens’ former Midland Bank is transformed into Jamie Oliver’s northern gastronomic outpost, it is perhaps pertinent to consider the most distinctly modern of these spaces, vanished without much noise in the early 1990s.

The head office building for District Bank (later NatWest) was proposed under the auspices of a limited competition in 1963. Invited entrants included Manchester stalwarts Cruickshank and Seward and H S Fairhurst & Sons, though neither of these local practices actually submitted a design. The jury of two was undoubtedly of the old order; the recently retired Manchester City Architect, Leonard Cecil Howitt, who designed in the civilised ‘Festival’ style and Sir Basil Spence, former RIBA President, often criticised for his picturesque approach to architectural composition. It could be argued that these two were not necessarily ideologically aligned with the rapidly shifting cultural context of the 1960s, but that their collective experience and gravitas was prerequisite to judging the scheme to be sited opposite Cockerell’s Bank of England and adjacent Heathcote’s Lloyds.

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The notion of ‘grandeur’ in Mancunian architecture had been prevalent since the 1860s and Casson and Conder cited ‘grandeur, discipline, toughness and dignity’ as of Manchester and as the qualities that should be sought for this, the winning, scheme. The incised and tapering form had been generated by a study of rights of light in adjacent streets and buildings and likened by Casson himself to a ‘lump of coal’, whilst referred to by others as ‘chrysalid’. This formal justification was rudely subverted when, post-competition, the client acquired additional land that facilitated the repositioning of the building. Nonetheless, its siting was still critical to the planners at the time who insisted that the gap between this and the adjacent Pall Mall Court (Brett + Pollen, 1969) was maintained, to preserve a view of the Town Hall clock tower from Chapel Walks. This vista was eventually closed as the Bank of England building was remodelled to act as a foyer for the new office tower appended to it (Holford Associates, 1995). Lining the external façade is a hand-tooled, vertically ribbed, dark cladding of Swedish granite, reminiscent of their more celebrated work, the Elephant House at London Zoo. It was deliberately specified to absorb the soot that still clung to the city’s buildings. It was also felt that the dark material brought an appropriate austerity to the bank’s northern HQ and formed an intense counterpoint to the ‘hard brilliance’ of the glowing white interior which was designed to promote the sensation of being carved from the ‘solid’.

The banking hall was intended as the focus of the whole building and is positioned as such, not simply in its enclosure within the centre of the plan, but in the very deliberate sectional treatment in which the space was treated as a ‘stage’ and raised to provide ‘dignity and drama’; the principal actors were the public. The celebration of this central theatrical space was aptly exposed during the opening ceremony when, instead of the usual ribbon or unveiling, the invited dignitary, Lady Summers, simply switched on the lights to ‘reveal’ the space. The entrance and approach was a controlled exercise in compression and release which began at street level as one was invited to walk beneath the hulking, faceted solid, within an arcade space before being drawn into the building by the tapered plan of the gently rising stair. From the foyer it was possible to read all of the ground floor functions, its formal elements and their relationships. This is perhaps a product of the architect’s early suggestion that the banking hall be open plan, which was met with an emphatic ‘no’ from the client, but astutely predicted contemporary banking processes and environments.

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Whilst the glass security barricades were criticised for their obstructive presence, they did not detract from the regal landscape of the interior of the hall; the walls were lined with white Pentelicon marble and polished plaster and where the floor was not white marble its opulence was only intensified by the introduction of gold carpet inserts. The fixtures and fittings were a mixture of teak and high-grade mirror polished stainless steel, though the use of these as decorative elements was fastidiously designed out. The light fittings were all flush to the ceiling and incorporated air inlets and extracts so that the services may rescind into the fabric of the building and allow the served spaces to achieve an air of exclusivity akin to that of a luxury hotel where the frenetic energies that offer tranquillity are hidden from public sight. Photographs contemporary to the building’s completion afford the space a certain Kubrick-esque aesthetic, the gleaming white finishes and asymmetric hammerhead plans have an air of Space Odyssey and the spherical three-faced clock a slight nod toward the dystopian world of A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps the latter further reinforced by the iconography of the bowler hat and its association with banking.

