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?





Walking the girdle (part 2)

18 12 2012
1. Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in turquoise)

Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in blue)

1. Strangeways Prison from the east side

1. Strangeways prison from the east side

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

Part 2 of my circular walk around inner Manchester and Salford begins at Strangeways prison. With its 234-ft high ventilation tower, Strangeways is an extraordinary inner-city landmark in Manchester, but one that is nevertheless barely visible from the city centre. Of course, the presence of a prison – and a notorious high-security prison at that – in any city is troublesome, signifying as it does aspects of our society that we’d rather remained hidden. Walking up close to Strangeways (1) – an enormous complex made up of Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1868 building and new additions built after the 1990 riots – one is immediately reminded, in the most graphic of terms, what a prison is for: its blank 30-ft high brick walls an overwhelming visual symbol (and spatial enforcing) of incarceration. Circling these monstrous walls I found a broken picture frame containing an iconic photograph of New York’s Grand Central Station (2), one that probably adorns the walls of thousands of rooms across the world. In this photograph, sunlight streams through the high windows of the station onto a crowd of passengers below – a visual symbol of the dreams of liberation that once attracted so many to America’s iconic metropolis. Was this photograph some remnant of protest to the prison, resting as it did at the base of its immense walls? Or perhaps it was flung out of a high window above, a sign of abandoned hope in the prison that still has the highest suicide rate of any in Britain? Or maybe just a discarded object come to rest in a random place?

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

With these unsettling questions I headed away from Strangeways and across the invisible border that separates the cities of Manchester and Salford. Whilst both cities were built on the same industry – textile production – that was fated to oblivion, there’s a stronger sense of melancholy in Manchester’s lesser-known twin. Almost immediately there are ruins, such as the Springfield Mill, built in 1845 (3); ruins that are materially very different from those in Manchester. Where the mills of Ancoats seem to be awaiting some form of restitution, those in Salford seem beyond repair – cracked and crumbling and surrounded by a mixture of weeds and waste. And, walking through Salford towards Broughton and the river Irwell, the road is flanked by piles of rubbish, as if the geography of ruin has extended from individual buildings to whole districts.

4. An abandoned mill and Strangeways Prison behind, from the Broughton bridge over the river Irwell

4. Abandoned mill and Strangeways prison behind, from the Broughton bridge on the river Irwell

On this bright, crystal-clear day, finding the river Irwell seemed like a revelation – like discovering the hidden heart of both cities – where the seemingly ever-present brick of Salford’s closed-in streets suddenly opens out to reveal new vistas – the towers of abandoned mills rising in aesthetic unity with those of Strangeways beyond (4). Yet, the path along the banks of the Irwell is empty, the monotonous low-rise housing of modern Salford hidden behind newly-planted rows of trees.

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

Heading across the zone between Manchester and Salford, there’s an even greater sense of opening out, but here created by the vast waste-grounds that used to contain some of the terminal docks that turned Manchester into Britain’s third largest port when the ship canal to Liverpool was opened in 1894 (5).Now, these former docks are, in contrast to those at Salford Quays, filled with large expanses of rank grass and the signs of fly-tipping, their organic messiness contrasting sharply with the cluster of shiny buildings that ornament Manchester’s skyline beyond.

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

7. A portal to another world?

7. A portal to another world?

Further east, I cross that invisible line back into Manchester, but here between two giant railway viaducts that divide the two cities – a genuinely unsettling and claustrophobic place made up of very dark caverns under the arches (6), some of which bear the visual marks of bottom-end habitation (filthy mattresses, empty bottles) and graffiti that suggests that others might be the entrances to an infernal place below (7).

8. New housing in Hulme

8. New housing in Hulme

The final stretch of the girdle heads across Hulme, its once dystopian housing-block ‘crescents’ of the 1960s now replaced by community-designed housing that marries individuality – an eccentric curve here and there – with the rather-more repetitive requirements of mass housing (8). A short step across Higher Cambridge Street completes the circle – the stark, almost brutalist brick of the university buildings softened to an almost lovely orange colour by the last rays of the winter sun (9).

