An area of outstanding unnatural beauty

6 12 2013
1. Stanlow oil refinery by night

1. Stanlow oil refinery by night

At the northern edge of the border between England and Wales the Manchester Ship Canal snakes its final miles along the southern banks of the River Mersey’s estuarine course to Liverpool. Hugging the edges of the Canal are the some of the remnants of England’s heavy industry, which once so dominated the entire area: from the Castner Kellner chemical works at Weston Point in Runcorn to the vast Stanlow oil refinery near Ellesmere Port – England’s second largest (1). Walking this area is a challenge as I found out one bright afternoon in late November: although there is a footpath through Runcorn’s petrochemical plants (2), it ends abruptly before one reaches the banks of the Ship Canal. One resident told me that the path had been blocked off and was now too overgrown; another warned me of a feral black panther that apparently prowls the industrial areas. Meanwhile, at Stanlow all public access is forbidden – the entrance to a private road that bisects the refinery warning casual drivers away, or not to stop or take photographs.

2. Runcorn's chemical works from the footpath.

2. Runcorn’s chemical works from the footpath.

Yet, so vast are these industrial sites – Stanlow is the size of a small town – that they are visible for miles around, even if mostly ignored by the motorists speeding over the flatlands between England and Wales on the M56 (who are ordered to ‘Keep two chevrons apart’ from each other as if diverting them from glancing at the endless smoking chimneys beyond). Stopping to look at this heavy industry is clearly discouraged, even as most would probably have no interest in doing so anyway. But why is this the case? If we celebrate and flock to contemplate areas of outstanding natural beauty, why should we not do the same for their unnatural counterparts?

3. Castner Kellner chemical works with the River Mersey beyond.

3. Castner Kellner chemical works with the River Mersey beyond

4. Castner Kellner chemical works with Stanlow in the distance

4. Castner Kellner chemical works with Stanlow in the distance

High on Runcorn Hill, the forms of the Castner Kellner chemical works provide an unnatural mirror of the river Mersey beyond (3). Just as the river creates a sublime aesthetics of ebb and flow, so the countless multicoloured pipes make visible their own mysterious currents and courses. As the sun began to set, the drifting smoke from the factory’s chimneys increased the natural drama unfolding beyond (4). Later still, as the sun briefly shot out dazzling rays behind a bank of cloud, the now silhouetted forms of pylon, chimney and scaffolded pipework provided new aesthetic resonances – surreal, anthropomorphic forms that seemed to emerge out of the landscape itself (5). Then, in the aftermath of a glorious sunset, the red-soaked sky framed a fantastical vision of multicoloured lights and half-shrouded forms jumbled together like some fantastical city of the future (6). Finally, in darkness now, the forest of chimneys and pipes at Stanlow dazzled in their night-time raiment of white light, emerging behind marshy fields and bare trees like the vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner (7).

5. Sunset over Runcorn

5. Sunset over Runcorn

6. Runcorn's industrial buildings from the Runcorn and Weston Canal

6. Runcorn’s industrial buildings from the Runcorn and Weston Canal

Does this enraptured gaze work against a more sober appreciation of the environmental costs of heavy industry? Or of its brutal economics – the reduction of human life to mere units of production? The 18th-century philosopher William Burke argued that, on the contrary, finding beauty in otherwise repellent objects is necessary because it allows us to hold a gaze that has the potential to dig deeper than mere appearances. Burke’s sublime gaze is one that leads to a more fuller awareness of the wholeness of human experience and the contradictory desires  that govern it. Perhaps not to look – or to look merely with disdain – is ultimately far more damaging than a gaze that allows itself to be enraptured by what is usually scorned.

7. Stanlow by night

7. Stanlow by night

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

The industrial sublime: Castlefield, Manchester

22 02 2012

1. The Castlefield basin and the Great Northern railway viaduct (1894).

In a rather secluded quarter of Manchester’s city centre lies Castlefield, a dramatic urban landscape that has become synonymous with collective images of Victorian urban industrialisation. With its tangle of waterways and railways, suspended on many vertical levels, it is almost as if the built environment here were deliberately created to make the human seem tiny and insignificant (1). Each successive vertical level represents a new phase of industrialisation: on the ground (and sometimes below the ground) are the canals – the Bridgewater and Rochdale – completed by the beginning of the 19th century; suspended above these, in a dizzying, seemingly unplanned formation, are the railway viaducts (2), built in periods of development in the 1840s, 1870s and 1890s, and characterised by massive brick arches in the earlier viaducts to enormous tubular steel columns in the Great Northern viaduct (1894).

2. Castlefield basin: the junction of the Bridgwater and Rochdale canals with an 1849 viaduct (centre left), a steel viaduct from the 1870s (top left) and the Great Northern viaduct from 1894 (right).

