Spiral coast

14 02 2015
Spiral near Charmouth, Dorset

Spiral near Charmouth, Dorset

Leaving the busy pub directly above the beach at Seatown, in south Dorset, I begin my 3-mile walk back along the coast to Charmouth. Just like the previous three days, the December sun in a cloudless, calm sky felt unseasonably warm; the shingle beach sloping steeply into the gently rolling waves at high tide. Behind, a low wall of  grey Eype clay cliffs visibly crumbled, leaving piles of debris at their bases. Approaching these unappealing mounds, and with keen eyes, you see them: the tell-tale spiral forms of ancient molluscs, the ammonites. Prize open some larger pieces of this mud and you find more, some in a miraculous state of preservation, others crumbling away before your eyes – lost forever.

Seatown shingle

Seatown shingle

Cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

This is the world of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, where ancient sedimentary rock and mud, laid down when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, spews forth an endless multitude of fossils that have attracted relic-hunters for nearly two centuries. Now a World Heritage site and a mecca for school parties and tourists alike, the fossils on this part of the English coast are hardly news to palaeontologists, but they are still wondrous to those, like myself, who see them for the first time.

Ammonites found in the Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Ammonites found in the Eype clay cliffs flanking Seatown beach

Pryrite ammonite found on the shoreline, Charmouth beach

Pryrite ammonite found on the shoreline at Charmouth

One initially feels as if the remains of these ancient creatures should yield themselves only with great reluctance; and the sight of many visitors with hammers and other hunting paraphernalia seems to the confirm this; yet, adjust your eyes to the details of the landscape at your feet (and away from the horizon of the sea) and they will appear: whether the pyrite examples that, in their miraculous state of preservation, give the strong impression of being fabricated objects; to the more elusive spirals that are encrusted in the harder stone, and which seem to be emerging from a subterranean world within.

Ammonites and other fossils embedded in Limestone found near Charmouth

Ammonites and other fossils embedded in Limestone found near Charmouth

Ammonite in Limestone found near Golden Gap

Ammonite in Limestone found near Golden Gap

The ammonites’ characteristic form – the spiral – is a primal shape, a geometric form that emerged from the basic needs of the soft-bodied animals that lived in these shells. Occupying the last and largest of the chain of spiralled chambers, the vulnerable mollusc would fill the channels with gas or fluid to enable its home to sink quickly in the event of a predatory attack.

Tiny Pyrite ammonite (5mm diameter) found on Charmouth beach

Tiny Pyrite ammonite (5mm diameter) found on Charmouth beach

Accidental votive offering near Golden Gap

Accidental votive offering near Golden Gap

Yet, there is no doubt that this most ancient of homes is also a potent image for the human imagination. As explored in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, shells demonstrate that ‘life begins less by reaching upward, than by turning upon itself.’ For Bachelard, the mollusc’s motto would be: ‘one must live to build one’s house, and not build one’s house to live in’. Such a concept of dwelling has profound implications for us: these spirals are not so much objects to be contemplated as invitations to dream: an ’empty shell, like an empty nest, invites day-dreams of refuge’. Perhaps this is why ammonites were once believed to be the petrified remains of coiled snakes or, in India, concrete manifestations of the divine.





Ruins in reverse: Ciudad Valdeluz, Spain

3 12 2014

Unfinished college building, Valdeluz

It was the American artist Robert Smithson who, in 1967, first coined the phrase ‘ruins in reverse’ when describing some of the strange forms he encountered in the post-industrial landscape around his home town of Passaic in New Jersey. His first ruin in reverse was an abandoned highway – a ‘zero panorama’ that contained within it ‘the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.’ Of course, that abandoned construction project was not a new phenomenon – one can imagine countless structures in history never reaching a state of completion; yet, there was something unprecedented in Smithson’s attribution of the term ‘ruin’ to this not-yet-built environment.

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, these ruins in reverse have become so commonplace and widespread as to comprise a new international ‘style’ of ruination, one that has generated an enormous amount of media commentary, from abandoned infrastructure (like Smithson’s ‘zero’ highway) to entire cities waiting to be inhabited in China. One such site is the commuter town of Valdeluz, 40 miles northeast of Spain’s capital, Madrid, which I visited on a humid September day earlier this year. Conceived at the height of Spain’s economic boom in early 2004, the city (Ciudad) of Valdeluz was laid out next to a vast station on the new high-speed railway that linked Madrid with Barcelona. Nine thousand homes were planned (for an estimated population of 30,000), as well as a large business park, state-of-the-art college, leisure facilities and verdant ‘green zones’ of parks, children’s playgrounds and golf courses. To date, only a quarter of the apartment buildings have been completed, with the population starting in 2008 at only 200 and rising slowly today to around 2,500.

