Brutal Disregard – Redcar Library / from the archive / issue 4

The North East has an unexpected relationship with all things brutal. Its landscapes have inspired such distopic images as Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic ‘Blade Runner’ and the bleak, grainy photography of Don McCullin.   Even James Stirling once referred to the industrial wastelands as the landscape of ‘satanic slag heaps’.

In the industrial boom of the post-war decades, architecture found a language that responded directly to the inhuman, mechanised prospect of the region’s burgeoning steel works and petrochemical enterprises.  It was an architecture that responded with integrity to the chastened social wants of the industrial towns and mining villages, to the callousness of the steely grey skies, chimneys and sea. 

Redcar library was an exemplary building of this kind.  Tucked away from the noise of the sea-front arcades and fish and chip shops, the library exemplified the changing attitudes of the time towards learning, culture and education.  Redcar led the way for new public buildings of this kind, moving away from the elitism and civic pomp of previous generations, and introducing social aspects like coffee shops, exhibition spaces and children’s play areas into the library building. 

“The library should never be considered as a monument or as a cultural retreat; but a source of pleasure, recreation, information and learning; readily available to all”. David Roessler, AJ

The space was laid out as a large, flexible public space, recognisable as a library only by the shelves of books, the building itself a single storey mass of folded iron roofs, formed by castellated steel beams that spanned the entire width of the interior.  The portal frame was an integral feature specified by the council to allow the building to be flexible – it was part of the long term ambition for the library in its changing social and cultural role.  The deep industrial-sized steel beams were contrasted against warm, soft materials like the burnt orange carpet that ran throughout.  

 

Redcar library extolled the virtues of civic buildings playing a vital cultural role in public life,  a reflection of the egalitarian ideals and social ambitions of the town and a symbol of where Redcar wanted to be in the late 1960s.  More than that, it was an example of a sort of modernist vernacular – a kind of Brutalist architecture that grew out of its place.  The folds and creases of the library roof ripple like the steely North Sea waves.  The brazen exposure of its steely construction was a warts-and-all declaration of where this building stood; at the centre of a small seaside town in the shadow of Europe’s largest steel manufacturing plant; ‘a hymn to steel'.[1]

In 2011, Redcar and Cleveland council announced the ‘Redcar Civic and Leisure Quarter’.  It would see the demolition of the 40 year old library and its replacement with a cluster of new quasi-public buildings; a sports centre, new civic centre and a replacement for the library building. The 1960s library at this time was only just reaching maturity and like all buildings of that era, it was beginning to show signs of its age.  Its fabric was leaky; the roof, built as it was, entirely from steel and glass, acted as a vast cold bridge.   The sea spray had stained the gnarly steel work with rust like all seafront buildings in the town.

But the steel roof was the defining character of the building. The trusses enabled its open plan interior, modelled more on the social hub of an agora than the solitariness of the traditional library building. The construction in steel reflected the pride of the town council, eager to exhibit local manufacture. It is an expression, even an extension of the context in which it is bound.  And as it approached ‘middle-age’, its signs of weather and wear became emblematic of the battles fought over the previous decades, the political, social and economic hardships that had beset the town. 

The announcement to demolish the building came at the end of a year that saw the steelworks slowly and definitively closed down; the largest blast furnace in Europe stood cold on the town’s horizon. The demolition of the library was pitched politically as a regenerative boost to the town’s economy; the creation of jobs and employment prioritised over the retention of Redcar’s recent architectural heritage.  The steel frame would be dismantled, synchronized with the decommissioning of the neighbouring steel works, the town’s former identity slowly and painfully cleared for rebuilding. 

Towards the end of last year the steel works were suddenly bought up; their fate re-written.  The blast furnaces started up again.  The library though was already condemned.  Political will had forced through its demolition to make way for Redcar’s new era and new service-oriented identity.          

For all that it might have looked gnarly, weather-beaten, brutal even, the library reflected an inimitable sensitivity to place. It symbolised an era of ambition and idealism, and exemplified, even celebrated, the steelworks that were, and continue to be, the lifeblood of the region.  In the moment prior to its demolition, it stood as a monument to the bittersweet history of the town and its demonic neighbour.  Now demolished, the library’s vacant site sits as a guilty reminder of its brutal disregard.

