23 December 2010

Winter Wonderland

As it's Christmas it seems only fitting that I share a few shots of Manchester transformed by snow, as seen from my own perch in New Islington. The first, taken at night on December 15th, shows snow falling, with the faint silhouette of the city centre traceable against the night's sky, the red light of the Arndale sign is one of the few truly recognisable 'landmarks' just left of centre. In the foreground the new snow is falling on the frozen canals and waterways, with the corten lights of Old Mill Street bathing the street in an eerie yellow wash.

Night time snow fall

The second, taken on the morning of December 20th, is over a collection of geese (one short of a gaggle) as they make a rare journey from the canal edge and onto the empty car park adjacent to Chips. There is something rather odd about seeing the local (natural) wildlife wandering amongst the snow streaks of car tyres, a strange mix of the urban and 'natural' environments.


17 December 2010

The Yellow Platform and The Orange Man

The yellow platform and the orange man

Two days ago I looked out of the large floor to ceiling window that takes up roughly half of my living room-cum-office-cum-kitchen's external wall and was shocked to see a cherry picker platform being manoeuvred up the side of one of the burnt out 1960's residential towers that occupy 'New East Manchester.' The tower in question, a 14-storey concrete frame, brick-clad specimen, has had broken windows, fire damaged walls and boarded up lower floors for the duration of the 18 months I have spent living in 'New Islington' and I suspect it has been in this sorry state for a lot longer. (This particular tower marks the end of the Ancoats/New Islington project and the start of Miles Platting). The site of a lone workman, dressed in orange fluorescent clothing - obviously to draw attention to the fact that something is being done - only exasperates the desolate nature of this abandoned object as it looms over the very much inhabited two-storey semi-detached properties below.

Tower blocks of East Manchester

Panning back you begin to see more blocks rising out of "New East" Manchester, many of which are in an equally sorry state of repair. To the extreme left you can just make out the refurbished "Three Towers" (Christabel in this case - interestingly they were all renamed for Pankhursts of suffragette fame), a "Hi-Style" development in the Irk Valley by Urban Splash where the external walkways and balconies have all been enclosed in timber panels. At the extreme right, just out of shot from my window, lies Sport City where the majority of the 2002 Commonwealth Games took place, it is currently awaiting an injection of investment from Abu Dhabi. In between lie areas like Miles Platting and Beswick, where the peripheries appear populated but the inner zones  seem devoid at times of anything except 'green space' and boarded up council houses. The 60's tower blocks rise out from a sea of semis and scattered islands of trees (the view is made 'greener' by the substantial green corridor that is the Irk Valley that extends from the city centre to the city outskirts) that, with the Victorian Mills of even grander scale, form a city silhouette that has changed little in 40 years. It will take a lot more than one orange man and his yellow platform for that to change.

13 December 2010

Piraensi as "Pre-Postmodernist"

Dr Teresa Stoppani, author of Paradigm Islands: Manhattan and Venice, Discourses on the City, gave a series of talks at the University of Manchester and Manchester School of Architecture recently. I was fortunate enough to attend her presentation entitled "Piranesi's Rome: Vague and Viral (And Parasitic)" and have been musing on a number of comments she made during it - that I thought were worth sharing.

Veduta Del Tempio Di Ercole Nella Citta' Di Cora, 1769

In a wide ranging presentation that outlined the life and work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) in two (it should have been three but sadly time was against us) parts - Questions of Architecture and Viral Culture - Dr Stoppani made the observation that, in his drawings, Piranesi was a "Pre-Postmodernist." By this she meant that as an artist his etchings examined existing conditions ("from within") and didn't look to create any form of utopia on a tabula rasa - as a 'Modernist' of the early 20th century would - as opposed to any other postmodern references of wit or ornament. Also evident in Piraensi's work are everyday people and objects, these aren't drawings glorifying architectural objects, instead they examine their implications on contemporary conditions (of the 18th century) - quite a contrast to the 'baby photographs' of buildings published in architectural journals across the globe, devoid of living characters. The affects of time are clearly displayed and exemplified in Piraensi's etchings.

 Urban Chiaroscuro 2: London (after Piranesi) 2007, Emily Allchurch

On a slight aside Dr Stoppani (talking about viral culture and the terrain vague) introduced the audience to the work of Emily Allchurch, an artist who has created a series of digital collages "exploring the social restriction in the modern European city" that mirror the Carceri d'Invenzione (Prisons) of Piranesi - the Urban Chiaroscuro (2007). This fascinating series re-frame these impossible spaces and fill them with contemporary objects from the 21st century - security cameras, traffic signs and bottles of Peroni.

