Wednesday, 30 November 2011

New buildings and urban geographies in the 1960s and 1970s

There are some great books from the 1960s and 70s about the new buildings and modern urban geographies being constructed at that time. Here are three of my favourites:
1. Tony Birks, Building the New Universities (David and Charles publishers, 1972)

A guide to Sussex, York, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Warwick, and Lancaster universities, most of which had only finished their first stages of building at the time of publication. A fascinating insight into the ideas and ideals behind this wave of new universities, and how these ideals shaped their architecture and planning. It's also balanced in its assessment of some of the more experimental design features, especially the tendency for concrete to discolour in the British climate, and difficulties of ventilation and heating.

Choice quotations:

(on the budget freeze and cutbacks of 1968)
In a move to lower the cost of learning, or at least the unit-cost of higher education, buildings, like everything else, have to suffer. Any special pleading for architecture must take into consideration the need to resist the erosion of other benefits such as the student-staff ratio, currently 8.5:1 and the best in the world (compared with 30:1 in France and 12:1 in the United States) but likely to rise to 9:1 or more in the next few years. (p. 23)
As individuals in their university, students will make their first public speech, cast their first vote, work, make love, and all too often become lonely. The glass and concrete environment can be a protective shield, an exhilarating backcloth, or even a frightening cell. The charge that the country is building 'architects' universities' underlines the fundamental nervousness about the extent to which academics should contrive their own environment. (p. 45)
NB at the time of writing, there is a copy available in the Oxford Turl Street branch of Oxfam.

2. Charles McKean and Tom Jestico, Guide to Modern Buildings in London, 1965-75 (Warehouse publishing, 1976)

Fully illustrated guide to a range of new buildings around London, including the Barbican, Trellick Tower, and Pimlico school (now demolished). There are some interesting trails around Hampstead, South Bank, Richmond, etc, in the appendix, which I'd love to follow to see which buildings are left. The 'Heathrow Airport Trail' around the terminals and hangars might be a bit difficult these days though.

Choice quotation from the introduction:
Severe economic restraint has caused a sharp drop in the building programme, leaving thousands of London's acres unused or derelict. The energy crisis is forcing a re-appraisal of the more expensive forms of building, together with a serious investigation into the merits of 'ecological' or low-energy buildings. Despite London's expected loss of population (from almost 8 million in about 1939 to a projected 5 1/2 millions in 1991) there is still no end in sight to homelessness.
NB at the time of writing, there is another copy available of this book in Janette Ray's second-hand architecture bookshop in York.

3. James Stevens Curl, The Erosion of Oxford (Oxford Illustrated Press, 1977)

Curl's book is vicious in its criticism of the modern developments in 1960s and 70s Oxford. He seems to have a thing against modern streetlamps, and is obsessed with the new buildings going against the 'vertical' or 'horizontal' emphasis of particular streets. On some issues, however, he was right, particularly the clearance of St. Ebbes to make way for the Westgate Centre. The now foreboding multi-storey carpark and the expanse of coach park and scrubland is really a bleak noman's land. The Wharf House used to be an oasis of humanity in that area, but it is now private houses.

A classic quotation from Curl:
If Morris could only see the mess that has been made of St. Aldates; the destruction of Castle Street; the erosion of Cornmarket; the ruination of the High at its extremities; the rebuilding of George Street; the new buildings in Longwall; and the overall loss of national treasures, we can be sure that a howl of agonised rage would soon put the fear of God into the despoilers.

There is a danger of getting a smug sense of hindsight reading these books in 2011, with many of the projects described now either deemed a failure or demolished completely. The language and tone of the first two is undoubtedly optimistic and utopian: grand schemes of rebuilding and expanding after the slum clearances. The vision of the new universities, as they were then, helped shape their distinctive architecture as a break from the apparent past constraints of the Victorian and older universities. I do like 1960s architecture done well; the ambition of many of the schemes is admirable. However, they are also practical and critical of some of the new developments, identifying potential problems that did indeed come to bear, in terms of a coldness in the architecture, and lack of transport and social facilities in the urban planning.

And for a European comparison, I'm very much taken by this 1970 guide to how the Munich olympic park was progressing in time for the 1972 Olympics. Thanks to Simon Webster, who bought it in Munich a few years ago.

Architekturwettbewerbe, special issue, December 1970.

It's a *very* detailed analysis, with architectural plans and overviews of the construction of the stadia, tracks, and athletes' village.
Most of the original architecture still stands, and although it feels a little tellytubby land sometimes, it still works well and has provided a lasting legacy to the area.