[1] Paul Finch

© James Perry

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

Concrete Paradise / from the archive / issue 4

Roy Fisher’s ‘City’, published in 1962, is a poem at once expansive and juddery, at once bruised and furiously ruthless. The urban shudders and reconstructions that the piece traverses are introduced so:

On one of the steep slopes that rise towards the centre of the city all the buildings have been destroyed within the past year: a whole district of the tall narrow houses that spilled out from what were a hundred years ago outlying factories has gone. The streets remain, among the rough quadrilaterals of brick rubble, veering awkwardly towards one another through nothing; at night their rounded surfaces still shine under the irregularly-set gaslamps, and tonight they dully reflect also the yellowish flare, diffused and baleful, that hangs in the clouds a few hundred feet above the city’s invisible heart.

The ‘half-built towers’ that stud the ‘bombed city’ are themselves structures threatened by the ‘perfections of tomorrow’; their mouths momentarily gape open as if stunned, but they, too, will soon be ‘stoppered’. In a city assembled from ‘soot, sunlight, brick-dust; and the breath that tastes of them’, it is easy enough to ‘lie women in your bed / With glass and mortar in their hair’, but whether their trashy tiaras are made from the detritus left by wartime shelling, or by machines sent in by developers, or by slums that have begun to blister and shed themselves of their own accord, it is difficult to tell. If the poem’s speaker is worried about becoming a ‘cemetery of performance’, then so too is the city he speaks of. ‘There is’, the poem spits, ‘no mind in it, no regard. […] Most of it has never been seen’.   

The ‘invisible heart’ of this unseen, unthinking ‘City’ is in fact the ‘Heart of England’: the Industrial Revolution’s vital organ and Fisher’s own place of birth. Birmingham’s industriousness, in other words, is Fisher’s generative material, and Birmingham’s industry has clearly had massive implications for its urban form as well. In the cityscape that came into being in the early nineteenth century, and which persisted into the 1960s, small manufactories and workshops rasped and sweated in structures indistinguishable from abodes. In the early twentieth century, big industries such as car building generated far larger factories and line after line of tunnel-back terraces. The city’s embrace of the opportunities for slum clearance and municipal redevelopment facilitated both by successive Town Planning Acts and the devastations of WW2 resulted in a cityscape actively and drastically altered: flats and houses equipped with toilets and running water superseded the spawning clusters of back-to-backs; zooming bypasses and ring roads built for automobiles sent pedestrians underground, and sometimes up and over. The tangle of motorway interchanges that is Spaghetti Junction is the location most deserving of Birmingham’s popular assignation as a concrete jungle. In combination, these transformations have earned Fisher’s unthinking city a reputation that is unthinkingly reeled out repeatedly. Birmingham is ugly. Birmingham is brutal.

The city’s current authorities appear to agree. The general disdain towards Birmingham’s ‘ugliness’, its concrete brutality, is often implicitly participated in by the city itself. True to its motto of ‘Forward’, adopted following incorporation in 1838, Birmingham is once more in the business of demolition and redevelopment. The building that currently best epitomizes this process is Birmingham Central Library, an inverted ziggurat designed by the Birmingham-born architect John Madin[1], who died in January. It opened, as the largest library in Europe at the time, in 1974. Initially conceived of as part of an ambitious but ultimately unrealised civic complex, the structure has since accumulated its own detritus. Located in a core area of the city called ‘Paradise Circus’, the library’s once open-air interior atrium – a feature that allowed the reading rooms to be illuminated with natural light – has been boxed in and stoppered with fast-food counters and shops. The view of the ziggurat formation from the adjacent plaza, Centenary Square, has been strangled by a nearby hotel, whilst signs and hoardings infest a pre-stressed concrete façade that was once assuredly unornamented. Despite being the UK’s second most visited library in 2010-2011, the building now is, the authorities claim, unfit for its contemporary purpose; a new facility is in construction nearby. The Central Library itself seems fated to be expelled from paradise.

The city’s resolve to erase a building so unabashedly Brutalist in architectural style is without doubt tangled up with Birmingham’s industrial legacy and its ongoing negotiation with its designation as ‘ugly’. In Fisher’s ‘City’, ‘the straight white blocks and concrete roadways’ already built by the 1960s are ‘a fairground, a clear dream just before walking’ and even ‘a little ingratiating’. It is, by contrast, the older cityscape of ‘workhouses and […] hospitals, the thick-walled abattoir, the long-vaulted market-halls, the striding canal-bridges and railway viaducts’ that is seen to amount to ‘an arrogant ponderous architecture’ – one that ‘dwarfed and terrified the people by its sheer size’ and ‘functional brutality’.