8 December 2010

Review: Soft City

“In those dazed moments at stop lights , its possible to be a stranger to yourself, to be so doubtful as to who you are that you have to check on things like the placards round the news-vendors’ kiosks or the uniforms of the traffic policemen. You’re a balloonist adrift, and you need anchors to tether you down. At moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity.”

Part novel, party social commentary, Jonathan Raban’s 'Soft City', first published in 1974, has become a classic literary account of city life and experience that still resonates 37 years later. Raban describes how, despite living in bustling environments filled with life, people feel alone and disorientated. To Raban the 'Soft City' represents something malleable, an urban landscape that each person shapes into their own personal environment and can then reshape, reform and reinvent as many times as they see fit.

One of the most important observations he makes is about the is a fear of strangers in the urban landscape, not because of factors such as crime rates but the fact that you don’t know who could attack you – in contrast to rural communities were most victims know their assailants. Whilst a city is large enough that you can shrink away on occasions, he argues that the modern day reappropriation of older architectural forms forces us to come into contact with people. For example, in London Georgian townhouses are carved up into flats arranged around stairwells. These stairwells were originally a building’s “lungs” and brought light down in the building, whereas now they “bring strangers into eerie juxtaposition with each other” and “transmit unasked-for intimacies, private sights, private sounds, which fuel suspicion and embarrassment and resentment.” In these situations our mind takes hold and invents stories, putting sounds to faces, and creating fictitious characters based on what little fragmented evidence is available to us.

Despite being written over 30 years ago Soft City still resonates today, perhaps even more so, as over half of the world’s population is now living in cities. The only way that (the majority of) people can survive in this environment is to form connections, no matter how small, and to work with the “unique plasticity, privacy and freedom” that the city affords he argues. A rural environment may transmit an air of safety and intimacy in knowing everyone but it does not afford the mind the luxuries of reinventing ourselves, dropping out of social groups and reappearing as a new person. It is individuality that is offered in cities above all, or at least a perceived ability to rise above the crowd and be something different, but “we need to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.”


Raban, J. (1974), Soft City, 1st Edition, London: Picador Publishers

2 December 2010

Review: Invented Edens

Invented Edens (Techno-cities of the Twentieth Century) by Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella explores the relationship between technological innovation and urban planning in the Twentieth Century. What they describe is not a movement in the traditional sense of architectural or planning terminology but a "phenomenon" that transcended ideological, sociological and geographical boundaries with a number of recurring characters through whom the notions of the 'Techno-city' are learned or transferred. Kargon and Molella define Techno-cities as cities planned and developed in conjunction with large technological or industrial projects, with future aspirations firmly rooted in historical context.. "The Techno-city phenomenon responded to many of the same utopian imperatives as modernism and shared much of the same social agenda but blended modernist elements with what could be interpreted as anti-modernist elements."

Invented Edens (MIT Press, 2008) 

The book explores the Techno-city by plotting it's history through a number of case studies that explore in some depth the implications of various built or partially-realised visions. Ebenezer Howard's (in particular his book Garden Cities of To-morrow), Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford are frequently referred to as key proponents of a set of ideals on city organisation that are the underlying themes of Techno-cities. The book starts by examining in depth their various contributions in the field of urban planning. In the following chapters the reader is taken to Communist Russia, New Deal America, Fascist Italy and Germany, with the key underlying issue being the presence of autarchic leadership. In the chapters exploring the later half of the century, post-World War Two, attention returns to Italy, America (where the examination of models of dispersal as a means of defending against nuclear attack is particularly interesting) and newly Venezuela. The final destination, Disney's "Celebration" in Florida, briefly touches upon contemporary issues of imagined versus real experiences before quickly declaring that Techno-city age died in the year 2000 (a slightly disappointing observation that it is surely to early to make). In each of these chapters a series of side-steps are taken exploring places where similar initiatives were taken.

At times the number of places covered and such a diverse range of actors mentioned can become overwhelming (Herbert Rimpl, Vladimir Sermionov, Franco Marinotti, Andrea Olivetti, Oskar Stonorov, James Marshall, Lloyd Rodwin, and Jean-Paul Lacaze - to name but a few) and it can become difficult to follow the individual stories. However, this minor inconvenience does not take away from what is the book's major attraction, the depth of analysis that allows readers to feel like they have fully understood the situation at hand (the book is also well referenced with a substantial notes section to supplement the case studies). In summary, Invented Edens provides a fascinating introduction to the issues of "integrating modern technology into the world of real life" and its consequences on the built form of the cities we inhabit today.


Kargon, R. H. and Molella A. P. (2008), Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century, 1st Edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press