The competition assessors were of the opinion that the scale and material choices applied by Casson and Conder would take their ‘place with dignity and restraint in the Manchester scene…without resorting to any of the current fashionable clichés’. This statement perhaps signifies an implicit trust in Casson who had been appointed Director of Architecture for the Festival of Britain at the age of 38 and was undoubtedly of the establishment and thus a safe bet for the conservative jury panel. It also belies the space-age effects employed and delivered in the principal internal space and it is this stark contrast between the controlled and serious monolithic envelope and the ethereal reflective translucency of the interior that makes this scheme cause for belated celebration and appreciation. Lost to time, the ghost of the banking hall lives on in small areas of visible marble that were not subsumed during reconfiguration, most prominently in the male executive bathroom; by appointment only.

© Richard Brook

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Holidays in Utopia: Orford Ness / from the archive / issue 2

Orfordness, on the Suffolk coast, is Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit and a major nature reserve. It is also the place where Britain weapons-tested the nuclear bomb. An unlikely, yet emblematic site of the 20th century, Orfordness was an RAF aerial targeting base and the birthplace of RADAR. At the height of the cold war, this was where the Blue Danube and WE177a Nuclear bombs were exposed to extremes of temperature, vibration and impact to ensure they could still deliver their deadly payload.

 Orfordness Pagoda image courtesy of Cmglee

Orfordness Pagoda image courtesy of Cmglee

Abandoned by the MoD at the end of the cold war, the site is now run by the National Trust who pursues a policy of managed neglect. We can still see the relics and remnants that have been left behind - unexploded ordinance, banks of switches in squat bunkers and oddly elegant concrete ‘pagodas’ resembling roman temples. These structures of another time, shaped by a bomb that never went off, are rapidly becoming modern ruins, reclaimed by nature amidst the shifting shingle.

It is no wonder that WG Sebald felt as if he were walking amidst the ruins of our civilization in Orfordness. This place was remade in a time of Mutually Assured Destruction; a deadly embrace in which we haunted each other’s waking dreams and nightmares, trusting that they were MAD too.

The monumental scale and decaying, detached repose of these set pieces eerily echoes a time before we became liquid, when history was written in mass. As Zizek and Tarkovsky tell us in their different ways, we should treasure these places, these wasted memoryscapes, which, in their ruination elude both nature and culture. These are material ghosts, haunting reminders of the lost second world and its time. The rooms inside are revealed only by our presence and as we remember, we do so tactically as well as with tactility, knowing that each memory hastens their destruction.

© Benjamin Tallis

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

 

An Arndale for Living / from the archive / issue 2

Much has been made of the increases, in the last two decades, of the amount of people choosing to live in Manchester city centre. It is often used as a signifier of Manchester's renaissance from a dreary down at heel post industrial city to a thriving and desirable one. The figures are indeed impressive with the city centre population standing at just 1000 people in 1990 compared to the current 20 000. Throughout the 20th century working class people had left to live in edge of city or overspill estates such as Hulme or Wythenshawe, the middle class and affluent had long fled to the suburbs and beyond.

This flight was reversed at the end of the century and Manchester's city centre housing is a varied mix of new build or buildings converted from former industrial use, such as the warehouse conversions of Whitworth Street and Ancoats. There are, however, a few rare examples of city centre housing, purpose built in a period when most people had already left the crowded city centre. There is a small pocket of town houses just off Deansgate near to Granada studios – built in 1979 by Wimpey Homes, obviously aimed at affluent professionals from the law practices and private surgeries on St John St and its proximity to Granada made it popular with staff from the TV station. A couple of cast members from Coronation Street also lived in the houses and in the early 1980s one of the townhouses featured as the fictional home of Mike Baldwin in the series – the perfect location for a playboy such as Mike to park his Jag and entertain a string of impressionable dolly birds.

Behind Tib Street there is also a council built development, a small estate of maisonettes that seems to have survived the bleak days of the 1980s (a time when Manchester essentially closed down at 5pm and became a virtual wasteland), resisted the greedy grip of developers in the land grab era of the 2000s and now sits happily bobbing away in a sea of trendy young things in that official epicentre of cool known to all but a few die hard squares as the Northern Quarter.

There was just one more 20th century city centre housing development and this was perhaps the most interesting. This was the small enclave of 60 flats and maisonettes called Cromford Court built right on top of the great heaving leviathan that was The Arndale Centre. It is unclear what the motivation was from the developers of the Arndale for including housing at a time when city centre living in Manchester was insignificant and to many unimaginable. Save for a few small pubs still hanging on in the city centre there was little attraction or amenity for people, in a time well before the likes of Sunday opening and 24 hour convenience stores, and before modern Manchester's now lively night-time economy. The streets of Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s would invariably become deserted after dark – especially around the area of The Arndale Centre – an area which, due to the Arndale's design stood like a huge impenetrable fortress –providing no activity once the doors of the shops had shut at 5.30pm.

