Words: Dale Lately Image: Paddy Baxter
… Now, of course, the entire centre of the city had been rebuilt – taking advantage of the land cleared by the bomb to create a utopian community based on the shared values of universal equality and common ownership. Had they? No. But they had built a huge new shopping centre – directly in place of the huge old shopping centre, in fact – where the citizens of one of the largest urban communities in the United Kingdom could come and express their civic duties by eating some KFC and then buying a pair of Primark tights made in an Indonesian sweatshop. And let’s face it, shopping doesn’t get much more British than that.
Near Canal Street I passed a construction site for a new block of studio flats called ‘Origin’, where a hoarding below combined a sort of mixture of agit-prop and neuro-linguistic programming to appeal to its property-investing target market. There was a series of moody, cool looking models, sorted by ethnicity: a guy in a business suit who looked a bit like Jay-Z, a funky Asian girl, a white woman in a flirty purple cocktail dress. They were like shop dummies for the luxury flats taking shape behind them: display mannequins, really, and each had a few words beside them in giant typeface that were supposed to sum up something or other in a zeitgeisty kind of way. ‘Efficient, Effortless And Individual,’ it said beneath the businessman who looked a bit like Jay-Z. The Asian girl got:
I wondered about this as I rode on. How could you ‘home-make’ in a risk-taking way? Put a loose carpet under the stairs so people might slip down them? Fail to take adequate safety precautions?
‘No fire-proof doors for me,’ she’d say, proudly, as she showed people around. ‘If there’s a blaze, we burn. That’s the kind of risk-taking homemaker I am.’
I found my way onto gleaming Cathedral Street, where the glass cliff faces of the new luxury yuppiedromes gleamed down on the Harvey Nics. Manchester was a testament to the politics of aspiration. That’s what its skyline said. That’s what all these gentrified loft apartments and Pitcher and Pianos said. Central Manchester was basically one giant luxury loft apartment.
‘Oi,’ all the glass seemed to say. ‘Aspire.’
Perhaps the politics of aspiration really was the answer? Perhaps all we had to do to solve the housing crisis and the jobs problem was build some luxury apartments and an upmarket mall to serve them? As I glanced around at the chain stores lining the street, the giant rebuilt mall in the middle, the massive town square with the Primark sign beaming down on it like benevolent greetings from an advanced extra-terrestrial race – I sort of wondered why they don’t just build a big wall around the whole thing and declare that from now on Manchester will only be open from 11pm to 6pm on Sundays.
‘In the beginning there was no big plan, no strategy, just a wholehearted belief in cities … And a desire to make things better,’ says the website of ‘Urban Splash’, the most famous of the sexy Young British Developers who got rich in the New Labour housing boom years for building electrified fortresses for wealthy professionals in the middle of social Armageddon. ‘We made homes, we made offices and we made special places in between for people to be and do things that people do.’
Urban Splash aren’t just construction people, you see – oh no. They’re cultural creatives. They have style.
‘Way back when, in the 1980s,’ their website goes on, stylishly, ‘when post punk pop topped the charts, when New Romantics taught us to tuck our jumpers in our pants, when Thatcher and Scargill went to war over coal not dole, we were busy forgetting how great British cities had been and had no idea how great they might be again…’
Or to put it another way: if you’re the kind of client who’s too cool to wear suits but likes to do Colombian marching powder off a copy of The Art of War in a ‘blue sky room’ while retro chillout seeps from Bang Olufsen speakers, then Urban Splash are the developers for you.
I looked around.
I’d known the crumbling badlands around Victoria station since my youth, but they were changing fast. The ghost mills were becoming flats and galleries and sushi restaurants. Personally I’ve never really understood the fascination of industrial chic, or why anyone would want to live in a freezing spartan cube with thirty foot high ceilings poised above a Pitcher & Piano where a glass of wine served in a concrete bunker costs £8.99 and you have to mortgage your house just to afford a rocket salad. Or sipping a glass of Rioja on a cantilevered balcony over the room where small Victorian children used to have their limbs torn off by threshing machines. I’d found a Guardian supplement lying around entitled ‘The Tribes of Manchester’ which attempted to give visitors a cultural flavour of the city, and thought I’d buy a pasty and flick through it now to reacquaint myself with the place. Personally I always find these little cultural maps for outsiders with their ‘types’ vaguely suspect. Would I really get very far if I walked into a bar and asked them if they knew where to find a “Northern Quarter Hipster?”
‘I’m looking for the “Hacienda Man,”’ I’d say, brandishing the Guardian pullout and pointing to the little map, as if I was on the trail of a Neanderthal dig. ‘Or a “Chorlton Boho”. Or, on the offchance, if you knew where to find one – an actual live, genuine “Scally.”’ Then I’d lower the guide again, and wait expectantly, smiling.
Then I’d get smacked in the face.
