The opening title sequence of Coronation Street, Britain’s longest running soap opera, hasn’t changed significantly since it was first broadcast on 9 December 1960: the plaintive brass theme tune is still accompanied by bird’s-eye views of Manchester’s brick terraces, interspersed with images of the city as it has evolved in the last half-century – from monotone, industrial and smoky to clean, bright and colourful. The sequence finishes in the eponymous street itself – a recreation of a typical city terrace that the show’s creator, Tony Warren, described as being what one might find if you travelled ‘four miles in any one direction from the centre of Manchester’. The image of the city here could not be more different from that portrayed in the opening sequence of Eastenders (Coronation’s Street’s more recent London-based soap cousin), beginning at it does from high above east London and gradually moving towards the soap’s local epicentre, Albert Square. Thus, in the one, the city is summed up by the domestic and the generic; in the other, the opposite, namely, the global and the abstract. London, the world city; Manchester, the local one.
So, what might we find in Greater Manchester if we take Coronation Street as our guide and Tony Warren’s four-mile radius from the city centre? Starting in Moston, in the northern suburbs, we would discover late-Victorian terraces embellished with terracotta, exuberantly emphasising both the horizontality of the row and the repeating forms of the window and door arches. Here, as in many other districts of the city, the bricks have been painted in different hues of red, in keeping with the red Accrington bricks that were used to construct so much of Manchester’s built environment in the 19th century. Moving south and east, Droylsden’s terraces are similarly painted, but generally devoid of enlivening ornament; further south-east, the terraces of Reddish display a marked emphasis on solidity, with their imposing chimney stacks and round-arched doorways. Turning westwards, we encounter more imposing rows of much larger houses in the salubrious areas of Heaton Chapel, Didsbury and Chorlton, where wealthier tenants (owners today) were generally provided with much wider and deeper houses, large bay windows at the front and extensive gardens at the back. Moving west into Salford and the terraces revert back to type – often stretching long distances and mostly of the standard two-up two-down form, with very little ornament seen in the rows of Eccles and Swinton, the brick here mostly left unpainted.
Ubiquitous and monotonous as they may be, terraces nevertheless deserve more attention than they have so far received because each has its own history and its own architectural and social value; they are, in a very real sense, the foundational building type of British towns and cities. As evidenced in the brief overview above, far from being generic, terraces in Manchester display an extraordinary variety of forms that evidence how the city was divided up according to the dictates of economy and class. Because almost all terraces were built speculatively by developers anticipating demand, their layout was decided by the social status of whom they were being built for. Thus, in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly during the boom years following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and again in the 1840s and early 1850s, enormous swathes of densely-packed and poorly-constructed terraced housing were erected in the areas immediately surrounding the city centre – the mile-wide ‘girdle’ described by Friedrich Engels in 1844 in which he witnessed the most appalling living conditions endured by Manchester’s industrial workforce. Yet, virtually all of these early terraces have now vanished, either being replaced by better-quality rows in the second half of the nineteenth century or demolished by the City Council in 20th century. The terraces that remain today mostly date from the late nineteenth century, constructed during the series of speculative building booms that accompanied the growth of the cotton industry in Manchester after the building of the Ship Canal in the 1890s. As we’ve seen, these terraces catered for a wide range of potential inhabitants, from industrial workers to middle-class merchants.
As architectural historian Stefan Muthesius has demonstrated, terraced housing was singular to the development of British cities in the 19th century; on the continent, the characteristic pattern of housing provision in cities was detached homes in the suburbs and dense blocks of flats in the inner urban and suburban areas. Despite the rise of the semi-detached house after about 1920 and a brief period of high-rise building in the 1960s and early 1970s, most British towns and cities continued to witness the low-rise terrace as the most commonplace form of housing, a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of British people want to inhabit a separate house, even if, in the densest inner-city areas, that house might be very small indeed. Even as the high-rise Hulme Crescents in the early 1970s attempted to replicate the density of the Victorian terraces they superseded with their concrete ‘streets in the sky’, their subsequent replacement with low-rise postmodernist rows indicates that what people want in their houses is a sense of separation from others, and particularly separation on the vertical axis. At the same time as high-rise housing in Manchester was generally abandoned, the more suburban low-rise housing estates that followed in their wake – mostly comprised of semi-detached homes arranged in cul-de-sacs – have also come to be regarded as failures. Today, the reinstatement of terraces in areas like Ancoats, Gorton and central Salford confirm the enduring appeal of the row as the most attractive form of housing for those who live in the city’s inner suburbs, whether by choice or necessity. Of course, there is much that separates the new rows of social housing in Gorton from the resolutely private ones in Ancoats, not least their price tags, but they both share a basis in a fundamental (and class-transcending) desire to both own a separate living space (whether that space is large or small, rented or bought) and to share that space with others. In a sense, the terrace represents a remarkably long-lasting architectural solution to the appeasement of these contradictory desires.