Brutality, ‘City’ teaches us, is to be found in the chasm between a building’s aesthetic attitude and its social corollary and context. Brutalism is something different: a response, an enunciation, a revolution of existing conditions. In terms of its provision of public space, facilities and possibility, Madin’s building was a pioneer. In Fisher’s 1960s poem, Birmingham’s ‘towering and stony’ ‘great station’ – Curzon Street Station, possibly – has become a ‘goods depot with most of its doors barred’, but its ghost remains: ‘They are too afraid of it to pull it down’. In 2012, the authorities are all too eager to disassemble Birmingham’s ‘functional brutality’ – a brutality they mistakenly locate not in ‘workhouses’ and ‘thick-walled abattoirs’, but instead in a Brutalist library.

 

Roy Fisher’s ‘City’ (1962) is collected in Poems 1955-1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)

Honor Gavin is a writer, musician, and founding member of whenwebuildagain.org, a collective who take their name from an influential piece of research into housing issues and conditions in Birmingham in the late 1930s.

 

[1] Book review of John Madin by Alan Clowley, RIBA Publishing, features in the modernist issue 2

© Honor Gavin

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

The Old-New Brutalism: Sydney and London / from the archives / issue 4

Why is Brutalism in England so reviled? Perhaps growing up in Australia helped me to appreciate it. Under the close Australian sunlight the roughly textured béton brut concrete tends to gleam translucent, flattening into stark geometric planes which reveal themselves in harsh light and shadow, even as they seem to grow out of the landscape. One of the most accomplished examples of Australian Brutalism is the University of Technology’s Ku-ring-gai campus on the outskirts of Sydney, designed by David Don Turner and Bruce Mackenzie, a building complex whose primal, futuristic concrete geometries rise up out of the bluegums like spaceships; ancient temples rediscovered in the bush. In Britain however, Brutalist architecture takes on a more sinister tone, as this same concrete looms dark and heavy under grey skies. I am here reminded of the importance of light to architecture and how it can transform a building completely, both inside and out; for under the layered, leaden light of the northern hemisphere, the effects of Brutalism seem so different to those formed under the direct, immediate Australian sun.

In Australia, Brutalism was the style of choice for many of the important institutional buildings of the 1960s and 70s, including the university campus where, for five years, I was instructed in architecture. But in Britain, the Brutalist style of building was deployed to satisfy the urgent demand for cost-effective post-war housing on a mass scale. It was also, as Banham[1] noted, frequently associated with socialist utopian ideals, and dreams of collective living (most notably by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson), and because of its attachment to utopian thinking, seemed doomed to disappoint from the start. Australian Brutalism never suffered this fate, and seems, like most Australian architectural movements, to have escaped the justification of its own existence by the imposition of a strained and often arbitrary theoretical discourse.

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Nevertheless, in Australia as well as in England, Brutalism’s aesthetic bad name is largely undeserved. There is no doubt that it is a style out of current favorites, and this isn’t helped by the signature use of unrendered concrete, which has an inevitable tendency to weather quickly – giving a characteristic appearance of accelerated dilapidation and an abject visual poverty. In a city and a society where the signs of aging are equated with declining moral standards, there is no doubt that Brutalist housing estates have been slugged with the blame for London’s social problems, as politicians scramble to point the finger at scapegoats.

The Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate in east London’s Poplar, is one such grand Brutalist experiment to suffer the full force of said political wrath. Conceived of by the Smithsons as a grand socialist experiment in forging a new community, it is now widely regarded to be a colossal failure in this regard (let us not forget Alison Smithson’s unfortunate comment that Robin Hood Gardens had not been a success only because they hadn’t “got the right people” to live in it). Plagued by social ills since it was first constructed, Robin Hood Gardens is finally to be torn down and replaced with a new mixed-use development spearheaded by the local council: the 214 current council flats will be replaced with a staggering 1700 new flats over the same area of land

And so, in a move repeated throughout the history of city planning, politicians will again assume that it is not the policies they enact or the laws they pass that are to blame for society’s dysfunctions, but simply architecture. Furthermore, in a self-contradictory leap of reasoning, they will also assume that as much as architecture seems to be the cause of the breakdown of communities, it must also be pegged as their salvation. Then, by way of an attempted solution, an old development will be torn down; a shiny new one erected, and the far-reaching roots of the city’s social problems swept perfidiously under the carpet.

There are of course many problems with Robin Hood Gardens, though it must be said – and the majority of residents that have spoken to the media seem to agree – that these problems stem more from a lack of maintenance than any intrinsic fault of the design itself. Buildings must be maintained - services must be replaced, concrete must be cleaned, facades must be repaired, windows must be refitted, interiors must be updated. This all costs money, and the longer any building goes without ongoing maintenance, the more expensive that maintenance becomes.