Monday, 28 November 2011

research papers on History Working Papers Project

I'm trialling my research papers on the History Working Papers Project website, set up by Jason Kelly and Tim Hitchcock as a means of enabling open peer review.

I will be giving an abridged and combined version of the papers firstly at the University of York C18 seminar this Tuesday 29 November, and then at the Institute of Historical Research on 14 December, 5.15pm. They are in two parts, partly because I haven't worked out which bits I'm going to use, and partly to provide more extensive versions for people who wish to know more than I can explain in a 45 minute seminar. Part II is a theoretical overview of the 'spatial turn'.

Part I: 'Space, Place, and Popular Politics in Northern England, 1789-1848'
Part II: 'Theoretical Interlude: Why I'm tired of turning'.

Do post your comments and start the debate!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Material object of the week

I love this little late C18 patch box featuring a vignette of the Tontine Inn, Sheffield. It's in Sheffield museum's excellent online collections.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Apologies to framework knitters and Rebecca Rioters

Apologies to the good stocking knitters of Nottinghamshire - I kept referring to you as weavers on the debate 'Were the Luddites Right?' on BBC Radio 3 last night. Of course I meant knitters, but in the heat of debate, with no notes, I couldn't remember the right word.

Also, apologies to the Rebecca Rioters of Wales. I was considering cross-dressing customs used in protest in Lancashire and the West Riding in 1811-12 specifically rather than wider traditions and Wales in the 1840s.

Listen to the debate here:

Monday, 14 November 2011

non-places: Rowan Moore and Anna Minton on Business Improvement Districts

This week's Observer featured an article by Rowan Moore on the London River Park shopping development. He builds his argument around Anna Minton’s study of Business Improvement Districts such as Liverpool One, Paddington basin, and Spitalfields market. 

The fashion now is for 'malls without walls', that is, large areas of shopping streets that remain uncovered and have the appearance of being open public spaces, but which have every aspect of them privately run and controlled.

Both Moore and Minton highlight how the private multinational conglomerates who own these shopping developments have changed the meaning of public space, surreptitiously and deliberately. These spaces appear to be public because they are in the open air, have some public amenities such as seats, sculptures and fountains, perhaps toilets, but they are only pretending to be public spaces. Activities which we assume are allowed in public space - such as photography with a tripod, picnics, chaining up a bicycle, and important for our case, handing out leaflets or making a political protest or meeting – are prohibited. Such activities are policed and prevented by private security forces rather than the police. 

These are not public spaces because their definition of the 'public' are ABC1 consumers. Minton notes on p. 45 of her book that the 'list of undesirables' spans far more than the usual suspects of beggars 'to include groups of young people, old people, political protesters, photographers, really anyone who is not there to go shopping'. This reminds me of the Improvement acts passed for many towns in the early nineteenth century, which attempted to prohibit loitering and other (as we would call it now) anti-social behaviour. After the 1828 police act passed for Manchester, the committee expressed concern over popular street culture, among other activities, playing bat, ‘singing ballads and songs or uttering obscene language in the streets or delivering or posting indecent placards or handbills’. (Francis Dodsworth, ‘Mobility and Civility: Police and the Formation of the Modern City’, in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds., The New Blackwell Companion to the City (Oxford, 2011), chapter 20.

The  duties of police officers included ‘that idle persons, porters and others, do not stand in crowds at the corners of streets or on any of the pavements to the interruption of passengers’. (Manchester Archives, M9/30/9/1, Reports of Manchester Police Commissioners, 1828) Particular attention was paid to street corners as gathering places.

Urban improvement (see Patrick Joyce's Rule of Freedom on nineteenth-century Manchester) was concerned with a nineteenth century equivalent of the 'Clean and Safe' programmes identified by Minton. A desire for Benthamite economy and efficiency fuelled changes to street design, sewerage and lighting, and policing. But improvers were also influenced by a revived Reformation of Manners movement against vice and immoral behaviour, a middle-class clamp down on plebeian customs and culture such as cock fighting and bear-bating, and the last days of the old poor law, with its Malthusian fear of vagrants and beggars loitering on the streets.

