Concrete island: the abandoned MP-203 highway, Spain

4 10 2014

Two miles south-east of Mejorada del Campo – a small satellite town of Madrid – the semi-arid landscape of thorns and hardy bushes suddenly reveals the MP-203 highway: over a bridge to nowhere, the silent concrete dual carriageway curves northwards to the horizon. Standing on the bridge, I film the highway: how long before I will capture the powerful sense of emptiness, I wondered? A few seconds? A minute? Ten minutes? The wind picks up, shaking the small bushes that have gained a foothold in the central reservation below.


Intended as a relief road for the congested Madrid-Barcelona highway, this 12.5km stretch of highway was started in 2005 and 70 million Euros were ploughed into the project before construction work stopped abruptly in 2008. As it became clear that Spain would not be emerging from its deep recession any time soon, the highway project was shelved and has remained unfinished and abandoned for six years.


In recent years, the Mail Online has published many articles on the numerous abandoned construction projects that now litter the Spanish landscape; the melancholy tone of these articles countered by a barely disguised schadenfreude at just how far the Spanish economy has sunk (well, compared to Britain anyway). In the Mail Online‘s estimation, the Spanish, it seems, always get ahead of themselves; their abandonments just desserts for their seemingly-intractable hubris.


Perhaps one of the Mail Online‘s journalists should actually visit the abandoned highway; for it is an extraordinarily disconcerting site that raises questions about not only the future of all economies dominated by boom-and-bust capitalism, but also the place of the motorway in our imagination. For here is ruin at its most banal and also at its most brutal – the great swathe of concrete suddenly seeming like an alien entity that has simply appeared in the otherwise rural landscape. Without an endless stream of cars (which effectively removes the motorway as a ‘real’ space to be experienced), a road on this scale seems inhuman and out of time, as if both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. If walking on a deserted motorway is a popular trope in many a post-apocalyptic fantasy (such as the first episode of The Walking Dead), then actually doing it is to realise just how inhuman motorways are; to walk on one is to lose yourself in a desert of concrete, devoid of orientating landmarks.


As I wondered about the effect of this ruin in reverse, I was led to think of J. G. Ballard’s own fantasia of the motorway, Concrete Island (1974). Charting the  story of a lone male driver who crashes and becomes marooned on a patch of waste ground entirely enveloped by elevated motorways (based on the Westway in London), Ballard’s novel forensically documents an enforced experience of living in the fortress-like space created by the intersection of these monstrous roads, resulting in the Robinson Crusoe-like central character eventually accepting it as his home. As I left the surface of my concrete island (after barely an hour) and returned to the bustling streets of central Madrid, I realised that to truly embrace the motorway as a human space might require as radical a transformation as that seen in Ballard’s cautionary tale.

Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons

29 08 2014

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.

Map issued by the Environment Agency showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges


Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.


Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:

‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’

As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.


As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.

In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:

‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’


The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’

Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.

Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.

The Ancoats Dispensary: the politics of ruins

13 06 2014
The Ancoats Dispensary building before scaffolding was put up by Urban Splash in 2010

The Ancoats Dispensary building before scaffolding was put up by Urban Splash in 2010

A small group of local activists had been keeping a vigil for over 3 years outside one of Ancoats’s most iconic ruins: the old Ancoats Hospital building, constructed in 1875 as a replacement for the earlier dispensary, opened in 1828. The Ancoats Dispensary Trust – the organisation who keeps the vigil – was formed in 2011 as ‘a reactionary movement in opposition to the proposed demolition’ of the Grade II listed hospital building by Urban Splash, who had purchased the building (apparently for just £1) in the 1990s but had been unable to find an alternative use for the building, despite the company’s chair and co-founder Tom Bloxham declaring in 2001 that ‘if we don’t deliver of this one, we’ll never work in this city again.’ Having initially worked with the North West Development Agency (NWDA) in renovating the Dispensary into apartments, erecting scaffoldings and removing the existing roof, the abolition of the NWDA in 2010 by the new coalition government resulted in Urban Splash ‘mothballing’ the building and applying to the City Council for a demolition order.