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 The quality of a building can often be determined by how it weathers, and it seems to me that Robin Hood Gardens has, for all its neglect, stood up remarkably well in this regard. The Smithsons may not have been verbally tactful architects, but they certainly knew how to build a building to last and to endow it with a quiet dignity and a subtle beauty that is far from brutal – despite its sheer bulk and heavy mass. In fact, it is the combination of a heroic overall scale with the deployment of delicate proportions in the detail that strikes me as one of Robin Hood Gardens’ great successes. The facades of the two rectangular ship-like forms that hug the curves of the grassy, treeless hill at the center of the site are remarkably complex in their formal articulation and speak of an organization of well laid-out apartments behind their concrete skins.

The sky is mostly grey the day I visit Robin Hood Gardens, but later in the afternoon, the sun does come out briefly. When it hits the concrete, the rays play off the nuances of depth built into the facades, laying down a patterned rhythm of shadow and light on the weathered panels. Strangely I can at this moment almost fancy that I am back in Sydney, a city that is, now that I no longer live there, composed architecturally in my mind almost exclusively of flashes of sun and the tactility of rough-hewn, hot concrete.

Emma Jones is an architectural graduate from Australia with a passion for inter-war modernism and post-war Brutalism. She has recently completed an MA in History and Theory of Architecture at the Architectural Association in London, where she currently teaches First Year architectural theory.

[1] The New Brutalism – Ethic or Aesthetic, Roger Banham, Documents of modern architecture series, 1966

© Emma Jones

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

Liquid Stone; innovations and artistry in concrete / from the archive / issue 4

Just behind Chorlton Street bus station on Richmond St, sits an unprepossessing, derelict building with a most significant place in Manchester's 20th century architectural history – as possibly the earliest surviving completely concrete building in the city centre dating, thanks to a date stone (cast in concrete obviously) at the apex of the building, from 1911.

Concrete is nothing new. The Romans used it to great effect but it fell from grace alongside the collapse of the empire, and only in the 17th or 18th centuries, with examples in France, Finland and Britain all laying claim to being the first post Roman usage, did it revive as a building material. It has one inherent flaw - and watch out, here comes some science! - despite being

good in compression, supporting great weights in a solid block, it is liable to crack in slender structures. Steel on the other hand is weak in compression but strong in tension. Combine the two, as Frenchman Joseph Monier did in 1849, and you have almost the perfect building material, one that can in theory be moulded into an infinite range of forms and shapes. Francois Henibique perfected the technique in 1892, exported the license to use it around the world, which was picked up by L G Mouchel, who promptly set about reshaping our buildings, most famously the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool, its structural frame constructed out of reinforced concrete. Meanwhile, in Manchester, the architects of the YMCA building on Peter Street used a similar system developed by the American architect and engineer Albert Kahn, which, like the Royal Liver Building, is merely a concrete frame clad in more traditional materials. At Richmond Street, the building's exterior is concrete, making a strong case for declaring it Manchester's earliest surviving Brutalist building.

Yet for the next fifty years concrete was rarely used as an aesthetic outer treatment, instead relegated to construction material, favoured in utilitarian and industrial buildings. Manchester City Football Club had concrete terraces built by Mouchel, and the huge concrete Grain Elevator 2, built in 1915 at Salford Docks at Dock 9, proved so resilient that when demolition contractors tried to demolish it in 1983, it refused to fall and lay at a precarious angle for months. Wythenshawe Bus Garage, built in 1939, is another excellent example of pioneering concrete construction. Its daring reinforced concrete barrel roof, now recognised by a Grade II listing, creates a huge span of 165ft predating the perhaps more famous Stockwell bus garage in London.

The immediate post war period saw what little construction there was maintain a pre war palette of materials - Peter House (1958) is clad in Portland stone, typical of the well mannered almost Classical type of modernism that prevailed in the 1950's - but shortages of timber, steel and brick inevitably helped push concrete from being a rather mundane, if useful, material into becoming an architectural statement in its own right. Manchester’s City Architect, L C Howitt, began to push the boundaries of both the materials used and the form of some of the city’s more prominent buildings. Just one year after Peter House, the Toast Rack, designed for the Hollings College, appeared in Fallowfield. Like many of his contemporaries Howitt was beginning to use concrete in a bold and radical new way, with the soaring parabolic arches that give Hollings its unique shape, speaking a whole new architectural language, whilst advertising on a huge scale concrete’s unique qualities.