As I gazed at the brownfield devastation snaking along the canal to the east, into a place so derelict that even Lidl had failed to open up, I covered my eyes from the glare of the whiplashed cloud and took a deep breath. Whatever you thought about the politics of aspiration, you had to admire anyone who was going to go looking for it out there.
In the beginning there was no big plan, no strategy, just a wholehearted belief in cities, in design, in architecture and a desire to make things better. We made homes, we made offices and we made special places in between for people to be and do things that people do…
If you go on the ‘New Islington Millennium Community’ website you’ll find an account of its ‘renaissance’ of the down-at-heel Ancoats area in east Manchester which seems to be pitched somewhere between a bedtime story and a Messianic prophecy.
‘Just over 7 years ago, Urban Splash, Manchester City Council, English Partnerships and residents of the Cardroom Estate embarked on a really big adventure,’ it tells us, as if it was tucking us up with a teddy bear and a mug of coco. ‘This is the story about a disadvantaged community with a strong heart and a brave soul.’
So far so utopian. But don’t worry, moneymen! ‘Profit is not a four letter word,’ the New Islington Millennium Community website continues, thinly veiling its terror of losing investors with too much hippy bullshit, like a friendly dad reminding some dreamy kids that they can have their tree house but they’ll have to pay him back for the nails. ‘We’ve never shied away from the fact that the driving forces behind change in New Islington are the desire to make money.’
So thank God for that.
‘This is the story about a disadvantaged community with a strong heart and a brave soul.
‘About their deep roots and fragile existence.
‘About mums and dads, kids and grand-kids.
‘This is a story about balancing the desire to make profit with the needs of a sustainable community,’ the website goes on. ‘About an evolutionary approach to saving the planet … This is a story about trying to make things better.’
Which sort of implies that the developers behind New Islington are responsible for the building of a global future utopia where human inequality will be eradicated. Whereas what they’re actually doing is building some luxury flats nobody can afford in the middle of a poisoned wasteland.
Broken glass crunched beneath my trainers.
I was following a particularly neglected canalhole of dereliction that snaked out of the centre, and I was assuming that broken glass wasn’t originally part of the original vision. But there was a lot of it. A hell of a lot, as the canal wound on through the turdscape of abandoned hopes and speculative property failures, through deserted building sites and credit-crunched constructions. Everywhere you looked the money had run out and the creditors had been called in.
‘New Islington,’ beamed a funky sign, with pictures of a brightly coloured cartoon utopia over a fenced-off wasteland of rubbish and weeds. Rainwater collected in puddles beneath it while a pale sun glanced down through the cloud above. ‘Building Solutions!’ said a corrugated fence. It had fallen over.
I blinked in the anemic sunlight, slightly unnerved by the silence. We were barely a mile from TK Maxx, but we may as well have been on the asteroid the Little Prince planted the tree on for all the human activity. A woman walked by with scarf wrapped over mouth, grim-faced against the wind. Around a lamppost a yellow sticker fantasized to itself. ‘Danger,’ it joked. ‘Men at Work’.
I looked around in a sort of mild astonishment. I knew that the housing bubble had collapsed pretty hard in 2008, but you couldn’t have found an epitaph to the politics of aspiration much better than this one. This place didn’t look like a recession had hit it; it looked much like it had been the victim of a sudden bubonic plague.
High profile redevelopment projects need their high profile planners and starchitects, and they don’t come much cooler than the GI Joe of British urban planning, Will Alsop, who’s called in to oversee prestige projects in the same way that DJ Tiesto is called in to headline a New Year’s eve club night. ‘Taking on the development of what was one of Manchester’s worst estates was always going to be a challenge,’ the website reports, like a narrator introducing Bear Grylls as he packs his hunting knives. ‘The bones of the plan came from architect Will Alsop’s sketch, made with a glass of wine in one hand and a thick felt pen in the other,’ it goes on. ‘With Alsop there is no other way.’
I considered this. Would I really want to live in a multi-storey housing complex designed by a guy with a ‘glass of wine’ and ‘a thick felt pen’? Surely that would make some of the load-bearing calculations a little suspect? And what exactly do they mean by ‘no other way’ – that he only knows how to use a thick felt pen, and not, for example, any of the advanced computer aided design software available to the modern architect?
‘What the hell’s this? Where’s Will Alsop’s designs for the new construction?’
‘Yeah, that’s it.’
‘This? But it’s just a load of scrawls made with a thick felt pen on a bit of paper. And look, there’s wine stains all of them.’
‘Oh, that’s just Will’s style I’m afraid. With him there’s no other way.’
It might of course explain some of his output – Tetris cube libraries that look like they might be about to fall over, Italian plazas for Asian communities in Bradford and lately ‘Chips’ – a splodge of wormy apartment blocks stacked on top of each other (like chips) that Will apparently thought would reflect the local ‘flavor’ of Manchester. The complex, sensitive and consultation-based ideas process presumably went something like this:
‘I’ve got it! Manchester, right? Chips.’