The Dispensary building in March 2014

The Dispensary building in March 2014

With the destruction of the building seemingly imminent, a grassroots campaign was begun that has put forward an alternative proposal to turn the building into a community space. As the Ancoats Dispensary Trust has argued, the campaign for the Dispensary to returned to ‘common use’ reflects the history of the building as a place of healing within the larger Ancoats area. As the campaign chair, Linda Carver, has argued, the motivation for returning this ruin to the community grew out of widespread dissatisfaction with both Manchester City Council and Urban Splash’s policy of turning the New Islington area of Ancoats into a mainly privately owned site with only small concessions to social housing. Indeed, in my own visits to the Dispensary in March 2014, I encountered the same feeling amongst those volunteers who maintained the vigil for three hours in the afternoon every weekday of the year.

Shelter for the vigil's volunteers

Shelter for the vigil’s volunteers

Day 203 of the vigil, 28 February 2013

Day 203 of the vigil, 28 February 2013

With a host of makeshift placards and posters now obscuring Urban Splash’s now ironic images of what the Dispensary might have looked like if converted into privately-owned apartments, the vigil has created and occupied its own space of resistance outside the ruined building, re-appropriating it as a site of political protest. That the vigil has continued unbroken for so long is a powerful testament to the tenacity of dedication of a small group of local citizens to what seems a thankless task (the campaign has already been refused Heritage Lottery Funding twice).What all of the volunteers I spoke with had in common was a history of displacement by regeneration programmes in the East Manchester area: for example, Chris was moved out of Ancoats by the local authority after his rent was raised by Adacdus Housing (the association who used to manage the housing in Ancoats on behalf of the City Council); Jackie had lived in Ancoats for 42 years before her block of flats was scheduled for demolition and she was relocated to Openshaw; while Patrick lived in the neighbouring area of Clayton, but nevertheless felt strong affinities with displaced Ancoats’ residents. All shared a common sense of anger towards both Urban Splash and Manchester City Council regarding the regeneration of the New Islington site. Both Chris and Patrick regarded the new apartments along the Ashton Canal (including the Chips Building, designed by Wil Alsop) as being only for wealthy buyers, while the waste ground that lay in between the Dispensary and the Rochdale Canal was an ‘insult’ to the Ancoats community because it was now fenced-off privately owned land that had been taken away from the existing community.

'Cotton Field', the privately owner land that used to be the Cardroom Estate, an area of social housing.

‘Cotton Field’, the privately owned land that used to be occupied by social housing (the Cardroom Estate).

The campaign to save the Ancoats Dispensary has seized on a ruined building and reappropriated as a political weapon against the dominant and powerful forces of urban regeneration in the area. Although the outcome of the campaign is far from certain, it demonstrates how a local community (and one further afield) can galvanise itself around a ruin in order to make its voice heard and to articulate alternative futures. As Patrick explained to me, the Ancoats Dispensary is not just viewed as a convenient rallying point for long-standing resentments to be expressed (although it is partly that); rather it is a building that has a long history of being rooted in and serving the needs of the local community. From 1828 until 1996, the building was the local hospital, with additional buildings being added as needed. When the hospital was threatened with closure in 1987 by the then Conservative government, local residents from the Cardroom Estate staged a sit-in protest which resulted in the building’s continued use as a community clinic until 1996. The subsequent decline and demolition of most of the hospital buildings bar the Dispensary has undoubtedly fueled the anger felt towards the City Council. As Patrick stated, winning the money necessary for restoring the Dispensary will not only provide an enormous boost to a disenfranchised community, but also a heterogeneous space that will genuinely answer to the desires and needs of that community. In short, this ruined building has been transformed from an example of architectural failure to a focal point for emancipatory desire.