Minton argues that the parallels lie with the early nineteenth century, when the private estates built up their railings round their leafy squares and hired their own security to watch over them, as at the Duke of Westminster’s estate in Mayfair and Belgravia. See Jason Kelly's recent History Workshop Online article on how, in 1852, the Prince of Wales moved to make Kennington Common into a regulated public park in order to prevent its previous uses as the major site of Chartist monster meetings, as well as being a common and used for executions and popular recreations. See also John Roberts' article on Hyde Park. Such restrictions met with popular resistance from the 1860s, a process that followed the rise of local democracy as ordinary inhabitants gained more control and participation in local government, and local authorities gained more control over property. By 1865, after 2 major parliamentary inquiries, 163 miles of road were passed over to local authority control and 140 tollbars removed.[1] 

Minton claims that the process is now reversing – multinational property conglomerates are now the most likely owners of large chunks of British cities – as in Manchester, where CityCo runs much of Manchester city centre (Minton argues this marks ‘the beginning of private government and the decline of local democracy’). Ironically, the Duke of Westminster runs Grosvenor, the property company which owns and controls the Liverpool One development.[2]

The Free Trade Hall was the first major sign of a wave of enclosure of formerly iconic sites in Manchester. During the later Victorian period, the Free Trade Hall was a major venue for political meetings and rallies for Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, and the suffragettes. It also became a centre for Manchester’s cultural heritage, housing the Hallé orchestra. The lesser Free Trade Hall was also the venue for arguably crucially significant turning points in popular music, including Bob Dylan’s infamous ‘Judas’ concert in 1966, and two Sex Pistols gigs in 1977 that inspired Manchester musicians to create a ground-breaking independent music scene. Manchester continually mythologises both those events as a core part of its cultural identity, as testified by the images of its indie bands and ‘Madchester’ plastered across temporary hoardings covering renovation on Cross Street this year. The self-mythologising of the Manchester music scene of the 1980s is a distinctive and persistent feature of contemporary Mancunian identity. Nevertheless, one of its iconic buildings, the Haçienda, was demolished and replaced by residential flats that took on the name but not the character of the venue.

Yet in 1997, despite fierce resistance from Manchester Civic Society, the city council sold the Free Trade Hall to property developers. The building is now part of a major hotel chain, and is therefore, Minton contends, ‘removed from the public life of the city’. Minton highlights Piccadilly Gardens as another example. In 1755 the Mosley family had given Piccadilly Gardens to Manchester’s inhabitants ‘in perpetuity’ as an open space for recreation. Although the sunken gardens had been criticised as a gathering place for street drinkers and the homeless when I was growing up in the 1980s, it remained a genuinely public space in the heart of the city. Remodelled in 2001, however, a large part of the gardens was encroached upon by an office block, which houses the Bank of New York. A grey concrete transport exchange dominates the remaining open air space, while the statues of Queen Victoria and other local notables have been sidelined to the edges of the communal areas, overlooking the road.   

We’ve always had buildings that are private but that have semi-public functions – museums, art galleries, theatres, restaurants, etc. But we know their rules and behave accordingly, and they don’t pretend to be anything else. 

But in the case of the Business Improvement Districts (and their associated ‘Clean and Safe’ policy of security), what annoys Moore and Minton are that they pretend to be public spaces when they are not, and therefore the public are unclear of the rules. Moore associates outdoor public space with the civic realm and Minton links it with local democracy – i.e. council owned and run, and therefore somewhat accountable to local rate payers. As Moore comments: 
‘If a space is private, it should not be called public…This matters because if we are kidded into thinking that there is a civic realm that is not actually there, we will suddenly find that there is less space than we had thought for such essential public actions as protest. This is what the Occupy movement found when it looked for a location to make its point in the City of London’.
Another element of such developments is what Anna Minton describes as their deliberate lack of historical reference. There is little sense of place because the owners use glass and bland architecture avoiding their historical surroundings. Or, as Owen Hatherley has pointed out in his book on PFI architecture, buildings are pastiches of historical features, which could be anywhere and nowhere, blurring and effacing real historical references. In the case of Liverpool One, this is because the developers wished to appeal to the wider region (the Cheshire 'set' of ABC1 consumers) rather than making the area Liverpool-particularist. But in doing so, the non-places therefore deliberately make it much more difficult for local inhabitants and users to affix symbolic or political meanings onto the spaces. They are therefore non-places.

[1] Anna Minton, Ground Control (Penguin, 2009), 20. JM. Roberts,  'Spatial Governance and Working Class Public Spheres: The Case of a Chartist Demonstration at Hyde Park', Journal of Historical Sociology 14 (3) (2001) : 308- 333
[2] Minton, Ground Control, 19, 39-40.

Monday, 7 November 2011

George Shaw and painting the everyday

I've just seen the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic, Gateshead. One of the contenders is George Shaw, the Coventry painter. I suspect he won't win, because he is painter in a traditional sense of brush and canvas. I've been an admirer of his work for a while now, and, as is the case with most of my interests, it's because of his representation of place.