This golden age boasts numerous examples of innovative concrete technology, with Manchester based architects Leach, Rhodes and Walker at the forefront. Highland House on Victoria Bridge Street (now Premier Inn) used pre cast concrete panels, built off site and attached to a concrete frame. Supposedly the first time a tower crane had been used in the city, its appearance caused quite a stir. Even more radical, at Manchester House on Bridge Street, concrete floor plates were cast on top of each other in situ, and then jacked up into their eventual positions.  Ahead of its time and prohibitively costly, it was to be decades until this process re-emerged, facilitating the global construction of very tall skyscrapers.

Meanwhile architects and artists were testing its versatility and malleability to create sculptural forms within the architecture itself or as stand alone works, such as the gable end of City Tower at Piccadilly Plaza, said to acknowledge Manchester's history in computing and representing electronic circuitry, giving relief and texture to what otherwise would have been a plain, flat wall. Likewise the concrete gable of the Humanities Building at the University of Manchester has a pattern designed by the sculptor William Mitchell (see the modernist issue 3). Concrete also makes a strong architectural and artistic statement at the wall running along London Road which delineates the UMIST campus. Designed by the artist Anthony Hollaway, it uses the material’s robustness and subtly to create a functional yet intrinsically sculptural structure.

More a passionate fling than a full on affair, this interlude soon waned, and as the spectre of Post Modernism reared its head,  concrete returned to its former role – as a ubiquitous but functional and largely hidden material. Recently Manchester boldly attempted to rekindle that old flame when the Japanese architect Tadao Ando was given the job of remodelling Piccadilly Gardens. Renowned for his minimal, beautiful, and invariably raw concrete structures, Ando leaves the impressions of the form work (the 'moulds' that the concrete is poured into to create the structure) intact, a ‘signature’ style designed to showcase the material whilst simultaneously celebrating its construction method. Such has been the controversy and criticism of the resulting pavilion it is clear that the British public is still not ready to embrace concrete, and so it shall again remain hidden away – holding our buildings up whilst quietly and bashfully being beautiful.

© Eddy Rhead  

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

Warsaw's Eyesores / from the archive / issue 4

When the opportunity to visit the former Eastern Bloc presented itself I thought a wonderful chance to present readers of the modernist with photographs of fantastic, faded Soviet tower blocks and crumbling Communist monuments was on the cards.

Only a fifth of the city survived the Second World War and the prospect of an almost total post-war rebuilding project would surely leave me spoiled for choice?

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As it happens, the gems were surprisingly few and far between. The more distant past and the contemporary dominate. The old city has been painstakingly resurrected as it was pre-destruction and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the other end of the spectrum, much of central Warsaw is starting to look like any other Western urban environment, with 20th Century buildings making way for generic glass towers in homogenous, you-could-be-anywhere streetscapes.

Inevitably, few Varsovians who experienced life in the People's Republic of Poland find much to love in architectural reminders of all too recent oppression, and such buildings aren’t high priorities for conservation.

There are, however, younger residents who lack the Commie baggage of the older generations and champion the 1945 to 1990 city as vital to shaping their identity. Some of them are starting to champion the era in question and change the consensus that encouraging decay as an excuse for demolition is the best course of action.

The recent renovation of a train station is one such example of the city’s burgeoning affection for postwar modernism. Powiśle Station, designed in the mid Fifties, is one of many rail buildings by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak, and like much of Romanowicz’s work, presents a much more graceful and idiosyncratic vision than stereotypical bleak Bloc blocks.

Centrala are the young architects — a self-proclaimed ‘designers task force’ — behind the reinvention of the dilapidated Powiśle as a café and cultural hotspot. Interestingly, they also initiated the process through a campaign that increased affection for the beautiful building amongst Varsovians through the daily free papers.

As Centrala explain: “thanks to the successful conversion we managed to bring back to Warsaw inhabitants not only the building itself but also it’s surroundings. The continuity of the city was restored. The Powiśle building became an icon and a symbol of cultural life of young Warsaw.“

The once run down Powiśle district is now undergoing a renaissance, thanks in part to Centrala and also because of the Świętokrzyski bridge connecting with Saska Kępa, a sedate and refined inter-war enclave. Together with Zoliborz to the north, Saska Kępa showcases the leafy and desirable modernism of the 1920s and 30s rather than monolithic municipal housing blocks that Warsaw had conjured in my mind.

