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).





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.








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