The location of the flats could not have been more bizarre, on top of Cannon Street bus station and in the shadow of the Arndale multi storey car park. Architecturally the flats themselves now look to be quite contemporary in design. Unsurprisingly, due to the location and the general design language used throughout the Arndale as a whole , they are not what one would call pretty buildings but the dark engineering brick, the black mono pitched roof and simple elevations and layout give a air of almost Scandinavian rationalism and the design could still pass muster today. Accommodation was basic and any idea that these were luxury city centre apartments can quickly be forgotten – this was public housing for tenants of the North Country Housing Association. The main attraction was clearly its unenviable location.

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At first it seems the tenants were mainly elderly people but its city centre location soon drew the attention of some unlikely new tenants. Ian Curtis and George Best both lived there for a while and the Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering lived there for many years. It was perhaps Pickering's presence in the late 80s and early 90s which gave Cromford Court some sort of cache and soon a new, younger tenant realised the attraction of living in such a location. Luke Bainbridge is a former associate editor of the Observer Music Monthly but cut his journalistic teeth on the Manchester listings magazine City Life. He lived in Cromford Court from 1999 to 2003 “In 1999 there was still a slight novelty value to living in the northern quarter, and anyone who came back to Cromford could not believe this little oasis we had on top of the Arndale. It was really quiet up there, considering the location, and the communal gardens were much larger than any other city centre development since built. I don't think the general public knew it existed. Even though you could see it from the top floors of the Arndale car park. Whenever anyone came back to my flat for the first time, they generally had no idea that Cromford Court existed.”

Another tenant was Steve Caton who, at the time, ran the uber-cool clothes shop Geese and who now runs a fashion distribution company in London. He lived there from 1994 until 2003 “We never had break ins or any disruptive idiots living there in my time. My immediate neighbours were quite old 60-ish, not party people at all, so it was a nice mix.” Despite being home to a couple of Hacienda DJs and various other Manchester movers and shakers Cromford Court in the 1990's Caton dispels any idea that it was party central “The flats were too small for parties! “he says “they certainly were not luxury apartments, just a 20’ sq. room separate bathroom and nice sized bedroom. The luxury was the location.” Asked if having such a unique address made him anymore popular Bainbridge has to admit “It didn't make you more popular, but everyone loved the novelty value and uniqueness of Cromford Court when they came back.” The location, he also candidly admits sometimes had its drawbacks. “The only slight problem was the main way to get back to Cromford Court from the Northern Quarter is through the multi-storey car park, so if you were taking a girl back for the first time, they would be keen to see this place you talked about, but then when you started to lead them through a multi-storey car park, they might think "er, hang on a minute...”

Cromford Courts slight isolation, up above the busy streets below, did led to unique atmosphere though.

"We didn't sit out much, but there was a community spirit. I knew half of the people personally, and the rest to nod to. You wouldn't get that in any of the Fisher Price new build flats that have been built in the last 10 years.” says Bainbridge.

But it wasn't to last. On Saturday the 15th of June 1996 a huge bomb attributed to the Provisional IRA exploded just 200 yards away from Cromford Court. The flats were evacuated, all expect for a old man who had taken to his bed earlier in the day with flu. He didn't respond to calls to evacuate and emergency services just presumed he had left. He was still in his bed before, during and after the huge explosion unaware to the devastation around him. He had served as a rear gunner in Lancaster bombers in World War Two and wasn't going to let a small matter of a terrorist attack daunt him. Cromford Court escaped relatively unscathed but the whole area was cordoned off and tenants were left homeless for months afterwards. Steve Caton remembers “Everyone was turfed out after the bomb, but most went back after 3 months. In fact I was the first to return, back to a flat full of battered venetian blinds ” It wasn't the bomb, however, that signaled the end of Cromford Court but the then owners of The Arndale, who took advantage of the huge rebuilding needed after the bomb to extend the shopping centre. The plan entailed enveloping Cannon Street to create a new mall but sadly Cromford Court stood in the way of the new development and the residents were slowly forced to leave. Luke Bainbridge says “There was a real collective spirit when we were being forced out and P&O (the owners of the The Arndale) tried to play hard ball with us. Residents meetings were held in the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill.” The residents protestations were in vain though and by 2003 all the residents had gone and the flats were demolished.