Completed at the turn of the Millennium, the concrete and cable Świętokrzyski is one of a handful of contemporary additions to the city worth admiring, complete with a Chopin-inspired black piano key top, after one of Warsaw’s most celebrated sons.

In the heart of the redeveloped city centre sits another Romanowicz building of note: the strangely charming Centralna Station. Much larger and far uglier than his other delicate masterpieces, and is surviving despite repeated calls for its demolition.

With Stalin’s 1950s gift, the former Communist Headquarters (now the Palace of Culture and Science) looking more like something out of Batman than modernist, a solitary tower block rising above Powiśle Station was left to satisfy my demand for typical Soviet mass housing, and even that possessed a redeeming quirkiness.

What most impressed me about Warsaw’s modernism was the changing attitude towards it. Centrala using Powiśle to provoke change in the opinions of Varsovians and going on to show how such neglected pieces of infrastructure could become prized assets seems to perfectly encapsulate an attitude sadly lacking in the plans for such buildings the world over. That this has originated in a place with an actual reason to want to distance the recent past is all the more incredible.

© Dan Russell 

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

Prague / from the archive / issue 4

Those in the aesthetic know have long recognized that there is much more to Prague than the dreamlike castle rising above the Baroque and Rococo confections that jostle for tourists’ attention in the picturesque old town. Interwar Czechoslovakia gained a well-earned reputation for its modernist milieu, from which sprang the painting of Frantisek Kupka, the poetry of Vitezslav Nezval and design classics such as the Tatra T77 teardrop tourer. Freed from the shackles of the crumbling Hapsburg empire, architects too ensured that Modernist light flooded the atrium of the trade-fair palace, the bourgeois residences of the Villas Mueller (Loos) and Tugendhat (Mies) and fuelled the urban utopianism of Tomas Bata’s “shiny phenomenon” in Zlin.

This thoroughly modern flourishing was tragically cut short by the British and French betrayal of ‘a faraway country’ at Munich, opening the door for Nazi annexation and occupation, ‘liberation’ by the Red Army and the subsequent slide into authoritarian communism. For many, the clipping of the First Republic’s youthful wings marked the end of the Czech modernist line, leaving behind an architectural high-water mark as a reminder of what could have been, of a time when concrete could be the stuff of dreams, rather than the material manifestation of a closing curtain-wall. 

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The monuments to that golden youth are now regular highlights on tourist schedules, heavily featured in guidebooks and design magazines, promoted and maintained by city and state authorities. However, while such acclaim is richly deserved, the politics of material memory are never far from postcommunist surfaces. The focus on the First Republic has meant that many of Prague’s later modernist gems have been ignored, seemingly hidden in plain sight. Whereas Berlin is lauded for its TV Tower and Café Moskau and the former Soviet Union has seen its Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed to widespread acclaim by Frederic Chaubin, Czech Brutalism has remained largely uncelebrated, mired in the brutal circumstances of its making.

Mainly built after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring, Brutalist buildings have all too often become seen as the inhuman face of socialist ‘Normalisation’. In Germany, there was a clear connection (and open competition) between building in the East and the West, reaffirming connection through false division and situating Brutalism as an architecture from within. This was not the case in Czechoslovakia where Brutalism was often equated with unwelcome outside interference and a time when the only available international style was seen as a material indication of imprisonment, rather than the interwar proof of progressive, dynamic cosmopolitanism.

Aesthetically and functionally, however, the designs of Karel Prager, Vladimir and Vera Machonin and others, have stood the test of time and are starting to receive the local and international acclaim that they deserve. Much like the myth of the Czech ‘return to Europe’ post-89, Prague did not need to “return to the international architecture scene” after the cold war, it had always been there. This realization has dawned as Czech brutalism not only takes its place in the international pantheon, but it increasingly stands out amidst the contemporary commercial banality.  

The former federal assembly building (Prager) at the top of Wenceslas Square has been fully refurbished to mark its highly symbolic transformation into part of the national museum and the Kotva department store (Machonin & Machoninova) is a reassuring presence opposite the recent and hideously Disney-like Palladium shopping centre. Hotels such as the Intercontinental and President downtown and the Praha and Pyramida further out have long catered for the Modern traveler, while commercial buildings such as the Smichov Komercni Banka and the Cube office complex show the range of brutal beauty in Prague.