Although given what we now know about Alsop, it might well have gone like this.
‘I’ve got it! Manchester, right? Chips.’
‘Will… Oh, Christ. Will, put the glass of wine down. He’s been drinking again. You need to… Can you give me a hand? He’s been at the wine – and he’s scrawled all over the computer screen with that fucking thick felt pen again… Christ, Will.’
I pushed on.
The canal was becoming progressively shittier by the minute. A regeneration site was degenerating fast, with a broken bit of hoarding which had freed itself from its moorings now grating the edge of the wall in the wind. I couldn’t seem to find Will ‘Chips’ Alsop’s masterpiece itself, but I did see a huge billboard for it amongst a clump of buildings that looked like they’d been in the process of being rebuilt but got depressed halfway through and had to go home to have a lie-down. ‘Coming Soon!’ It breathed. It gave a completion date from four years ago.
‘We’re excited about the Something Something in Ancoats,’ another sign boasted from the middle-distance. I couldn’t read the words in the middle as they were obscured by Keep Out signs.
I finally located ‘Chips’ among crumbling warehouses, gutted scaffolding and bright utopian billboards promising paradise at a about a billion pounds per square foot. It looked rather like three enormous brightly coloured caterpillars had climbed on top of one another and developed chronic fatigue symptoms while they were up there. All around it was eerily quiet. The car park was drenched in rainwater and fenced off. From the canal towpath the ground floors looked empty to me, just swathes of cubic empty space, although I wasn’t sure how I could get nearer to investigate – the whole thing felt like it had been sealed off and quarantined for everybody else’s protection. I did glimpse a few lights on in the flats upstairs, as if some kind of global devastation event had shaken the earth and a few lonely survivors were cowering in their loft apartments, presumably trying to eat the lacquer coffee tables, or failing that, each other. Opposite stood another empty glass box of unaffordable flats with a big sign saying ‘Sales Now Open’ and a huge telephone number rippling in the breeze. To Let signs graced the windows everywhere.
The ducks seemed to like it.
I rode around a bit more, tracing and retracing my way through the dereliction. There seemed to be nobody else around for miles. Somehow I managed to get so far off-course that the only route back along the canal towards the city was through a narrow gap squeezed between a bit of fence and a sad derelict factory, where the wind was piling the hoarding against the wall with terrifying force. Bits of wood splintered off against the brick.
It was the only route available to me.
In a momentary respite in the wind I plunged into the gap. There was an awful metallic creak. ‘Building Solutions!’ beamed the logo, as it smashed into the wall behind me, nearly pushing me into the canal. Another howling gust picked it up and it curled back again, ponderously, like the tail of an enormous scorpion.
You might wonder what building concrete interment camps for the professional classes dotted with spiky and underground parking has to do with ‘regeneration’.
As I picked my way back over the broken glass and into Manchester, relieved to see signs of life and civilisation, I reflected that I was only getting half the story here. The cantilevered balconies and upmarket property speculation clearly hadn’t come off quite as it was hoped in the North: I needed to visit places where the luxury apartments were actually filling up, and house prices were still at bubble levels. I’d have to make the old journey back down south…
Of course the general rationale for all this was the ‘trickle down’ effect – the idea that erecting glass cubes for the wealthy in the middle of economic disaster zones would magically bestow wealth and prosperity on them, as long as you can force the imaginative leap that lets you picture upmarket ‘aspirational’ couple shopping for champagne tumblers at the local Poundstretcher. Since these fenced off colonies generally have their own parking, services and even shops and gyms, it’s hard to see why a highly-paid professional would leave the cushiony comfort of a Carluccio’s to trudge half a mile to the delights of the nearest kebab shop.
In fact you might even ask whether inhabiting a tetra-clad battery farm as a sort of blip in a property speculator’s computer game is actually much fun – particularly in light of the fact that the property market has been stoked to such punishing levels that anybody my age would struggle to make the down payment on a two bedroom end-terrace in Slough, let alone an Urban Splash legoland dream home overlooking a pool of chemicals. You might ask these questions, but personally I was unable, since I had no experience of that end of the property market. I had no illusions about my capacity to downsize. I’d have to size first.
Beyond the dustheaps and construction mounds, beyond the spindly steel-clad skeletons, there was guy standing by the canal gazing off into the dusk. He looked about fifty maybe, with tired eyes and skin that looked much older. He didn’t look up as I passed, although I did see him give a brief glance towards the sky, where the ponderous swirl of cloud suggested drizzle. I have no idea what he was looking for up there. Perhaps, I reflected, as I felt the first flecks on my forehead, he was still waiting for all the wealth to start trickling down.