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Visiting Valdeluz requires detailed knowledge of train timetables: for at least 10 hours every day, no trains at all stop at the station that serves the town, even as dozens hurry through on the high-speed line. As Smithson so clearly articulated, encountering ruins in reverse is akin to being dislocated from conventional notions of time. In Valdeluz, the unmistakeable peace encountered in the ruin is entirely missing; from the abandoned remnants of the town, one cannot construct an image of the built environment as it once was, but, rather, left groping in the dark as to what it was (and is) meant to be. Even though all the objects encountered are familiar to the point of banality (benches, lampposts, manhole covers, pavements, roads, junction boxes), in their unfinished state they seem unreadable, detached as they are from any sense of an assured future use.

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Even stranger, of course, is the reality of Valdeluz as a place that is lived-in, albeit by only a few. As reported by Newsweek in June 2014, these residents express a common feeling of being cut-off from larger society, forced to deal with unprecedented problems of place-making and social cohesion. As the proprietor of the town’s only café, Yolanda Alvarez, stated, the problems in the town are precisely the opposite of those normally associated with urban life: too much peace-and-quiet, too little to do, virtually no public transport. Even as the town’s mayor has voiced optimism with regard to the future of the fledgling community, so much rests on the larger forces that created the town in the first place (and which have now departed).

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

As I hurried back to catch the mid-afternoon train back to Madrid (the last for another 10 hours), the identical clocks spread out on the long empty platform were audible in their rhythmic ticking. Apart from this and the muffled noise of the wind, there was an unearthly sense of stasis, a feeling that generated an entirely new notion of ruin. It was as if a world had been created for the purpose of demonstrating some kind of meaning that nevertheless remained entirely elusive. Had some alien force deposited this built environment onto the earth as a simulation of a human environment? If so, for what purpose? Finding the elusive answers to these questions may yet account for the profoundly alien nature of global capitalism and the increasingly large-scale ruins in reverse it is leaving in its wake.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.





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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sewer

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.

Sump

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.’

Swamp

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.





Ruin imaginaries: Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

17 07 2014
1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

On a soggy Sunday morning in Snowdonia, I took the opportunity to re-visit Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker. It’s a film like no other – an immersive, meditative science fiction story that moves at such a glacial pace that, by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, one is either mesmerised or bored to distraction. Far more spiritually infused than its literary source, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971), Stalker takes you on a snail’s-paced journey into a post-apocalyptic world of mudane detritus, damp featureless landscapes and industrial ruination, all suffused with melancholic longing.

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By the afternoon, the Welsh rain had cleared and I drove up to Blanaeu Ffestiniog to explore the extraordinary landscape to the north of this slate mining town. One of the wettest built-up areas in Britain, Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by the remnants of a once global industry: groups of hills entirely made up of discarded slate and littered with ruined buildings and defunct machinery, and traversed by tramways at impossibly steep angles. As I walked up one of these hills from the northern edge of the town into the Maenofferen quarry, the ruined landscape closed in, the encroaching mist above accentuating the enveloping quality of the slate hills (2). With Stalker so fresh in my mind, this landscape could not help but call to mind the Zone in that film and with that recollection, the hills became inscrutable, mysterious and distinctly threatening. Some parts of the quarry are still worked: yet on this April sabbath, all of the machines stood idle, as if abandoned by an alien civilisation forced to leave in a hurry (3).

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Further up the slate-made hills, the mist descended like a benign miasma. As any hill-walker knows too well, mist is a peculiarly discomforting phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes everything so still, soft and muffled; on the other, it hides what is close by, collapsing the world into a small sensory bubble. Here, just as in Stalker, the mist turned buildings into visual mysteries – half-shrouded entities that only made sense when close enough to make out their forms (4). Throughout my perambulation of this vast, unruly site, those mysteries seemed to deepen with every step, as if confirming the Zone’s profound illogic that the shortest way is never the most direct. So, only after a long detour around the edge of the Snowdonia National Park – navigating by fenceposts, half-glimpsed reservoirs and stream-beds – did I eventually return to the quarry from its northern side, finally entering the vast and monolithic buildings where the slate used to be unloaded and worked until the complex ceased production in 1999. In these buildings – unlike many former industrial sites – all of the machinery and many of the tools have remained, seemingly abandoned with haste after some unknown cataclysm forced the workers to flee.

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In these spaces, objects piled on objects, crowding in and demanding to be deciphered: three delicately-composed circular metal saw blades waiting to be catalogued (5); one gruesome hook longing for a kill (6); a lone rusting screw suggesting familial loss (7); one glove marking the position of a dead hand? (8) Of course, with some basic knowledge of the slate-working process, I would have made sense of these objects, but who could have really understood the final room – a vast barn-like space filled with absurd vehicles petrified in immobility? As the mist rolled in through the missing timber roof, these objects became extraordinary bearers of meaning trapped out-of-time: the green trolley ‘not allowed underground’ (9); the blue one with a single bright-red wheel hub (10); the strange sunken ‘eyes‘ of the yellow one (11); and the almost comedic shape of the rusty one (12). Yet, whilst photographing these vehicles, all of a sudden the mist vanished and the power of that mystery lifted. At once, these objects became more grounded and the alien monoliths outside the barn became what they really were: half-finished concrete pillars (4). Now, the Molewyn range of mountains appeared beyond and the real world opened up once again.

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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?








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