Metro Modern – our new guide to Manchester’s Twentieth Century architecture

A new urban map is to be launched this weekend – of Manchester’s 20th century architecture.

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Metro Modern, our new free map & guide to Manchester’s Twentieth Century Architecture will be launched on Saturday 26th of October 2013.

With the help of our handy guide you will be able to tour the city by foot or on a free Metro Shuttle Bus – all our buildings are within a short hop of Manchester’s three Metro Shuttle Bus routes.

Join us on a 1960s Manchester City Transport Bus from Victoria Station (1pm, Sat 26th october – free event) on our very own Metro Modern tour of the City, before being dropped off at the Museum of Transport for refreshments and a tour of the Museum. We are celebrating the launch in partnership with the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester.

Reserve your free place here but remember, seats are strictly limited so don’t book a place unless you are absolutely definitely coming along – wouldn’t want to deprive someone else…

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Robin Hood Gardens

Round the corner from Balfron Tower there is another (in)famous social housing complex – Robin Hood Gardens. They were built around the same time as the Brownfield Estate in the early 1970s, and designed by Brutalist power-couple Alison and Peter Smithson. Unlike the listed Balfron Tower, Robin Hood Gardens does not have any special status – and predictably demolition is in progress. Tower Hamlets Council have earmarked the site for a new development, with the second phase headed by a trio of architects.

The Smithsons on Housing (1970) was a BBC documentary on the architect’s rationale for Robin Hood Gardens. It’s a unique insight into their social theories and the ways in which they wanted to inscribe them into architectural form. After watching it I delved into reading a seminal article on mapping by James Corner (in Denis Cosgrove’s Mappings [1999]), and by sheer coincidence he retells David Harvey’s argument on spatial structure and socialization. Here is a snapshot of that argument, as told by Corner:

…[A]s David Harvey has argued, planners and architects have been barking up the wrong tree in believing that new spatial structures alone would yield new patterns of socialization. The struggle for designers and planners, Harvey insists, lies not with spatial form and aesthetic appearances alone (the city as a thing) but with the advancement of more liberating processes and interactions in time (urbanization). Multiple processes of urbanization in time are what produce ‘a distinctive mix of spatialized permanences in relation to one another’; hence the urban project ought to be less about spatial determinism and more about reshaping those urbanization processes that are ‘fundamental to the construction of the things that contain them’.

Thus, in criticizing the formalism of both the modernist utopia and the sentimental, communitarian ‘new urbanism’, Harvey argues that the dynamic multiplicity of urban processes cannot be contained within a singular, fixed spatial frame, especially when that frame neither derives from, nor itself redirects, those processes moving through it. He writes:

The issue is not one of gazing into some crystal ball or imposing some classic form of utopian scheme in which a dead spatiality is made to rule over history and process. The problem is to enlist in the struggle to advance a more socially just and emancipatory mix of spatio-temporal production processes rather than to acquiesce to those imposed by finance capital, the World Bank and the generally class-bound inequalities internalized within any system of uncontrolled capital accumulation!

Harvey’s point is that projecting new urban and regional futures must derive less from a utopia of form and more from a utopia of process -how things work, interact and inter-relate in space and time. Thus, the emphasis shifts from static object-space to the space-time of relational systems. (pp. 227-228)

What is interesting, of course, is re-watching The Smithson on Housing with this passage in mind. The failure of many Modernist housing projects was down to this faith in a ‘utopia of form’ – i.e. that bricks-and-mortar structures, or more appropriately, concrete-and-rebar structures, would solve all social ills. This blind faith – propagated by total designers such as Goldfinger and the Smithsons – was exposed when the essential circulations of everyday life within these structures broke down.

Compare, then, the above documentary and Harvey’s critique with Jonathan Glancey’s short video for the Guardian:

A Night in Balfron Tower

I was lucky enough to spend a night/day in the Erno Goldfinger-designed and Grade II listed Balfron Tower last weekend. It is one of three housing blocks by Goldfinger on the Brownfield Estate in Poplar, East London, alongside Carradale and Glenkerry House.

Over the last few years an extensive renovation project has been taking place. Carradale House is currently empty with refurbishment nearly complete, while Balfron Tower is yet to be started. Residents are slowly moving out, temporarily or permanently depending on circumstance. Although, due to the nature of the wholesale refurbishment – including the renewal of kitchens, concrete cladding, bathrooms, essential services and access systems, there is no timescale for return. Inevitably, this means a uncertain future for current inhabitants. My educated guess, and it doesn’t take a genius to work this out, is that its part of wider, longer and ongoing process to ‘gentrify’ the East End. The proximity of the area to Canary Wharf means real estate values have increased since the 1980s. New Carradale House residents will undoubtedly want a slice of Brutalist chic – forcing up flat prices and disabling the return of previous tenants. A 30% social housing clause in Balfron Tower, as my friend alerted me to, still therefore permits 70% non-social housing.

As a result of this long moving-out process, the housing association responsible for its upkeep, Poplar HARCA, have facilitated a number of artistic and property guardian-type projects. Simon Terrill’s Balfron Project (2010) was one such enterprise, consisting of a number of visual renditions of the tower, including a stunning type C print of Balfron at night.

The friend we stayed with also had a number of fabulous postcards (update: by artist and resident Rab Harling) documenting the unique style and identity imposed by inhabitants on their own flat, providing a wonderful insight into the personal narratives the Tower has facilitated.

As a way to interpret the shifting geographies of housing and the ongoing gentrification of East London here’s an open-access introduction to the concept created by Tom Slater back in 2002. Tim Butler‘s article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (subs. only) is centered on the differentiation between specific redevelopment processes, using the London Docklands as a case study – so it’s worth a read. This conceptual piece by Butler on gentrification over at Environment and Planning D (again, subs. only), also provides an argument for the continuing purchase of the term to critiquing the spatial dynamics of neoliberalism.

Update: Rab Harling will be a Leverhulme artist-in-residence at UCL’s Urban Lab for the next academic year (2013-2014).  Read more here.

manchester modernists at the movies

Film screening of Tom Cordell’s Utopia London (2010) at Manchester Art Gallery. Free tickets are available here. The event takes place on 20th June.

manchester modernist society

The Changing Face of the North West: Modernist Dreams and Utopias

The Manchester Modernist Society, the North West Film Archive and Manchester Metropolitan University Geography are pleased to bring to the City Art Gallery a curated programme of archive films charting the transformation of the North West landscape through the aspirations of 20th Century dreamers, citizens and planners.

Every third Thursday of the month we will present a film screening from 6.30 pm in the City Art Gallery Lecture Theatre on Mosley Street, central Manchester. A specialist presenter will introduce each screening, followed by informal questions and answers. Each event is free, but pre-registration is essential as places are strictly limited. Refreshments will be available for purchase in the cafe.

Thursday 20th June at 18.30

Free Tickets here


As part of the RIBA lovearchitecture festival 2013, Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester Modernist Society, Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University and…

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