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The re-appraisal of these previously neglected architectural jewels is part of a wider contestation of the totalizing narrative of post-communist collective memory which sees the period from 1948-1989 as exclusively that of oppression and suffering, thus condemning the lived experience of millions of people to the garbage heap of history and constructing them in the present as victims and damaged goods. Damning the buildings of that time also helps cast people who live in them today as poor relations. These slights, born of the urge to forget, continue to reverberate in refurbished concrete estates, realized in a brutalist vernacular; from the low rise ‘Solidarity’ and sleek ‘Invalidovna’, to the fleets of panel-buildings in D’ablice and Jizni Mesto, they are all too easily dismissed as mere communist blocks. In the increasing socio-economic Darwinism of a neoliberalising Europe, it is important to assert that just because you don’t live in a villa doesn’t mean that you don’t belong here.  

Prague is often damned with faint praise: deliriously light entertainment for tourists passing between Europe’s sites of heavy, serious, real memory; a refuge from reality for introverted dreamers, trying to stay forever young, like the First Republic they idolize; in short, somewhere to visit, a nice place to play, a temporary refuge from the real business going on elsewhere. Perhaps the belated blooming of Czech brutalism and the recent (and bizarre) decision to re-build the Berliner StadtSchloss (in place of the Palast der Republik) mark a passing of the mnemonic baton, to Bohemia, where Prague is shedding its Berlin complex and is demanding to be seen afresh, as a city in full. This is an urban landscape that runs the gamut of glamour and grit, a schwer site of work and memory, not only licht laughter and forgetting.  

© Ben Tallis

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

Protect and die: Cold War Architecture / from the archive / issue 4

[Historical note: Following the liquidation of the ‘Gorbachev revisionist clique’ and military action by Warsaw Pact forces to reinforce the GDR’s Berlin ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’, tensions between NATO and the USSR worsened rapidly. The Cold War became a hot one. Cruise missile attacks on Vladivostock and Minsk provoked SS19 ICMB attacks on Western targets. At 0837 on Monday, May 19, 1986, two 25 megaton nuclear devices detonated above USAF Burtonwood and Manchester city centre. Everything within a 4 mile radius of the city centre evaporated immediately with a 100% kill rate. Cars in Stockport melted around their drivers. Aircraft at the airport exploded. People in Chester and Blackburn were horribly burnt. In Sheffield and Blackpool they suffered second degree burns. Millions died or suffered terminal radiation burns. The government of Region 10 (Cumbria-Cheshire) was administered from Regional Seat of Government 10, in Fulwood Barracks, Preston. Martial law was declared; violators were summarily executed. Most of the North West was covered in a radioactive cloud of fatty soot contaminating agricultural land and reservoir supplies. There were no shelters and little health care for the mass population.]

Fantasy? This was UK Government policy until the early 1990s. Planning for the Cold War by the ruling elite was brutal indeed and this is reflected by its surviving structures. RSG 10 may still be there but UKWMO (Warning & Monitoring Organisation) Western Sector headquarters survives in Langley Lane near Preston (Grid SD 540365): a massive structure almost buried underground except for a guardhouse and ventilation blocks. Over a hundred people staffed it during exercises. It was stood down in 1991. It had a canteen, male and female dormitories, an elaborate control room, diesel generator, huge oil tanks, communications equipment, airlocks and stores. Imagine an underground three storey office block: a squat, giant tumulus brutally protecting a small elite, excluding us to die.

Architecture and engineering have always been the running dogs of wealth and power. Consider Edward I’s Welsh castles or George III’s Napoleonic refuge in Weedon. Modernism was no exception. There’s a direct line from Mendelsohn’s 1921 Einstein Tower, Potsdam, to the ‘streamlined’ Noirmont tower on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Jersey. Many Cold War structures have a ruthless functionalism, stripping away democratic pretentions with their raw power. Probably the most Ozymandian structures in Region 10 are the remains of the Blue Streak missile experimental testing site at Spadeadam, near Brampton, Cumbria (pronounced ‘spade’ ‘adam’).  Blue Streak, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, was tested there. It was designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to Moscow in 20 minutes. The giant concrete stands used 90,920 liters of water a minute during rocket tests. Work started in 1956, testing in 1959. The plan was, after testing, to ship the rockets –built in Stevenage - to Woomera, Australia, for launch. Handover to the RAF was to be January 1963 but Blue Streak was canceled in 1960. The stands remain at Spadeadam, the RAF’s hush-hush Electronic Warfare Centre.  Matthew Hyde, in the Pevsner Buildings of England Cumbria, writes: ‘These mute remains have a stark beauty of their own. Although their forms should be dictated only by function, a sinister aesthetic has been at work’. The project, offering cheap housing, attracted skilled staff to the area. A nice survivor is Millfield, Brampton, a road of Festival-style staff housing.