9. The University of Manchester's Cornbrook building in Booth Street West

9. The University of Manchester’s Cornbrook House in Booth Street West





Walking the girdle (part 1)

4 12 2012
1. The nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

1. Nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels's 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels’s ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

In 1844, Engels described industrial Manchester as being planned as a series of concentric circles: an inner commercial core surrounded by a ‘girdle’ of working-class quarters about a mile wide beyond which were the middle-class residential districts (2). In this way, Engels argued, wealthier people from the outer areas might come in and out of the city on its roads ‘without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and to the left.’ This ‘hypocritical plan’, as Engels called it, has persisted to this day, with the majority of the city’s thoroughfares being like spokes of a giant wheel, enabling easy travelling in and out of the city. And just as in Engels’s day, the further out from the city centre one travels, the more salubrious the surroundings become, today Mancunians reach all the way out to Alderley Edge in rural Cheshire, with its vast gated mansions: home of the footballers and their wives.

On a very cold but sparkling day in November, I decided to walk Manchester and Salford’s inner ‘girdle’, as a kind of alternative way of apprehending the topography of both cities – a counter to the frustration of generally only knowing the city as a series of linear routes in and out (1). The areas through which this walk passed – Salford, Hulme, Ardwick, Ancoats – were all just outside Manchester’s city centre and, although most of the housing was relatively new, still very much had the character Engels first observed in 1844 – that is, ‘unmixed working-people’s quarters’.

3. Cast-iron columns bases at Plymouth Grove

3. Cast-iron column bases at Plymouth Grove

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

So, after taking my usual linear bus ride from the suburbs to the University, instead of heading to my office I walked eastwards towards Ardwick, in a counterclockwise direction, passing the half-redeveloped Plymouth Grove pub with its late-nineteenth century ornamental cast-iron columns by the Glasgow founder Walter Macfarlane, now rusted into rich golden hues (3). Heading westwards, Ardwick is a surprise, an old industrial area that’s still working, with textile factories still hanging on despite the tumbledown bricked-up brick buildings (4), one of which still bears the imprint of its several generations of owners, its signs overlaid as if deliberately preserving the building’s history (5). Continuing west, a great railway viaduct thickens towards Piccadilly, its enormous brick arches a sign of how Manchester’s Victorian railway (unlike London’s) ploughed its way directly through the inner city, straddling the working-class housing with apparent disdain (6).

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

7. Former synagogue on Pollard Street

7. All Souls church on Every Street

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

Across the thundering Ashton road, one enters the Medlock river valley, a green oasis in Manchester’s monolithic red-brick cityscape, and a reminder that, like many other cities, Manchester’s fortunes were originally bound up with its rivers. Onwards through the edges of Beswick, a sleepy suburb in the Medlock valley, crowned on the Ancoats side by an abandoned church on Every Street – its fantastic array of turrets challenging the utilitarian brick buildings around it (7). Entering Ancoats past the Bank of England pub and over the Ashton canal, one suddenly emerges into another world – a contested landscape of waste ground, ruined factories, angular post-modernist tower blocks, and 1970s working-class housing. As one resident told me, Ancoats is now a battleground: some of the residents have been forced out, their properties compulsorilly purchased and demolished to make way for gentrification that hasn’t yet happened. Here, older 1960s tower blocks stand in limbo, condemned for demolition but subsquently purchased for £1 each by the developers Urban Splash in the property boom of the late-1990s. Now too expensive to either demolish or redevelop, these tower blocks remain as petrified ruins (8).

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

Over the Rochdale canal is old Ancoats, created at the end of the 18th century as the world’s first industrial suburb, and still characterised by its enormous, utilitarian brick mills and warehouses that summon up images of the industrial revolution, with its din and smoke (9). Yet, today, this part of Ancoats is silent and spotless: a closed world of private apartments, offices and deluxe recording studios. With its tightly-packed grid-like streets, cobbled for over two hundred years, Ancoats here is less contested, more fully embracing of a new kind of exclusivity that’s so characteristic of former industrial quarters in many other British cities. Out of Ancoats across the busy Oldham Road, one enters a desolate former industrial area, the factories and warehouses given over to end-of-the-line textiles (10), with the futuristic shapes of the city’s new generation of skyscrapers rising up beyond (11). With the towers of Strangeways high-security prison looming in the distance, I head towards the half-way point around the girdle (part 2 to follow).





Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Hidden spaces: the Derbyshire Dales

25 01 2012

Cave Dale, near Castleton, Derbyshire

There’s probably no more dramatic contrast in the English landscape than that between the Dark and White Peak of the Peak District National Park; and all because of two different kinds of rock – Gritstone and Limestone. Divided by the Edale and Hope valleys, to the north is the Dark Peak – an area of high moorland, its hard Gritstone foundation chipped away by the elements into undulating wild plateaus of heather and peat and rocky ‘edges'; to the south, the White Peak – its bed of soft Limestone sunk into gently folded hills, farmland and hidden valleys, known as Dales. In contrast to the wild, windswept and barren moorland of the Dark Peak, these Dales are places of fecundity – steep-sided valleys carved by rivers and streams into self-enclosed worlds, protected from wind and cold.

Hay Dale, looking towards Rushup Edge, the boundary between the White and Dark Peak
Moss covering trees and a stone wall in Cressbrook Dale

On a map, the Dales are identified by the serpentine windings of watercourses, enclosed by narrow countour lines. In reality, they are almost hermetically-sealed environments, usually hemmed in by thick broadleaf woodland and a treacherous floor of uneven and slippery limestone, collected over time from the crumbling cliffs that fringe the upper slopes. With alluring pastoral names – Monks Dale, Millers Dale, Dove Dale, Hay Dale, Chee Dale – these valleys are places cut off from the elements, where moss covers wood and stone alike, where exotic birdlife flourishes, and where ancient trees gradually sink into decay.

Limestone cliff in Chee Dale
Monks Dale in Spring

It is perhaps unsurprising that these secret spaces were one of the most important sites for the birth of England’s industrial revolution. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Dales saw the building of the first large-scale water-powered textile mills, such as Cromford (1771) and Cressbrook mills (1787). These provided the template for the hundreds of mills that would later define the urban centres of the industrial revolution: Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield. In these early days, production on this industrial scale needed fast-flowing water to power the steam-engines that drove the mechanised looms. It seems appropriate that the industrial revolution should have begun in these hidden worlds: the mills and factories almost shamefacedly emerging out of an otherwise agrarian world; their new kinds of workers housed in rustic cottages in the surrounding hills.

Cressbrook Mill, Cressbrook Dale, 1787





Measuring Victorian London: Mogg’s cab fare map

3 01 2012

1. Mogg’s Postal-District and Cab-Fare Map, 1859. Drawn by Edward Mogg, lithographed by C. Whittingham, London, published by William Mogg, London. 532 x 720 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

Running parallel to the development of fare books in the nineteenth century (like Mogg’s Ten Thousand Cab Fares) was the publication of what might be described as ‘at a glance’ information: that is, information contained on one sheet of paper in the form of comprehensive fare tables or maps. Books of fares, no matter how well designed, were clearly problematic to use, whether carried in a pocket or consulted in a cab: in a book format information could never be ascertained ‘at a glance’; pages had to be turned, indexes consulted, destinations and cab stands memorised.

2. Detail of Mogg's Cab-Fare map, 1859

Mogg attempted to address this problem with his series of Postal-District and Cab-Fare maps (1 & 2), drawn by his brother Edward. Superimposed onto a conventional topographic map of London are grid squares at half-mile intervals, labels of the postal districts, and the four-mile radius from Charing Cross (shown as a dark circle) that marked the transition from a sixpence to a shilling fare per mile. In addition, referencing aids are included around the edges of the map: letters along the top and bottom; numbers on the sides. In the 33-page index that accompanied the map and listed 3,000 places, readers were instructed on how use the map (3): first, they were to locate their required destination in the index, and, second, to memorise the letter and figure of the square required (4). By then consulting the map and matching the letter and figure to those given around its edges, the user could find the required place ‘instantly’.