Remnants as ruins: the Irk culvert, Manchester

8 05 2014
The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

At the corner of Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street near Victoria Station in Manchester is a stone wall (2) that betrays the otherwise invisible presence of one of the city’s principal rivers – the Irk. For here, the obvious visual signs of subsidence – sunken blocks of stone - were brought into being by what lies beneath the ground: namely, a massive culverted section of the river Irk than runs nearly a kilometre from the railway viaduct that emerges northwards from Victoria Station to the point where the Irk empties itself into the Irwell, just a few yards east of this sunken wall. This peculiar half-ruined wall makes visible a presence of absence, an immediate visual reminder of something hidden; perhaps even, like most ruins, a gentle admonition to those who would forget what has been lost. Yet, this ruin also tells us, uncontrovertibly, that the river is not lost; indeed, in its very ruin, it betrays the river’s continuing presence and influence on the city.

Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt's Bank and Victoria Street

2. Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

Like many urban river culverts, that of the Irk is deliberately hostile to would-be explorers. It’s entrance – seen from the steps that descend into Manchester’s new Green Quarter from Cheetham Hill Road – is a forbidding black hole into which rushes the fast-flowing river over a 2-metre high weir (3). As documented by Manchester’s urban explorer community, getting into that black hole is difficult even at the driest of times: it involves wading in chest-high murky water before descending the slippery weir into complete darkness. Flanking the river before it disappears are the shiny new skyscrapers of the Green Quarter – a characteristic (if extreme) juxtaposition of high technology and ‘low’ nature in the post-industrial city.

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

The now hidden section of the river Irk was culverted in several stages from the late-1840s to the 1910s (4 & 5). As famously described by Frederich Engels in 1844, the Irk was once one of the foulest watercourses in Manchester, a river that was polluted with the wastes of the tanneries, bone mills, gasworks and the privies of innumerable half-ruined medieval houses that originally lined its banks where the culvert now runs. In 1844, standing on Ducie Bridge, Engels described the open river as a ‘coal-black, foul-smelling stream’ that was filled with horrible slime and refuse and whose waters produced bubbles of ‘miasmatic’ gas that ‘gave forth a stench unendurable’ even high up on the bridge. As documented in successive maps of this part of Manchester (4 & 5), this noxious waterway was unsurprisingly removed from sight (and smell): firstly, in 1849, when the section flanking Chetham’s School was bricked over and then, around 1902, when a longer section was culverted after Victoria Station was extended southwards. The small remaining section of open river – to the east of what is now Victoria Station Approach was built over sometime in the early 20th century, only reappearing ‘symbolically’ in a recreation of part of the river in a fountain sculpture in what is now Cathedral Gardens, redeveloped after the IRA bomb in 1996.

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

What of the space of the culvert itself – the source of that invisible presence which continues to make itself felt in the city above? Once inside the culvert, the space seems to grow – the 20-foot span arch seen at the entrance now supported on immense high brick walls; while the noise of the rushing water is magnified by the cavernous space (6). The sights and sounds recorded by Engels may have (thankfully) disappeared, but the river still has a fearsome quality to it: a smell that makes one light-headed (dangerous, as all urban explorers know); a furious velocity; and, as if testifying to the latter, a channel lined with tree branches, shopping trolleys, car tyres and other forms of urban detritus. Such accumulated ruin is counterbalanced by what has been preserved – a bricked-up arched space in one of the walls that was once used as a shute for depositing dead cattle onto boats (7) and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, a wooden bridge  suspended between the walls of the culvert (8). This bridge – now bricked up and used as a utility tunnel – used to carry cattle from the fields on the north side of the Irk to the markets in Shudehill and it probably dates, at least in part, to around 1650, when Manchester was little more than a village.

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk culvert, now used as a utility tunnel

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk, now used as a utility tunnel

For this bridge to have survived so long after its pre-industrial function had been extinguished is testament to its power as a petrified ruin. It is paradoxically the ruin of the river (and its subsequent banishment) that has preserved this ancient relic intact; out of sight (and mind) it has been allowed to escape the relentless modernisation that has characterised Manchester from the eighteenth century onwards. If urban modernity requires the city to develop by a process of ‘creative destruction’ – or deliberate ruination/rebuilding – then this preserved ruin directly challenges that process. Its continuing existence speaks of the residues of modernity, or the ruins that do not yield to modernity because they continue to serve it in some unforseen way. It’s as if, from that bridge, the rushing river below described by Engels somehow refuses to be expunged from Manchester’s urban memory. Perhaps the name given to this culvert by urban explorers – Optimus Prime – is more than a rather infantile pseudonym; for has the culvert truly not transformed the river into something mythic?