It seems ironic that whilst around them there was a huge expansion of city centre living and swathes of bland apartment blocks were going up The Arndale's owners sought to remove some of Manchester's most characterful and unique housing. All the residents moved on, but it seems Cromford Court's unique atmosphere left a long and happy impression on them. Luke Bainbridge left to find his fortunes in London but fondly remembers “I still miss Cromford Court. It was an amazing place to live.”

Much has been made of the increases, in the last two decades, of the amount of people choosing to live in Manchester city centre. It is often used as a signifier of Manchester's renaissance from a dreary down at heel post industrial city to a thriving and desirable one. The figures are indeed impressive with the city centre population standing at just 1000 people in 1990 compared to the current 20 000. Throughout the 20th century working class people had left to live in edge of city or overspill estates such as Hulme or Wythenshawe, the middle class and affluent had long fled to the suburbs and beyond.

This flight was reversed at the end of the century and Manchester's city centre housing is a varied mix of new build or buildings converted from former industrial use, such as the warehouse conversions of Whitworth Street and Ancoats. There are, however, a few rare examples of city centre housing, purpose built in a period when most people had already left the crowded city centre. There is a small pocket of town houses just off Deansgate near to Granada studios – built in 1979 by Wimpey Homes, obviously aimed at affluent professionals from the law practices and private surgeries on St John St and its proximity to Granada made it popular with staff from the TV station. A couple of cast members from Coronation Street also lived in the houses and in the early 1980s one of the townhouses featured as the fictional home of Mike Baldwin in the series – the perfect location for a playboy such as Mike to park his Jag and entertain a string of impressionable dolly birds.

Behind Tib Street there is also a council built development, a small estate of maisonettes that seems to have survived the bleak days of the 1980s (a time when Manchester essentially closed down at 5pm and became a virtual wasteland), resisted the greedy grip of developers in the land grab era of the 2000s and now sits happily bobbing away in a sea of trendy young things in that official epicentre of cool known to all but a few die hard squares as the Northern Quarter.

There was just one more 20th century city centre housing development and this was perhaps the most interesting. This was the small enclave of 60 flats and maisonettes called Cromford Court built right on top of the great heaving leviathan that was The Arndale Centre. It is unclear what the motivation was from the developers of the Arndale for including housing at a time when city centre living in Manchester was insignificant and to many unimaginable. Save for a few small pubs still hanging on in the city centre there was little attraction or amenity for people, in a time well before the likes of Sunday opening and 24 hour convenience stores, and before modern Manchester's now lively night-time economy. The streets of Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s would invariably become deserted after dark – especially around the area of The Arndale Centre – an area which, due to the Arndale's design stood like a huge impenetrable fortress –providing no activity once the doors of the shops had shut at 5.30pm.

The location of the flats could not have been more bizarre, on top of Cannon Street bus station and in the shadow of the Arndale multi storey car park. Architecturally the flats themselves now look to be quite contemporary in design. Unsurprisingly, due to the location and the general design language used throughout the Arndale as a whole , they are not what one would call pretty buildings but the dark engineering brick, the black mono pitched roof and simple elevations and layout give a air of almost Scandinavian rationalism and the design could still pass muster today. Accommodation was basic and any idea that these were luxury city centre apartments can quickly be forgotten – this was public housing for tenants of the North Country Housing Association. The main attraction was clearly its unenviable location.

At first it seems the tenants were mainly elderly people but its city centre location soon drew the attention of some unlikely new tenants. Ian Curtis and George Best both lived there for a while and the Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering lived there for many years. It was perhaps Pickering's presence in the late 80s and early 90s which gave Cromford Court some sort of cache and soon a new, younger tenant realised the attraction of living in such a location. Luke Bainbridge is a former associate editor of the Observer Music Monthly but cut his journalistic teeth on the Manchester listings magazine City Life. He lived in Cromford Court from 1999 to 2003 “In 1999 there was still a slight novelty value to living in the northern quarter, and anyone who came back to Cromford could not believe this little oasis we had on top of the Arndale. It was really quiet up there, considering the location, and the communal gardens were much larger than any other city centre development since built. I don't think the general public knew it existed. Even though you could see it from the top floors of the Arndale car park. Whenever anyone came back to my flat for the first time, they generally had no idea that Cromford Court existed.”