Emergency HQs rely on secure telephone cable and microwave communications. In nuclear war 95% of phones are cut off. Telephone switching exchanges were hardened and reconstructed underground such as the ‘Guardian’  exchange in central Manchester. Walk along George Street to glimpse part of the surface structures. In 1955 work began constructing the ‘Backbone’ network of communication towers, linking London and the rest of the UK. Backbone avoids Manchester but it crosses to Quernmore, Lancs, from Hunters Stones, Yorkshire. One very visible local structure is Heaton Park microwave tower, part of the BT Microwave tower network originating from the BT Tower in London. This links with other towers. Some are concrete; others are functional steel pylons. One of the most conspicuous is London Road repeater station, Carlisle, built in 1964. The mast is 81 meters high. Matthew Hyde enthuses: ‘It is quite thrilling to look at, a steel skeleton in diminishing tiers, each with a perimeter platform, and now festooned with dishes; a touch of Blackpool, a touch of oil rig’.

Near Carlisle, at Anthorn, is the impressive MOD radio mast array erected in 1965. It’s a giant circle of stayed radio masts transmitting very low frequency (VLF) communication to nuclear submarines. Hyde calls it ‘oddly festive’.

Don’t forget Jodrell Bank radio telescope. It first recorded Sputnik’s squawking pips announcing the USSR’s mastery of space in 1956. What else did it observe?

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Not all Cold War designs were elementally severe. The V-bombers (Valiants, Victors and the delta-winged Vulcans), which were designed to deliver Mutually Assured Destruction and were continually alert for action, had a powerful elegance. There were no V-Force bases in the North West; the nearest was RAF Finningley. But Vulcans were tested at Avro’s works at Woodford near Wilmslow. I remember, as a boy, lying in the warm grass gazing at the lumbering black triangle of a Vulcan flying overhead – straight out of an L Ashwell Wood drawing from Eagle comic: thrillingly, terrifyingly sublime.

The Cold War ended and the UKWMO was disbanded. You can now visit English Heritage’s Cold War bunker at Acomb, York, a Group ROC HQ, much smaller than Langley Lane near Preston. East Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States are in the EU. But the UK still has Trident nuclear weapons and that means structures. What’s probably the biggest building in the North West? [Pub quizzers pay attention] The Devonshire Dock Hall, Barrow-in-Furness was erected in 1985 to construct Trident submarines. It’s an enormous shed with six vast cross-roofs. There are giant folding doors at each end. A ship lifts inside can move 24,000 tons. It is Big.

What happens today if Manchester is nuked? Do you know?

© Aidan Turner-Bishop

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

 

Accrington’s Elephant House / from the archive / issue 4

Prologue
Accrington is a Lancashire town noted for its hard building bricks used in the construction of the Empire State Building, famous for its football team, and culturally for the town’s art gallery having a large collection of Tiffany glass. It also, briefly, had the chance to be known for the brilliance of its late twentieth-century architecture.


In 1968 Accrington Corporation got county council planning consent for a public convenience on the edge of the town’s Broadway car park. It was to be the only building in the area. Borough Architect Raymond T. Duckworth (b.1926) had a hankering for something monumental to rise above the mess of cars. Having seen Sir Hugh Casson’s 1965 Elephant and Rhino Pavilion at London Zoo, (listed grade II* in 1998) he was inspired to take the masonry arc back to Accrington where he executed the design in brick.

The plan of the convenience was devised by cutting a disc in half, sliding the cut surfaces together to give two arcs with a short flat edge on either side, leading the Accrington Observer to enthuse “Accrington could well be one of the first places to attempt this bold solution of an old problem by making a virtue out of a necessity, making use of contemporary architecture”.

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To allow the brick to make a smooth turn, Duckworth selected soldier bricks (bricks on end with the narrow ‘stretcher’ faces showing) letting the mortar between the verticals accommodate the change in angle with each joint.  He knew what he was doing; his RIBA thesis was on the history of brickwork in Great Britain.

The result, a 'remarkable public toilet' as the Civic Trust for the North West described it, opened in 1970, incorporating dark blue soldiers, timber window frames and an aluminum roof with trimmed parapet. It cost £6000.

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Epilogue
By 2002, the toilet had been demolished to allow the building of a new shopping center. Today the town is arguing about closing some mundane public toilets and boasts of its repro Victorian market.

Hyndburn’s motto is ‘The place to be’.

© Christopher R Marsden 

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

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'.