Even for early Victorian observers, such a landscape would have been associated with the idea of the sublime, that is, feelings of awe, even terror, generated by massive structures, overwhelming spectacles and a feeling of insignificance in the face of forces beyond human control. In the mid 18th century, the sublime was usually associated with a Romantic response to nature – savage storms, rough seas, great mountains – but, by the early 19th century, it was increasingly ascribed to the new wonders of industry, such as the iron furnaces at Coalbrookdale, the giant cotton mills in Ancoats, and later railway stations, viaducts and trains. Today, we have a tendency to regard these kinds of structures as rational objects, planned only according to the dictates of reason and utility; yet, here, in Castlefield, they are given rhetorical flourishes by their Victorian engineers that accentuate their sense of power: castellated turrets on the viaducts, gothic arches in the iron bridges (3), and stripped-down Egyptian capitals on the enormous steel columns.

3. Castellated towers and gothic ironwork of the Manchester South Junction & Altringham Railway viaduct (1849) with an 1870s steel lattice girder viaduct behind.

Castlefield’s vertical structure also reflects a very different conception of urban infrastructure than our own. Today, urban utilities – railways, water pipes, sewers, telecommunication cables – are generally planned to be as invisible as possible, either hidden beneath the ground or enclosed in tunnels and embankments. In the early Victorian period, new forms of urban infrastructure were unashamedly visible: canals were driven through towns and cities, railways sped over houses on viaducts, giant sewers were even built inside embankments and bridges rather than under the ground. In comparison with the sealed-off infrastructure of today’s cities, there’s something liberating – even truthful – about Castlefield’s sheer visibility, one that brings the hidden mechanisms of urban organisation out into the open in a celebration of their layered complexity.

4. View of the original shipping holes in the Middle Warehouse, built from 1828 to 1831 and converted into offices and apartments in 1988.

Today, Castlefield retains its distinct atmosphere largely as a result of careful management. Designated a conservation area in 1980, after years of neglect and dereliction, it became the UK’s first designated Urban Heritage Park in 1982. Amid the overpowering industrial structures are more recent interventions: a group of bars and restaurants taking advantage of the waterside location and dramatic views; modern footbridges which mirror in miniature the forms of the viaducts above them; and careful conversions of the canal-side warehouses into offices and apartments (4). And it’s from here that the otherwise brazenly individualistic form of the 47-storey Beetham Tower (2006) suddenly becomes a mirror of a much older industrial structure with the same visual impact – an architectural conversation across time (5).

5. An early 19th-century factory along the Rochdale Canal with the Beetham Tower (2006) behind.

Industrial ruins: abandoned slate quarries in North Wales

1 11 2011

1. Workers' houses at the Rhosydd Quarry, North Wales

Scattered throughout North Wales, and particularly concentrated in the Ffestiniog area, are a large number of abandoned slate mines and quarries. Perhaps the most evocative – and certainly one of the most isolated – is the Rhosydd Slate Quarry. Situated 1500ft above sea level between two mountain valleys, the location of the Quarry is spectacular, facing Cnicht on one side (known as the Welsh Matterhorn) and the bulky Moelwyns on the other. It’s accessible only by a mountain path, being over 2 miles from the nearest road and 4 miles from Croesor, the nearest village, itself remotely situated at the end of a minor road.

2. Fireplaces in the workers' houses

The remote site of the Rhosydd Quarry adds greatly to its potent sense of mystery. For it’s almost unbelievable to think that for 80 years from 1840, over 200 men were employed by the quarry, many of them living in purpose-built houses in this bleak location – treeless and one of the wettest spots in Wales. The workers’ cottages still stand in splendid but ruined isolation, their house-like quality just remaining in the surviving forms of the windows and chimney (1). For miles around are scattered enigmatic structures, including bits of rusting machinery and a succession of mills, barracks and adits constructed at different stages of the quarry’s development – testament to the lengths that were gone to to reach the then valuable slate, which lay in beds underneath the mountains.

3. Window in the workers' houses

4. Underground tunnel leading to the slate mine

Nearly all of the smaller Welsh slate quarries closed down in the early twentieth century due to falling demand and today only a few working quarries remain around the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The buildings of the Rhosydd Quarry express the complete dominance of just one building material: for everything that was built here was built with slate – from the window and fireplace lintels (2 & 3) (sometimes the only surviving bits of entire houses), to fences and walls that enclose and protect the buildings. Close to the houses are entrances to underground tunnels which gave access to the buried slate, hewn by hand and now made strangely beautiful by the return of nature – moss and water bringing colour to the otherwise grey walls of the tunnel (4). In the remains of the quarry buildings, architecture has been eroded into its most elemental forms: walls have bulged outwards, chimneys have collapsed in on themselves, isolated hearths are now surrounding by ruins. If these ruins are bleak and melancholic, they are also beautiful in their geometrical simplicity: in one of the buildings, the one remaining door lintel perfectly frames an enormous almost perfect cone of discarded slate above it (5).

5. Lintel and slate cone

The buildings of the Rhosyyd Quarry represent the ruins of an artificial industry naturalised by the passing of time and the brutal forces of nature – ruins that seem to be engaged in a powerful yet mysterious dialogue with their environment. In another remote abandoned slate quarry – the Prince of Wales Quarry – on the flanks of Nantlle mountains, most of the buildings have almost disappeared into the ground. Those that remain seem to testify to their submission to the larger forces that created the landscape from which they arose: the ruined roofline of one decaying building mirroring the form of the serrated mountain ridge behind (6).

6. Ruined building at the Prince of Wales Quarry


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