Another tenant was Steve Caton who, at the time, ran the uber-cool clothes shop Geese and who now runs a fashion distribution company in London. He lived there from 1994 until 2003 “We never had break ins or any disruptive idiots living there in my time. My immediate neighbours were quite old 60-ish, not party people at all, so it was a nice mix.” Despite being home to a couple of Hacienda DJs and various other Manchester movers and shakers Cromford Court in the 1990's Caton dispels any idea that it was party central “The flats were too small for parties! “he says “they certainly were not luxury apartments, just a 20’ sq. room separate bathroom and nice sized bedroom. The luxury was the location.” Asked if having such a unique address made him anymore popular Bainbridge has to admit “It didn't make you more popular, but everyone loved the novelty value and uniqueness of Cromford Court when they came back.” The location, he also candidly admits sometimes had its drawbacks. “The only slight problem was the main way to get back to Cromford Court from the Northern Quarter is through the multi-storey car park, so if you were taking a girl back for the first time, they would be keen to see this place you talked about, but then when you started to lead them through a multi-storey car park, they might think "er, hang on a minute...”

Cromford Courts slight isolation, up above the busy streets below, did led to unique atmosphere though.

"We didn't sit out much, but there was a community spirit. I knew half of the people personally, and the rest to nod to. You wouldn't get that in any of the Fisher Price new build flats that have been built in the last 10 years.” says Bainbridge.

But it wasn't to last. On Saturday the 15th of June 1996 a huge bomb attributed to the Provisional IRA exploded just 200 yards away from Cromford Court. The flats were evacuated, all expect for a old man who had taken to his bed earlier in the day with flu. He didn't respond to calls to evacuate and emergency services just presumed he had left. He was still in his bed before, during and after the huge explosion unaware to the devastation around him. He had served as a rear gunner in Lancaster bombers in World War Two and wasn't going to let a small matter of a terrorist attack daunt him. Cromford Court escaped relatively unscathed but the whole area was cordoned off and tenants were left homeless for months afterwards. Steve Caton remembers “Everyone was turfed out after the bomb, but most went back after 3 months. In fact I was the first to return, back to a flat full of battered venetian blinds ” It wasn't the bomb, however, that signaled the end of Cromford Court but the then owners of The Arndale, who took advantage of the huge rebuilding needed after the bomb to extend the shopping centre. The plan entailed enveloping Cannon Street to create a new mall but sadly Cromford Court stood in the way of the new development and the residents were slowly forced to leave. Luke Bainbridge says “There was a real collective spirit when we were being forced out and P&O (the owners of the The Arndale) tried to play hard ball with us. Residents meetings were held in the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill.” The residents protestations were in vain though and by 2003 all the residents had gone and the flats were demolished.

It seems ironic that whilst around them there was a huge expansion of city centre living and swathes of bland apartment blocks were going up The Arndale's owners sought to remove some of Manchester's most characterful and unique housing. All the residents moved on, but it seems Cromford Court's unique atmosphere left a long and happy impression on them. Luke Bainbridge left to find his fortunes in London but fondly remembers “I still miss Cromford Court. It was an amazing place to live.”

© Eddy Rhead

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Light, More Light / from the archive / issue 2

Imagine: a closed door into a darkened room. You turn the handle and enter. The walls are dancing with coloured window lights: brilliant, abstract, dazzling in vermillion, emerald, gold, aquamarine and lilac coloured glass. Welcome to dalle de verre modern glass window art.

Dalle de verre was a popular technique of the late 50s and 60s, employed mainly in Britain by James Powell & Sons, later Whitefriars Glass. Dalle is French for slab or tile. Windows are made by the glass maker assembling small pieces of glass, about one inch (22mm) thick, which have been carefully chipped and shaped with a tungsten hammer, and setting  them in concrete. Traditional stained glass is set in lead. The concrete was reinforced, vibrated and cured to make a resilient and secure frame for the glass. Sometimes this is called ‘faceted’ glass. The effect is to create window panels of extraordinary brilliance and colour.

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The leading Whitefriars designer was Francois Pierre Fourmaintraux (always called Pierre) from Metz in northern France. He was born in 1896 and he moved to Powell’s, as their chief designer of slab glass and abstract windows, from 1956. His father Gabriel was a well known ceramicist. He married an English wife and settled in Harrow. He left Whitefriars in 1969 and he died in 1974, age 78. Whitefriars sadly closed in 1980.