Ruin Lust: fettered pleasures at Tate Britain

31 03 2014


J M W Turner, 'The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey', 1794

J M W Turner, The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey (1794)

Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart. 

Joseph Gandy, 'A Bird's-eye view of the Bank of England', 1830

Joseph Gandy, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England (1830)

Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.

Jane & Louise Wilson, 'Urville', 2006

Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (2007)

Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future? 

Laura Oldfield Ford,

Laura Oldfield Ford, TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012)

What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.  


Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014


In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.

Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

14 02 2014

Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

Walk north of Liverpool’s magnificent Liver Building – leaving behind the bustling angular forms of the city’s new waterfront buildings around the Albert Dock – and you enter the liminal dockland zone – the northern part of a vast interconnected port system that stretches over 7 miles along the Liverpool bank of the river Mersey. In 1907 – at the height of Liverpool’s preeminence as a global port – the writer Walter Dixon Scott described the ‘romance’ of the city’s docklands, a ‘strange territory’ that formed ‘a kind of fifth element’ to the world – ‘a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control.’

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Today, those ‘great forces’ have seemingly abandoned Liverpool, wielding their power now on the eastern side of the planet, but their traces remain everywhere in the city’s docklands, which are perhaps an even stranger territory today than they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Walking north along Regent Road, which hugs the granite wall that encloses most of the docks (with their evocative succession of names – Trafalgar, Salisbury, Nelson, Wellington, Canada), one sees everywhere the material remnants of Liverpool’s former maritime dominance. First, surrounding Stanley Dock, are gargantuan abandoned buildings, including the world’s largest brick-built warehouse, completed in 1901 to store the vast quantities of tobacco that were then imported from the United States. Flanked by a host of other brick warehouses, the entire complex hovers between a state of ruin and recuperation, the largest buildings being slowly turned into apartments and, in the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast hotel, while the smaller examples continue to languish in redundancy.

Brunswick Place

Brunswick Place

Effingham Street

Effingham Street

Ruined grabber, Huckisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Things become even stranger the further north one progresses. In the streets beyond Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3, the semi-ruinous buildings continue to live on in a variety of forms: as spaces to store and sell salvaged car parts in Brunswick Place; as unspecified ‘Units to Let’ in Effingham Street; or as offices for a stationary company in Princes Street. All of these streets face onto the docklands beyond, where enormous hills of scrap materials accumulate before one’s eyes (presumably waiting to be exported for recycling). It is as if one is witnessing the entire wastes of the world being gathered into one space – a spectacle that leads to a strange sense of temporal dislocation.

Hills of scrap metal, Huckisson Dock No. 3.

Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

This feeling of being witness to the ‘great forces’ of material destruction is, of course, a mainstay in (post) apocalyptic cinema, particularly within the cyberpunk trend that began with the first of the Mad Max films in 1979 and has continued up to the present in The Matrix trilogy and the recent Robocop reboot. Within the cyberpunk genre, salvage plays a critical role in imagined apocalyptic futures, whether seen in the hotchpotch of technologies in machines in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or the appropriation of architectural ruins as domestic spaces seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008). The image of ruins in cyberpunk is both romantic – a form of neo-Gothic revelling in the excess of decay – and also critical, namely of late-capitalism’s increasingly accelerated regime of ‘creative’ destruction.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walking in Liverpool’s ruined docklands (in effect, the type of real spaces that underpin cyberpunk’s alternative realities) is equally fraught with contradictions, from the startling aesthetics generated by the clash of serene emptiness with violent destruction to the melancholic sense of lives and buildings clung onto in desperation. Liverpool’s docklands are a landscape that simultaneously speak of past, present and future: what was exists as both material remnants and absent ruins; what is shows itself in the ingenuity of those who continue to use the semi-ruined buildings; what will be comes in the sense of the landscape as prophetic of what will (inevitably) become of the world under capitalism.


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