3. Explanation of how to use Mogg's map

4. Index to Mogg's Cab-Fare map

Whether cab maps were indeed ‘useful’ to visitors to London is difficult to ascertain. Punch, in 1851, provided its own satirical image of a map like Mogg’s being used (5). It showed two visitors to London engaged in a ‘topographic problem’, that is, trying to use a similar map to find their way from Seven Dials to the Eastern Counties Railway Station (now Liverpool Street), a distance of about 3 miles. With one visitor holding the map securely while the other squints up close at the obviously far too detailed map to try and measure the distance with his fingers, Punch mocks the optimistic claims publishers like Mogg generally made of their maps.

4. 'Topographical problem', Punch, 1851





History at a glance

18 04 2011

‘Historical chart. Representing at one view the rise and progress of the principal states & empires of the known world’, c. 1780s. Designed by Adam Ferguson, copper engraving by A. Bell, hand coloured. 575 x 249 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

In the nineteenth century, historical charts, or chronologies, emerged as a popular method of showing comparative historical development; that is, by means of graphs or tables on which were plotted the development of different civilizations over time. In this case, time is represented on the vertical axis and read from top to bottom, while different-coloured bars on the horizontal axis represent various empires, which are labelled at the top of the page in twelve columns. The columns are in some cases further divided by means of colour alone: Britain into Scotland, Ireland and England; and Spain into Portugal. From top to bottom, the width of the areas of colour varies according to the geographical reach of each empire – for example, in the middle of the chart is a large area of pink, indicating the extent of the Roman Empire across many other countries.

The source of this particular example is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose second edition (1777-84) included this historical chart as a foldout plate. When the third edition of the encyclopaedia was published in 1797, the chart’s timeline was extended to 1800. The development of historical charts like this one was pioneered by Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, with his graphic method of presenting time as a line, and was later taken up by Major James Bell, who published the first edition of his A compendious view of universal history & literature in a series of tables in 1820. Bell’s charts were displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 in the form of a long roll, unfolded to give a sense of historical development ‘in one view’. The chart illustrated here was designed by Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), a prominent Scottish philosopher and historian, and published long before Bell came to dominate the field.

The sense of perceiving history as a totality, by means of comparative development of empires, developed from sixteenth-century historians such as Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who founded the study of chronology. Historical tables were probably used mainly in education, whether in schools or in the home of those who could afford such lavish publications. As educative tools, the ‘in one view’ format of the chart was designed to aid memory: organising historical data into spatial formations on the page was believed to imprint it on the memory of the reader/viewer much more effectively than words alone.





The city as labyrinth: the medina of Fez

2 12 2010

The old city of Fez from above

Fes-el-Bali – the old city or medina of Fez in Morocco – is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. Founded in the early 9th century, the medina covers only around a square mile, but contains over 9000 streets and around 150,000 residents. Virtually unchanged since the gigantic ramparts and seven monumental gates were built around it in the 16th century, the old city is a self-enclosed world, working to its own internal rhythms. Each small district within the city has its own public utilities – water fountains, mosques, baths – and the city’s streets are sharply delineated between the busy public shopping streets and the almost silent private streets of housing leading off to dead ends. Sandwiched between the endless lines of shops selling everything imaginable – from fabulous ornaments and sparkling textiles to fruit and vegetables and tourist tat – are oases of peace: richly decorated medersas built by the Merinids in the 14th century; mosque courtyards; elaborate medieval funduqs (inns for itinerant traders); and tree-filled courtyards of opulent Riyads – the traditional Moroccan home.

A private street in the medina

One of the medina's many public streets lined with shops

Not surprisingly, the medina of Fez presents problems to the first-time visitor, especially in navigating its tortuous geography. Here, the standard way of getting hold of new cities – seeing them from a high viewpoint – only serves to confuse, the streets disappearing in the extraordinary density of low-rise housing that only becomes apparent when above the city. On the ground, maps are virtually useless for the tourist as most of the streets are either unnamed or only given in Arabic script. At the very centre of the old city, conventional geography seems to stand on its head: covered streets lead around the enormous central mosque in a whirl of dense crowds and heavilly-laden donkeys, and the connecting side streets are so narrow and dark they seem to be underground.