A sense of place is the key to his work. Shaw is a Coventry painter, rather than a painter who happens to come from Coventry. His subject matter is generally the urban and semi-urban landscapes of Coventry that he knew as a teenager. Yet the Coventry he depicts is also an everywhere: the concrete buildings, the rusty fences, the littered paths, the wet tarmac, is noman's land and every man's land.

These landscapes draw the viewer in because they are so familiar. It is distinctively Coventry for Shaw, with the sites filled with his own experience and memories. But the sites could also be anywhere in suburban, post-industrial, Britain.

I've never been to Coventry. Yet as I look through his back catalogue, I see scenes that seem so familiar. A painting of a new build estate of bright red brick houses in the middle ground, separated from the viewer by a muddy field, could be anywhere and everywhere; a sense of an artificial place with no past, and no centre or trees.

'Dead End' (2008), an expanse of tarmac by a row of green-doored garages looks like the garages by Southfield flats in east Oxford. 'Lowlife' (2009), with an algae-stained outflow in an underpass or roadbridge could be any non-space under any road. But it is also a space under a road that we all recognise.

Edward Relph theorised about place and belonging in his Place and Placelessness (1976). A key idea was that a sense of 'drudgery' was essential to people's experience of place. Repeated contact with places fosters in the individual not topophilia (as Yi Fu-Tuan argued) but rather a sense of drudgery, and, especially among teenagers, a desire to escape. Historical autobiographies and diaries often express this feeling: youths in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seemed keen to leave their apprenticeships and travel the world with the navy. Samuel Bamford, for example, escaped his Middleton industrial life to go to London on a boat, and then made a tortuous journey back up North. Relph then argues that after the initial excitement of escape, a sense of belonging returns. Once away from a place, the individual feels a stronger sense of attachment to it, as Bamford did, and wants to return. Bamford's relief on returning to Middleton was a formative moment in his deep attachment to the place.

Within Relph's schema are existential places, which are taken-for-granted environmental and spatial constructions of the everyday world, shaped by cultural and social norms. A deeper sense of belonging is fostered by tacit, unselfconscious daily contact with the spaces of these places. (Hubbard, Key Texts in Human Geography, 44)

Shaw's paintings seem to fit this idea of drudgery and belonging: these sites of mainly 1960s and 1970s architecture are on the surface sites of drudgery. There are no people in the scenes; the weather is generally grey, neither rainy nor sunny, a perpetual twilight.

Yet they are not unloved; Shaw would surely not have devoted his artistic career to portraying such sites if he did not experience an emotional connection with them. By doing so, he presents the weathered concrete and graffitied bikeshed alongside more traditional street scenes in art, and making us question what is beautiful. Does the artist or the viewer see say Venice as beautiful because its streets and canals fit a culturally shaped idea of beauty? Perhaps we need an emotional attachment to a place, whatever its architecture, to appreciate its own beauty?

Shaw's work also fits in with wider interest in the everyday: Joe Moran's work on roads, the annual Boring conference, even John Shuttleworth's celebration of suburbia. In a way it also mirrors the parodying shots by Welsh rappers Goldie Lookin' Chain, who gently made fun of the environment of their upbringing with photos of graffitied walls, dumped shopping trolleys and mattresses in their hometown of Newport. Yet both Shaw and the GLC recognise the importance of such sites for people's lives: the mattress as a venue for courting or early sexual experiences, or a wall outside a cab rank as a place for testing and asserting young men's place within the social community or gang groups. In this sense, these noman's or conventionally unbeautiful places are as important as the gothic arches of Venice or the Georgian Palladian terraces of London, as they convey meaning, memory, and connection.

His paintings also mirror photographs taken by urban explorers of derelict buildings. The series about an old pub, including 'Age of Bullshit' (2010), feels very much like the outside shots of an urbex report. There is a story: a pub that Shaw remembers from childhood, in the second painting derelict with no roof, surrounded by metal barriers and cracking tarmac. In the final piece, all that is left of the pub is rubble. The latter two paintings were featured in the exhibition, and in a video interview accompanying the exhibition, Shaw expressed how the bricks held the remnants of a long history of people's lifecycles: their christening parties, wedding receptions, funeral wakes. That sense of a lost memory is something that urban explorers (and people like me interested in their reports) try to capture before they are lost forever.

'The Age of Bullshit' is in some senses an anti-Edward Hopper. Hopper's classic portrayal of the bar in 'Nighthawks' (1942) is peopled; it is in the shadows but also spotlit. Yet in another sense Shaw parallels Hopper, in a sense of melancholy and emptiness that both the bar and the pub evoke in the viewer.