Abstract stained glass, including dalle de verre, was pioneered in France notably by Jean Gaudin in 1927 and by Marguerite Huré (1895-1967), the pipe smoking ‘jeune fille à la pipe’, who designed the wonderful windows in the concrete tower of Perret’s 1957 church of St Joseph in Le Havre: a 110m tube of intense dazzling colour.

The abstract glass windows became prominent in Britain during the construction of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral. Spence commissioned John Piper, Patrick Reyntiens, Geoffrey Clarke and Keith Now, with Lawrence Lee, to design the cathedral’s windows. The building’s 1962 consecration was a revelation to many of the beauty of abstract modern glass. Gibberd’s 1967 Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool also employed Piper and Reyntiens, with Margaret Traherne and Ceri Richards, to produce an impressive symphony of modern abstract glass. The style, with the the dalle de verre technique, was increasingly in demand for newly built churches and other commissions.

Luckily for us, the industrial towns of south Lancashire and its thriving coalfield were prosperous. New churches and other public buildings were being built in the suburbs. Pierre Fourmaintraux, Whitefriars and other designers were increasingly fashionable. Much of this survives although it has to be truffled out from some unexpected places.

So where is it? St Raphael’s in Millbrook, Stalybridge, which some of us visited on the Alan Boyson tour, has a wall of very fine Fourmaintraux dalle de verre glass. Worryingly it closed on July 14, 2011 so what will become of the glass? There’s more by Fourmaintraux in six superb windows, created in 1963, at St Barnabas’s in Lovely Lane, Pewsey, Warrington. They illustrate scenes from the life of St Barnabas. Richard Pollard, in the recent Pevsner, admires the ‘wonderful palettes’ of Fourmaintraux’s Primitivism.

The walls of St Jude’s, Poolstock Lane, Wigan (1963-4) seem to consist of nothing but 12 staggered panels of swirling abstract dalle de verre by Robin Riley. There’s more Riley glass in the clerestory of the drum-like baptistery.

Not all commissions were for churches. The crematorium in St Helens, where they make and know about good glass at Pilkington’s, has an excellent set of dalle de verre windows by Whitefriars. They were installed in 1960. They show two opposing trees: the north one is bare and wintry, the south tree is summery and in full bloom. This symbolises the movement of the coffin in the building, arriving on the north side, with the congregation departing into light on the south side. The 11 west windows, symbolising the 11 good apostles of Christ, are mainly in shades of yellow using the rough textures of the glass dalles to reflect and refract light.

Other Fourmaintraux secular commissions include windows in New Zealand’s 1964 Hall of Memory in Wellington. This commemorates New Zealand servicemen and women.

Pilkington Brothers commissioned the Indian-born artist Avinash Chandra (1931-1991) to design a strikingly fiery glass piece for Alexandra Park, their 1965 office tower in St Helens. It’s on the first floor of the entrance reception area and is illuminated from behind by an electric light. It faces a mirror so that the glittering image, representing the inside of a furnace, can be seen as a reflection by visitors. Chandra was quite famous in the 1960s. He and his artist wife Prem Lata moved from Delhi to Britain in 1956 when Lata was awarded a scholarship at the Central School of Art, London. He was the first Indian artist to be exhibited at the Tate in 1965. His vibrant glass works were installed in the Indian High Commission in Lagos and in St Helens.

In the 1960s Leyland, Lancashire, was the home of the world’s leading truck and bus manufacturer. It was a thriving town attracting workers to Leyland Motors and other industries. The new Catholic church of St Mary’s (Weightman & Bullen, 1962-4) is a treasure box of modernist sacred art. It was built in the round and the job architect, Jerzy Faczynski, brought in Patrick Reyntiens to create a moving and very beautiful dalle de verre circular band of windows celebrating the first day of Creation. Adam Kossowski did the ceramic tympanum over the main door. Arthur Dooley sculpted the Stations of the Cross and the Edinburgh Tapestry Company wove Faczynski’s Holy Trinity piece. All are illuminated by Reyntiens’s glass.

When Goethe was dying someone pulled together the bedroom curtains. His last words are said to have been “Licht, mehr Licht” (Light, more light).  We know what he meant when we encounter dalle de verre glass.

© Aiden Turner-Bishop

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.