Courtyard of a medersa in the medina

Narrow street passing from dark to light in the medina

In this place, one navigates initially by trial and error as if in a maze (getting lost, retracing one’s steps, discovering dead ends); then by remembering certain features that remind you to turn left or right; then by the gradients (down towards the centre of the city, up to get out). After a few days, certain streets begin to link up in the mind and a skeletal outline of the city is mentally constructed. Only with many weeks – even months – of exploration would the rest of the labyrinth slowly unfold itself and connect together.

For the tourist, navigating the medina of Fez inevitably brings you into contact with that peculiarly Moroccan character: the faux guide (false guide). Usually male youths, they lay in wait for tourists at strategic points in the old city (each seemingly having their own patch) and approach whenever there is a pause, hesitation or misdirected glance. After leading you to where you want to go they demand payment, usually much more than you wish to give. Most will try and divert you into a shop, presumably owned by a relative or even their employer. The only way to avoid being ensnared is to always know where you are going and thus Fes is ideal picking ground for these would-be-guides, preying on tourists’ most vulnerable weakness – their lack of environmental awareness. And so, in Fez, the tourist becomes like any other commodity being peddled in the souks, stripped of that special status that so characterises Islamic attitudes towards the ‘guest’.

Night in the medina

At night, when the shops close down and the touts go home, the medina quietens and takes on a new charm, one defined by private lives – boys kicking around a football, young girls walking with their mothers, groups of men gossiping in doorways, animals heard behind thick walls. This sharp disjunction between the public world of commerce – aggressive and male – and the private world of the family, is common to all cities, but particularly intense in a city like Fez, where the regular pulsations between these realms have been continuing unchanged for centuries.





Mapping London’s subterranean nightmares

1 10 2010

‘The point of cinematic geography is that it is made up’

(Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema)

‘A film, like a topographic projection, can be understood as an image that locates and patterns the imagination of its spectators. When it takes hold, a film encourages its public to think of the world in concert with its own articulation of space’

(Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema)

I focus here on two films that use underground London as their theme: Death Line released in 1972; and Creep, a loose remake of Death Line, released in early 2005. Films that employ the underground, particularly spaces of travel such as the London Underground, create a distinct geographical world that has a close affinity with cinema itself: space is abolished on the London Underground and ‘turned into time, the time it takes for the tube to pass through the dark tunnels to the illuminated, but spatially abstract platforms of the stations.’ Yet, the cinematic underground uses this absence of panorama to make the space more immanent – it becomes a space in which something is going to happen. Indeed, the films I explore also turn the banal experience of the Underground – that of everyday travel – into a more spatially and temporally complex one, in which the spaces of the Underground return as spaces of horror. If these films, as films, abolish space and replace it by time, they also reinstate, imaginatively, a spatial experience of the Underground that is usually absent in the city.

Mapping time

In post-War British cinema, the London Underground has only featured sporadically. Both Death Line and Creep have their origins in the expansive horror genre, but, within its specific use of London’s underground spaces, one that goes against the grain of the traditional British horror subjects: vampires, ghosts, and haunted houses. When Death Line was released in 1972, British horror was still dominated by the Hammer production company, with its countless Draculas and gratuitous female nudity, and the film poster drew on this as a means of publicity (1), however misleading this was.

1

In fact, Death Line, the debut film of the American director Gary Sherman, used defiantly ordinary early-1970s locations in an area around Russell Square tube station. The basic premise of the film is that a forgotten people exist within the Underground network. These are cannibalistic survivors of an underground disaster. In 1892, the City and South London Railway were digging a new line when the tunnel collapsed, the company abandoning the injured workers in the collapsed tunnel after they went bankrupt. Only two survivors are left – the hideously disfigured couple known only as ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’. The Woman dies while the Man hunts for ‘raw meat’ (the American title of the film) late at night on the platforms of nearby stations at Russell Square and Holborn. The rest of the film is played out as a dark satire on the British class system: a VIP goes missing at the beginning of the film, drawing in a young student couple, Alex and Patricia; while two working-class policemen investigate the missing man. Patricia is eventually abducted by the Man, intended to replace his dead wife, while Alex descends into the tunnels to rescue her before finally fatally injuring the Man.

2

Creep (2) offers a similar narrative: a single woman, Kate, falls asleep on the platform of Charing Cross underground station late at night, then takes the last train and enters a fearsome underground labyrinth carved out by a viscous killer, also hideously deformed. Through a protracted series of chase sequences (3), punctuated by extremely bloody murders, she eventually kills the monster and re-emerges in the early hours to the same platform on which she began her journey. There is social comment in Creep, especially in its inclusion of two homeless characters as unseen victims; but the monster here is much more powerful than that in Death Line, striking without reason, living in a self-made environment that straddles the above and below ground worlds, and whose murderous impulse is seen as the consequence of a childhood trauma become monstrous in adulthood. Creep is the deformed result of a genetic experiment, doomed to live hidden from London’s normal world above ground. His revenge is only vaguely understood and, although, like the Man in Death Line, he is a social victim, but nevertheless remains as monstrous because we cannot empathise with his plight.

3

Some of the narrative differences between the films can be drawn out using time maps: here are ones that I made of both films (click on the images to enlarge them).

4 Death Line timeline

5 Creep timeline

In these maps, time runs down the page in the wide bar, divided into 10-minutes section, and also divided into white sections (above-ground spaces) and cross-hatched sections (below-ground spaces). Location changes are indicated to the left of this wide bar. To the right of the bar, different-coloured thin lines represent the ‘screen time’ of the seven leading characters in both films.  The major difference seen clearly in these timelines is the comparative amount of time spent underground in these films: bar a short sequence at a party and a street scene, all of Creep is set underground; while Death Line switches between above- and below-ground locations throughout the film until the final 20 minutes, which take place entirely underground. In addition, as seen in the coloured lines, the narrative of Death Line almost entirely revolves around character couples: Alex and Patricia, Inspector Calquorn and sergeant Rodgers, and the Man and the Woman; while Creep has a more fractured narrative of appearance and disappearance centred around the almost continuous screen presence of the lone female, Kate. In Death Line there are several direct cuts between one couple – Alex and Patricia, and another – the Man and the Woman, suggesting that a more direct comparison is being made between these two couples. In fact, as the timeline clearly shows, relationships between couples form the key strategy of the film’s narrative, which serves to heighten both our sympathy and disgust for the monstrous couple below ground. The very disconnection of couples in Creep perhaps reflects the alienation of 21st century London, where singleness and ambition dominate social life both above and below ground. Finally, in Death Line there is a distinct change in tempo in the scenes filmed above and below ground: above ground is characterised by a realist mode, the temporal unfolding dictated by character interaction; while below ground, time unfolds much more slowly with long tracking shots and indistinct lighting. In contrast, Creep maintains a hurried ‘documentary’ pace throughout, with often-shaky camerawork in the extended chase sequences. Only in the very depths of the underworld made by Creep does the camera remain static – the place where he has complete control over his surroundings.

Mapping space

Time-based maps like those I made for these two films obliterate spatial representation – in effect reducing the films to plans that look remarkably similar to the iconic London Underground map, with its coloured lines and lack of geographic specificity. This abstract space, comprising only movement in time, might correspond to our everyday experience of travelling underground but, in both films, this absence of spatial representation is turned on its head in their knitting together of both real and imagined underground spaces. These are perhaps best understood using others types of map, namely the plan and the section, more usually associated with the representation of buildings or other ‘static’ spaces. Removing the variable of time, we can map the spaces of these films in which the narrative is played out. However, unlike similar representations of buildings, the meaning of these spaces cannot be separated from time – and in fact, arguably all representations of ‘space’ cannot be thus separated even if they invariably are so in conventional map representations.

6 Death Line plan

The underground spaces in Death Line are relatively straightforward (6). Between Russell Square and Holborn tube stations, on the Piccadilly Line, is the hidden space of the abandoned line and platform. The platform is named ‘Museum’ and refers to one of the Underground’s 40 or so ‘lost’ stations, British Museum (7), opened in 1900 between Holborn and Tottenham Court road stations on the Central Line. It closed in 1933 and has remained so ever since.

7. 1913 Underground map

The use of this station in the film is topographically accurate, as the station is indeed situated between Russell Square and Holborn as it is in the film. However, the actual station used for filming is Aldwych, another abandoned station that was the terminus of a small stretch of line from Holborn to the Strand. The film obviously draws on the notion of a ‘lost’ underground that is like a ‘rabbit warren’, as is directly referred to in the film. Yet, from the plan of the film’s underground spaces (6), it is apparent that the spaces are more straightforward: a bit of abandoned line, a station, tunnels and the underground lair inhabited by the cannibals. Yet, this ‘closed’ space, with only one apparent entry and exit point, and coupled with the long tracking shots used in the film, contribute to a sense of claustrophobic closedness: this underground is more tomb than rabbit warren. As seen in the schematic section (8), spatial complexity, both horizontally and vertically, is more apparent in the relationship between the above-ground locations, from the ground-level shops, bookshop, café, pub and theatre, to the various vertical levels of Calqourn’s house, Alex’s attic flat and the Police station in the upper level of a tall building.

8. Death Line section

9. Creep plan

Creep’s underground spaces (9) conform much closer to the rabbit-warren description, also used in the film itself, with its labyrinthine quality. Starting at Charing Cross on the now abandoned Jubilee line platform, the film moves to another deeper level platform at Charing Cross, which is actually Aldwych platform, through tunnels to connect with the sewer system, which is both above and below the underground railway; to a long room full of boxes (actually Camden deep level tube shelter), and then a series of rooms in which Creep carries out his monstrous operations, to another ‘lost’ platform (Aldwych again but set up differently), and then finally back to Charing Cross. There are innumerable entry and exit points into Creep’s underground world, from both the sewers and the tube, ones that in the end can only be understood by the monster himself. The abandoned station is named ‘Down Street’ in the film: like ‘Museum’ in Death Line, this refers to an actual ‘lost’ station that lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park – Dover Street on the 1913 map (7) – which is again topographically accurate within the film itself. As seen in the sectional view (10), the spatial complexity of the film lies entirely underground, with its many horizontal and vertical movements between the spaces.

10. Creep section

Lost spaces

The maps I have made for these two films give visual confirmation of existing commentary on them. The constricted underground spaces of Death Line are a metaphor for the perceived stasis of the British class system and a fear of the results of such a lack of social mobility – the workers returning as monsters feeding on those above them. When the film was made Britain was experiencing its most sustained period of industrial unrest since the 1920s and this influenced the way in which the film’s spaces play out: movement above ground; stasis below ground. Thirty years later, Creep articulates the very opposite of this: a fear of too much mobility, or rather of a promiscuous mobility in the city by dark forces that transgress social boundaries, particularly the twin forces of globalisation and international terrorism, which in the months leading up the 7 July 2005, was very much centred on the London Underground. In this version of underground London social invisibility leads to indiscriminate violence, the loss of identity and personal trauma. As David Pike has observed, when the underground features in an imaginative context, it does so in the light of some fear in the world above: this is true none more so than in horror films, which do this explicitly and often exploitatively in is the case in Creep. It’s impossible to imagine a film like Creep being released after 7 July 2005, when those fears were actually realised.

There’s much more to be said about this, and also about the relationship between mapping and film, particularly further research on how to integrate maps of time and space to produce a narrative map. Yet,  I think that mapping filmic space is a useful tool in conjunction with conventional filmic analysis. It sheds light on the differing ways in which underground spaces articulate, in their narrative use of urban space, very different kinds of social commentary in the metropolis.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,627 other followers

%d bloggers like this: