According to the latest research, 3.8bn people now use social media. That’s nearly half the planet. Facebook alone has over 2.6bn active users and WeChat has more than a billion, with Instagram, TikTok and others coming up behind.
It’s relatively easy to spread your tentacles in the digital world and many users have hundreds or even thousands of friends and followers who engage with every aspect of their life, for good and for bad.
Why do they bother? Because we are social animals and we need to connect with others to feel happy. We need to like and be liked and we need to feel part of something bigger, a community.
The real world is rather different from the virtual one though. According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the number of people with whom we can maintain stable relationships is around 150.
Dunbar’s number is derived from the size of our brains and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s true – village formations way back when, military groupings, campsites, even Christmas card lists. Around 150 acquaintances is the number that most people feel comfortable with – their ‘tribe’ in a manner of speaking.
Tribes need bases. They need homes. They need identities. They need a sense of community.
But that sense is in short supply right now. Society is increasingly disenfranchised. Borders are closing. Racial tensions are rising. The political system is fractured. Division seems rife. These things come in waves but the pandemic seems to have created a tsunami of difference, dissension and dissatisfaction.
That is the sort of environment where the right sort of base matters, perhaps more than ever.
According to the Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, establishing a strong base is crucial not just for our happiness but also for the greater social good. In his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, he says: “We need to realise it’s okay if we’re all different. There’s nothing wrong with that. We can build strong houses for our identities with sturdy foundations. Then we can throw open the doors.”
In other words, once we feel good about where we live and who we are, we can become more tolerant and accepting of others. But feeling good about where we live does not always come easy. It requires clever placemaking – developers who know how to create communities not just put up buildings. And that’s where heritage comes into its own.
Heritage is the king of placemaking. It infuses the built environment with stories and meaning. Those stories fuel our sense of identity and that, in turn, makes us feel happy and safe.
Some people equate heritage with nostalgia. But that’s not right. It’s not about looking back. It’s about connection, a deep connection through history with a group of people who feel the same way that you do. And you don’t have to have lived somewhere all your life to feel it. You can assimilate it. You can move somewhere new and just feel as if you belong. You can listen to the stories about that place, find out a bit about its history and gradually you become settled. Heritage is a key part of that process. It helps us feel anchored. It helps us feel rooted.
But heritage assets don’t have to be centuries old. And they don’t have to be trophies, like St Paul’s Cathedral or Windsor Castle. Even quite recent buildings or structures can resonate with us and add to the quality of place.
So how do we know what “heritage” is? How do we know what to keep and what to tear down? At bottom, how can we measure the value that heritage brings to individuals and society?
At one level, it’s instinctive. A beautifully crafted environment with the right blend of old and new, the right mix of uses, the right combination of materials, the right composition makes us feel better. We know that.
Conversely, we know how hard it is to feel a connection with a poorly designed, shoddily built place, a place where little thought has been given to the people who live and work there.
But on another level, it’s ad hoc, because it’s hard to access with any real accuracy. In many quarters too, heritage is seen as a barrier to progress. Old buildings might look a bit worse for wear and it’s much easier for developers to tear everything down and start again than to painstakingly retain, restore and refurbish neglected structures and abandoned assets.
That leads to resistance in our industry and, more widely, among policy-makers – a belief that heritage assets are an obstacle to growth, an irritant and an impediment to development.
Historic England works incredibly hard to counter that perception and highlight the contribution that heritage makes to society. Its data shows that heritage assets generate around £31bn of value annually. They are responsible for almost half a million jobs and attract over 200m visits per year from domestic and international tourists.
Old buildings appeal to businesses as well – and the customers who use them. Importantly too, resisting the urge to tear everything down has environmental benefits. According to Historic England’s analysis, restoring old buildings has a much lower carbon footprint than starting from scratch.
All this research is hugely beneficial – and the public seem hungry for it. This summer, there were 1m visits to the Historic England website in a single month. And the Heritage Calling blog saw views rising more than 50% in the first six months of 2020 compared to a year ago.
But imagine if we could go one step further. Imagine if we could harness the algorithmic power of Facebook, WeChat and their ilk to map people’s responses to heritage assets.
These social media platforms know more about us than we do ourselves. They know we want to feel connected. They know we want to be liked. They know we want to be part of a tribe. They know this stuff by harvesting the information that we give them day by day, minute by minute. And they use it to continuously refine their understanding of what makes us tick and turn that knowledge to commercial advantage.
What if our industry could do something similar? What if we could create an algorithm that would accurately model how people feel about heritage and the quality of place? What if we could accurately measure how people respond to old buildings, structures with character, places that effectively combine new and established?
Perhaps then, we would all take heritage more seriously and recognise its contribution to placemaking – and to real life, as opposed to the digital world.
This may be a pipe dream for now. But in the meantime, perhaps we should heed those words of Bregman – that we need to be in places with sturdy foundations to forge our own identity and create a stronger society that is more capable of tolerance and consideration.
As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Merton Solow said: “Over the long term, places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than places without them. Every place must identify its strongest, most distinctive features and develop them or run the risk of being all things to all persons and nothing special to any.”
Richard Upton is the Chief Development Officer of U+I and co-founded U+I, Cathedral Group Plc and Mount Anvil Plc. Richard has served on Historic England’s London Advisory Committee since 2012 and was appointed as a Commissioner of Historic England by the Secretary of State in 2017.
“You can’t contemplate the future of a place if you don’t appreciate its past.”
A central U+I mantra, these words seem particularly fitting in relation to the Sagrada Família, a site whose roots stretch back to the 1880s – and which remains unfinished to this day.
Nonetheless, the church attracts some four million visitors a year, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Europe. For Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, it was a lifelong project. Now, international consultancy Arup is working with the Sagrada Família Foundation to realise his vision, some 140 years after it was first conceived.
With most of Gaudí’s models and drawings destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, Arup and the Foundation are being as faithful as they can to the spirit, if not always the letter, of his design. But Arup deputy chair Tristram Carfrae and his team have introduced new ways of doing things for faster, more efficient construction and to meet the engineering challenges that Gaudí’s complex structure throws up.
Arup took on the job in 2015 with the aim of completing “the greatest church in the world” by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death. “It took 130 years to build 60% of the church. We have to complete the remaining 40% in ten years,” says Carfrae. “The rate of construction is up by a factor of ten.”
This has prompted innovations such as prefabricated masonry panels for the main towers, post-tensioned with steel to eradicate tensile forces. Each panel takes a day to make, compared with the week it would have taken for the equivalent area of stone-faced concrete.
Carfrae oozes pleasure when he talks of the project. And his approach highlights that passion, bold ambition and a powerful sense of adventure are the foundations of outstanding work. That means constantly pushing boundaries and exploring new ways of doing things.
Gaudí did exactly that. During the 40 years he worked on the church, he developed three different designs, each more ambitious than the last. The architecture evolved from the decorative arts and crafts style of the Nativity façade, completed in his lifetime, to what Carfrae sees as the "absolutely astounding" stark architecture of the Passion façade, which started on site in the 1950s.
He employed numerous materials, from stone and basalt to the broken pottery used to face the towers. He was fascinated with form and structure, even using hanging catenary models to create converging towers and pillars. He went so far as to set the building so it would give skewed views of the façades within the octagonal plot.
Gaudí wasn’t the first choice to build what was originally seen as a modest church on the outskirts of the city. But the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, fell out with his patrons a year after starting his neo-Gothic building. The relatively inexperienced Gaudí took over in 1883 when Villar had built little more than a crypt.
Today, Arup is not the only engineer to help complete the building. The Sagrada Família Foundation, which owns the church and is responsible for designing and building it, is also working with Spanish firm 2BMFG. However, Arup’s expertise and reputation for dealing with engineering challenges are a powerful addition to the mix.
None of Gaudí’s drawings remained for the nucleus of the Jesus tower, for example. The plan was for a slip-formed concrete core with a central steel staircase. But the team decided on post-tensioned stone instead, encasing a 60m-high spiral staircase. The idea of circular stairs cantilevered out of walls isn’t new, says Carfrae. Take Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich. But at La Sagrada Família, the stairs are post-tensioned so they need no hoop ties.
The shaft of the Mary tower is engineered in 300mm-thick stone that weighs just enough for the foundations to bear. A conventional design would involve a 1.2m thickness.
Carfrae speaks of a fourth partner in the project: theology. “I’m used to working at the interface of architecture, engineering and construction,” says Carfrae. “But I’m not used to working with theology.”
Gaudí dedicated himself to the church – and died in 1926 after being hit by a tram crossing the road to attend a service. The figurative Nativity façade represents the glorification of the Holy Family within the Christian tradition and Christian doctrine dictates many other aspects of the design, including the number of columns.
Traditional craft skills meet state-of-the art technologies throughout. Gaudí’s plaster models are simulated using Rhino software, for example, and Grasshopper scripts. Computers cut the dimensions of the stone blocks to a tolerance of plus or minus one millimetre, but they are finished by hand, using a mallet to give a textured finish.
Above all, the project is a model of collaboration. “I have never worked on a project where collaboration has been better,” says Carfrae.
This he attributes to three principal factors: a shared objective “to build the greatest church in the world”; a distinct lack of conceptual boundaries, because there are so few teams on the design side; and, most importantly, communication. Team members don’t share a common language, so they communicate through rough sketches, digital sketches, sometimes over technical drawings on white boards, and make their own physical and digital models.
“I get frustrated with people of my generation who say you have to be able to sketch by hand,” says Carfrae. “You have to communicate and there is more than one way of doing it.”
La Sagrada Família is perhaps his favourite project ever. “It makes me inordinately happy and pleased that I became a structural engineer and got to work on such projects,” he concludes.
Lynda Relph-Knight is a design writer and consultant. She edited Design Week for some 20 years and previously worked on architecture and building titles including Building Design, Building and The Architect.
For the last three years I’ve walked Coldharbour Lane every day. This bustling 2km road, connecting Brixton to Camberwell, became my daily point of departure and moment of arrival home. I came to know the street intimately, through its crowd of buildings and its people. I felt a sense of belonging and allegiance to the neighbourhood, because a part of my heritage is inscribed into its urban fabric.
I grew up in the London suburbs, and there was almost a mythology around this place. My mother would tell me that Brixton, in particular, was dangerous, but that it was also the best place to get fresh plantain, yams and mangoes. She didn’t frequent Brixton but her mother knew its stories. My grandmother was one of those in the generation of workers recruited to help rebuild Britain; her hands sewed garments as part of a large Caribbean labour force. In south London, the borough of Lambeth became a nucleus for this post-war migration.
On a Friday evening in September, I return to walk Coldharbour Lane. This time with the intention of bearing witness to a history and a way of knowing. Walking as a form of self-locomotion requires sharp attention to spatial proximities. I arrive back at the large, sun-brightened Windrush Square, where Coldharbour Lane intersects Brixton Road. Windrush is now a term fully integrated into British vocabulary, both in honour and scandal. The square is named as a tribute to the Caribbean people who migrated to Britain on the Empire Windrush ship in 1948. But in recent years some elders from that era have faced shameful deportation by hostile government policies. The square holds this tension, a public space in which social solidarity is displayed and reinforced.
From my vantage point, between temporary counter-terror concrete blocks, people congregate beneath a prominent London plane tree that marks the northern boundary to Windrush Square. The crowd is separated in fixed solitary seats that keep them at a distance, installed long before Covid-19 pandemic rules of socialisation. On one side, the square is framed by a row of prominent buildings: the Ritzy Cinema, the Brixton Tate Library, the ghost-sign of Bovril on a brick gable-end and the Black Cultural Archives – a fitting home for Black British history.
Moving through the square to its centre, a metal fence demarcates space for the soon-to-be-installed Cherry Groce Memorial. The accidental shooting of Cherry Groce, a Black Jamaican mother, in her home by the Metropolitan Police in 1985 sparked a series of local riots. Intended to sit alongside the existing African and Caribbean War Memorial, her monument will exist in protest to historical erasure, signalling a contemporary Black refashioning of public space just as imperial statues are falling.
From the square, I pivot back onto Coldharbour Lane heading east. This is the narrowest section of the street and is congested enough to hear a full ragga chorus line from a booming car stereo. I try to walk in rhythm with the conviviality of street-life, all the while wearing a face mask. Moving slowly, I observe the mix of small and micro units, often with the old sign or shop name still visible: a convenience store turned barbershop, a delicatessen turned whisky bar and an internet café turned beauty salon with its signage in Ge'ez script recognisable by Ethiopian and Eritrean clients. In this street, I am suspended between cultures, yet grounded firmly in south London.
Across the way, I notice the discreet entrance to Market Row, built in 1931 and one of Brixton Market’s three arcades. People move through its narrow double-height passage, which extends the whole block and connects to adjoining streets. Like most street-markets across the city, migrants rely on and work in these spaces, drawn by imported cultural foodstuffs and a sense of local cooperation. An enduring and popular fixture to Market Row, the Iraqi-owned Nour Cash & Carry, was saved from eviction in June 2020 after a long, successful campaign against the arcade’s owners. This grassroots movement against runaway gentrification has since expanded into other #reclaimbrixton initiatives.
It is both combative and exhausting being a pedestrian on this walk. I am now at the intersection with Atlantic Road, where the elevated railway track screeches overhead. In the distance, I glimpse the top of Brixton Recreation Centre, colloquially called The Rec, with its distinctive monolithic brick exterior and saw-tooth roof. This was the location of Nelson Mandela’s 1996 visit, at his own special request, to recognise Brixton as a central place for British Black civil rights. Movements seeking justice for racial equality still inhabit Coldharbour Lane. Recently, a protest marched along this tarred surface calling for the abolition of Section 60 stop and search laws.
Once through the railway bridge, the street starts to widen and I notice that attached to street lampposts are newly installed banners: alternating between definitions for Black Lives Matter, Community, BAME-owned and Brixton. Are these virtue-signalling signs meant to tell the community who they are? Are these markers of diversity or invitations to neatly package heritage for a kerbside exhibition? I want to ask the street these questions but it is too preoccupied with going about its business to entertain my dilemma.
Moving on, I pass another arcade, Brixton Village, previously the site of the Conservative Lambeth Carlton Club at the turn of the 20th century. This is flanked by a tall gabled building bearing the sign Sanitary and Steam Laundry, a commercial steam press laundry until 2014 and now sanitised into luxury apartments with a bistro and wine bar at the ground level that spills out into a forecourt. Like a frame within a frame, an arched opening reveals a railway vault that reveals a window to a north facing skyline.
Next door, highly formatted and standardised vertical apartment blocks enclose urban life from the street. There is no trace of the former Ministry of Labour Employment Exchange that previously occupied this site. Windrush migrants arrived at this exchange seeking work to start their livelihoods in Britain.
Further along, on the opposite side of the street, is Southwyck House. More commonly called ‘Barrier Block’ for its monumental solidity: a 250m long concrete and brick-kinked façade with a zigzag pattern like the fringe of a curtain. Designed by Polish architect Magda Borowiecka and constructed in 1981, the block orientates away from Coldharbour Lane to withstand noise and pollution from a now defunct proposal for a raised flyover to run parallel to the street. The absence of this motorway has instead created a large grassed open space immediately in front of the block, partially inhabited by a hand carwash facility. From this point, the street shifts from a hybrid commerce corridor to a residential thoroughfare edging past Loughborough Junction.
Walking this urban microcosm reminds me of how we seek home and how unstable it can be, even when we think we have found it. The street is a constantly shifting amalgamation of long-term residents and the provisionally settled. Like my own heritage, Coldharbour Lane is distinctly mixed, full of migration histories but also in motion. More than any statue or memorial, the streets of Lambeth are the most powerful monument to the successes and struggles of the city.
Thomas Aquilina is a London-based designer invested in building communities of radical thought and progressive practice. He currently works for Adjaye Associates, tutors for the New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.) programme and is a founding member of Afterparti, a publishing collective focused on race and space.
It’s now more than 30 years since the first post-war building was listed, but there’s still a lingering assumption that listed 20th-century buildings are not quite “heritage” in the same way as those of previous centuries.
Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is generally regarded as being conservation friendly. But he has said that he sees the recent expansion of permitted development rights as a “big opportunity” to demolish buildings from the 1960s and 70s. He sees those decades as being more notable for “fabulous buildings lost” than for great ones built. Why is this? Maybe it’s the perceived lack of the beautiful patina of age (although even concrete can age gracefully), or the suspicion that machine-made components must be inferior to the work of individual craftsmen of previous generations. Whatever the reason, we undoubtedly take less care of our recent heritage than “the really old stuff”.
The listing criteria for historic buildings have become increasingly strict the younger buildings are, and fewer conservation areas are based around 20th-century sites than Victorian or older townscapes. This need for greater rigour is reasonable – there is, after all, so much more to choose from in the recent past, a lot of which was poorly designed and shoddily built. It makes sense, therefore, to wait and see whether buildings have stood the test of time, and proved robust in construction and serviceable or flexible in use, before listing them. But, with ever-faster cycles of redevelopment, we are undoubtedly losing whole chapters of our architectural past. There will soon be no majestic concrete cooling towers left, and listing came too late to preserve the best examples of our first-generation motorway service stations.
The settings of recent buildings also change remarkably quickly. When the Gherkin was completed in London, for example, it was visible from across the city. Now, it is so surrounded by larger, taller buildings that it’s hard to remember how dramatic it once appeared. We still protect viewing corridors towards St Paul’s, but we have not instigated anything similar for the landmarks of our own age.
In the 1990s, English Heritage recognised the challenge of protecting recent heritage, and led the world in proactive research to identify the best examples. Its Post War Steering Group combined historians with architects and engineers who themselves had been part of the post-war building boom. They looked at buildings grouped by building type and worked out on what basis to select which to protect. Should the first example of a new building type be preserved? Or the “best” and most developed example? How should one make comparisons between big-budget prestige projects, such as some of the new university campuses, and the pioneering housing estates and hospitals where design innovation was not always matched by quality of materials used, and where subsequent maintenance may have been distinctly lacking?
The idea was that these thematic studies would set benchmarks and lay out principles for selection, and that the first tranche of exemplars would be gradually filled out with more examples as the years passed. In fact, lack of resources at Historic England (created out of English Heritage in 2015 and now responsible for handling listing applications) has meant that momentum has been lost. Although the body continues to do pioneering work on recent heritage, there are a number of fine 20th-century buildings with no protection, including the internationally renowned South Bank Centre. Recent thematic Historic England projects to ensure that the heritage of BAME and LGBTQ communities is recognised is admirable, but these sites are often primarily of historic rather than architectural interest: as such, it is especially difficult to preserve what is significant about them.
The 30-year threshold is crucial – if a building is less than 30 years old, it can only be listed if it is of “outstanding architectural or historic interest”. That means it needs to be worthy of Grade I or Grade II designation, which is accorded to just 8.3% of listed buildings. It would make enormous sense to have a rolling programme to assess buildings turning 30 each year, but this has never been implemented. Moreover, one-off spot listing of buildings over the 30-year threshold is only considered if the building is at risk, which means that, rather than being identified up front, most listings are not even considered unless they are under threat of imminent demolition. Sometimes, this affects 19th-century buildings, but the vast majority of such cases are from the last century, as they are the ones which haven’t been researched before. There is just not enough capacity in the system.
Local Lists, drawn up by local authorities, increasingly recognise the importance of buildings of all periods that don’t quite make the listing grade, and they can act as an informal “waiting room” for buildings until they reach the age of 30. Charles O’Brien’s recent appointment as the government’s new Listing Heritage Adviser should boost the coverage of Local Lists, and hopefully these will come to include a greater proportion of 20th-century examples. As editor of the Pevsner Buildings of England architectural guides, he’s been overseeing the revision of volumes published since the 1950s. He has therefore had plenty of first-hand experience of the speed at which 20th-century buildings can be reappraised. After all, it was only in 1983 that the London South volume commented, with respect to the National Theatre, that “concrete with all its shuttering marks can never be attractive”, certainly not a view that the next revision is likely to uphold.
But Local Listing offers extremely limited protection and following the government’s Planning for the Future white paper, published in August, local heritage designations will almost certainly become less politically popular, as local authorities come under increased pressure to identify more sites for housing.
Designation is of course only the first step in protecting heritage. There is no point in listing buildings unless the subsequent planning process has the power to prevent them from being altered out of all recognition, demolished or swamped by new development. Although governments have repeatedly assured us that recent changes to planning legislation and guidance are not intended to reduce heritage protection, decades of policies to promote economic growth have, in effect, eroded safeguards. The most recent example of this is the change to permitted development rights, following which developers no longer need planning permission before building extra storeys on blocks of flats built after 1948.
A reduction in the number and influence of local authority conservation officers has compounded the issue. Superficially, this may seem like good news for developers, but an overworked and underconfident planning officer is less able to offer constructive advice and more likely to retreat to parking-warden mode. Heritage needs an intelligent and proactive voice in the Development Control process and Historic England and the National Amenity Societies (such as the C20 Society) are too thinly spread.
Brutalist buildings have perhaps been more reviled than any other group of buildings in history. Although some fine examples were demolished (including Robin Hood Gardens, Pimlico School and Birmingham Central Library), listing has helped to change public attitudes and ensure the future of a significant number. The tide has definitely shifted, and the most enlightened developers are realising just how popular brutalist buildings can be, particularly with Instagrammers and a younger generation, who admire their robust glamour. Concrete is no longer universally perceived as cheap, grubby and utilitarian – its often highly crafted textures and the bold shapes it facilitates are gaining appreciation. Recent projects in central London, such as the conversion of Seifert’s Centre Point to residential use, and Camden’s 1960s Town Hall extension to the Standard Hotel, have a swagger and flamboyance which energise their neighbourhoods.
If we are to see a similar resurgence of the best of the buildings of the 80s, 90s and even the 00s, we need to push boundaries and speak up for buildings of quality, and ones which tell the most compelling stories for everybody. With the added imperative of not squandering resources and exacerbating climate change, it’s a challenge for which we need to unite to achieve.
Catherine Croft is an expert on post-war architecture and the public perception of 20th-century design. She is the Director of the C20 Society, the National Amenity Society for buildings constructed since 1918, and lectures widely on heritage and built environment issues, in the UK and abroad. This article is written in a personal capacity.
Searching for authoritative voices to describe how important music is to Manchester, you might just look to veteran radio broadcaster Mark Radcliffe. He described Manchester as “a city that thinks a table is for dancing on”.
Or you could turn to Dave Ambrose, a big cheese at EMI Records, who once said to the late broadcaster and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson: “Manchester kids have the best record collections.”
Wilson was a key figure on the Manchester music scene, helping to open the famous Haçienda club in 1982. Back then, Wilson said their mission was to “restore a sense of place”. The Haçienda fulfilled its brief and more, moving beyond entertainment to change Manchester’s psyche, fortunes and international standing.
As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Nietzsche was a controversial figure but he was right on this point. Without nightclubs and music venues, what would Manchester be, exactly?
For one thing, generations would have been deprived of spaces to socialise, dance their cares away, meet or make friends and share the joy of live music. And, as recent months of lockdown and restrictions have shown, that stuff really matters. We often develop a very personal relationship to music venues, especially when we’re young and trying to find a space in the world.
Paulette Constable, a legendary Manchester DJ, explains it well. Having started her career at the Haçienda, she remembers coming across a club called Pips some 40 years ago. A six-room basement venue, the discovery was not just a formative clubbing experience, it was life-changing. “Pips was a playground and treasure trove that continues to influence and inspire me,” she says.
That association of clubs, music and coming of age is particularly strong in a city whose DNA is built around embracing nightlife. Several venues in the city bear testament to this tradition. The Star & Garter (now owned by U+I) has been on its current site since 1877. Band on the Wall evolved from The George & Dragon pub, which dates back to the first decade of the 1800s. And the Ritz is almost 100 years old, built in the roaring 20s and still going strong today.
Not only do these sites underline Manchester’s long-held musical heritage, they also point to one of the city’s defining characteristics: the juxtaposition of industrial and Victorian architecture with modern realm. In this town, past glories and future promises co-exist in the present.
The Deaf Institute, for example, dates back to 1878. Originally the Manchester Deaf and Dumb Institute, it lay derelict for years before being refurbished and transformed into a seriously popular bar and music venue. Only this summer, the Institute was saved from permanent closure, alongside sister club Gorilla, built beneath the railway arches of Oxford Road station.
Old railway buildings seem to lend themselves to music. The Warehouse Project moved into the Depot at Mayfield last year and has not only reanimated the former railway building but also led the way for a plethora of ambitious projects, all designed to reinvigorate a semi-forgotten area of the city. (Reopening the Depot marked the first stage in a £1bn scheme to regenerate Mayfield, undertaken by U+I in conjunction with LCR, Manchester City Council and Transport for Greater Manchester, the Mayfield Partnership.)
But then, the music community has a habit of reusing old buildings. Take the Boardwalk, one of Manchester’s most iconic venues of the 80s and 90s. Originally a church school, the top floor became a temporary rehearsal space for the Halle Orchestra during the Second World War, while the first floor was occupied by a theatre company until the mid-1980s, when it became a live music venue. The owners then built rehearsal rooms in the basement, used by several of the biggest names in Mancunian music, including Oasis, who played their first-ever live gig at the club.
Top sites are often located away from the commercial mainstream too. Jay Taylor runs Night & Day, a venue which opened in 1991 and can claim a key role in helping to nurture local bands. Taylor’s enthusiasm for music and nightlife was triggered by the Boardwalk and he used the rehearsal rooms himself, when he was in a band, 30 years ago. They would rehearse as often as possible and then head upstairs to catch bands onstage. “It was perfect,” he says.
Even without rehearsal rooms in the basement, music venues are a breeding ground for creative activity. All the acts that now form part of Manchester’s famous music history served an apprenticeship at small venues, honing their craft, finding their audience. And that is central to the city’s success – producing music as well as consuming it.
Not all clubs survive. The Haçienda was demolished a while ago. And the Boardwalk has been converted into offices. Empires rise and fall. But as old sites disappear, new venues emerge, such as YES, the White Hotel and Soup Kitchen, each capturing Manchester’s radical spirit.
Down the years, Manchester’s music scene has given the city a place in the global imagination, marking it out as somewhere special. When I went to DJ in Peru, 6,000 miles away from home, I was met by a room full of music fans who’d never been to Manchester but imagined and worshipped the city, even so.
Manchester with music has developed a reputation as a creative place to live. A city with a sense of place. A city with sacred spaces where strangers meet. Where memories are created. Not every night (although sometimes it feels like it) – even history is made.
Dave Haslam is a DJ and writer who made his DJing debut at the Haçienda in 1986 and played there over 450 times. He has since DJ’d worldwide, curated an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, appeared on radio and TV numerous times and staged dozens of spoken word, club and live music events in Manchester and beyond. His books include Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues.
Keith Bonner’s earliest memories of the Greenwich Peninsula are not particularly happy ones.
As a small boy in the early 1960s, he vividly recalls being brought to the Greenwich Cleansing and Bathing Centre in Tunnel Avenue where, along with some of his nine siblings, he was treated for scabies.
“There we were, naked and shivering, being doused in horrible white lotion by a stern, matron-type woman,” Bonner recalls. “It wasn’t much fun.”
Some 60 years on, Bonner is the site manager of Morden Wharf on the west side of Greenwich Peninsula, home to London’s latest riverside development and just a stone’s throw from the now-demolished bathing centre.
Bonner, 67, has worked on the Morden Wharf site for almost 40 years, so has seen at first hand the huge changes that have taken place on the Peninsula in recent decades.
Once a thriving industrial hub on the Thames, today the area looks very different. Factories that employed hundreds of men and women, making goods from sugar and steel to soap and rope, have been demolished. Jetties and wharves are abandoned and the riverfront, once teeming with barges and ships, is now silent, save for cyclists, walkers and joggers taking the long way around the river bend between The O2 Arena and the historic centre of Greenwich.
Originally marshland, Greenwich Peninsula was sparsely populated before the 1800s. There had been small-scale shipbuilding on the banks of the Thames for centuries but otherwise there was little activity other than agricultural grazing, osier beds, which provided materials for making baskets and fish traps – and later on, a knacker’s yard for worn-out Hackney carriage horses.
It was in the 1850s that Greenwich Peninsula came to prominence, after Morden College, a local charity founded in the 17th century, leased out parcels of land for development.
Industrialists flocked to the area, notably Wilkie and Soames, a soap and candle manufacturer. The company built the imposing Thames Soap Works factory on Morden Wharf and its brands – British Carbolic, Wonderful Washer and Big Wilkie – became household names among Victorian families.
The owners were proud of their home on the Peninsula. Their slogan proclaimed: “Greenwich, the world standard in both soap and time”. They were not alone. In the late 1800s, linoleum inventor Frank Walton built a manufacturing base in the area, advertising under the slogan: "Greenwich time flies, Greenwich linoleum lasts".
Businesses thrived across the Peninsula, from small companies making bicycle chains and fireworks to steel-making specialists, concrete manufacturers, dog biscuit producers and the world’s biggest gas works.
But times change. Walton’s linoleum factory and Wilkie and Soames closed in the 1930s, although the Thames Soap Works building found new life as a glucose plant, using American maize to produce syrup. And in the 1950s, huge silos were built on the riverfront to store the US feedstock.
Today, there is little sign of Morden Wharf’s proud history. The Thames Soap Works site was demolished in 2010, as were its towering silos, a decision that still rankles with local historians.
“The Works should never have been demolished,” says Bonner. “The walls were 4ft thick and it was rock solid. I still don’t understand how it happened. Perhaps people had just forgotten it was there. It was in the middle of the site, it wasn’t visible from the Thames Path because of the huge silos and it couldn’t be seen from Tunnel Avenue on the other side either.”
Bonner still has a black and white picture in his office, showing the arched windows of the huge Victorian structure, with the words Thames Soap Works just about visible on the side of the building. It’s a poignant reminder of Greenwich’s industrial heritage.
Now, however, plans are afoot to bring life back to Morden Wharf. Under redevelopment proposals envisioned by U+I, this forgotten 19-acre site with 275m of riverfront will be transformed into a vibrant community, where residents, businesses and visitors can come together and flourish.
Some 20 years after the construction of The O2 Arena and the creation of Greenwich Millennium Village on the east side of the Peninsula, Morden Wharf on the west side is the final stage in the regeneration of this area.
The ideas behind the new scheme celebrate Morden Wharf’s heritage, drawing on the area’s industrial past, from the iron lattice structure of the gasholders to the giant silos and capacious warehouses.
Reflecting its status as a Royal borough, the plans include a potential new home for Gloriana, the Queen’s 90ft rowbarge, in a specially constructed boathouse on a disused jetty that would once have been used for unloading industrial supplies.
Within sight of the masts of the Cutty Sark and the majestic Wren-designed buildings of maritime Greenwich, the glass mooring is expected to prove a significant visitor attraction on the Peninsula.
One long-forgotten name will also return – the main boulevard running through the development to the Thames Path will be named Sea Witch Lane, which was recorded by Charles Booth in his famous poverty survey of London in 1899, but later disappeared from the maps. There will also be a riverside pub on the site of the old Sea Witch hostelry, which was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War.
Having spent the best part of four decades at Morden Wharf as it gradually became derelict, Bonner is looking forward to new life returning to this part of the riverside. And industry will play a key role too – along with 1,500 homes and premises for retail and leisure, there’ll be plenty of space for light industrial units, marking a welcome return of the makers to Morden Wharf.
Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com, a role she’s held for 15 years. She has worked for a number of national newspapers, including the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Evening Standard.
On 7 November 2017, a New York jury decided in favour of a group of graffiti artists who sued a property developer for removing their work from the widely renowned 5Pointz. An ex-industrial warehouse, the building had been leased out to artists since the 1990s and its extensive exterior walls were completely covered in graffiti.
I remember making 5Pointz a destination on my first trip to New York in 2013. As a researcher into urban public cultures and transgressive practices, I found the building particularly interesting because its identity was articulated through graffiti. In fact, this identity became an international brand, transforming an otherwise generic warehouse into a surface spectacle of subcultural action. It spoke of a city – and a society – where graffiti was no longer an untameable threat to urban order, but a marker of urban pride and even a tourist attraction.
Just one year after that trip, however, the developer who owned the building whitewashed its surfaces overnight, to demolish the entire structure and build luxury residencies on site. The decision provoked outrage across the international graffiti community and prompted a group of 21 artists to file a lawsuit, under a US law known as VARA (the Visual Artists Rights Act). In this, the artists argued for the artistic integrity of the graffiti that covered the building, despite its lack of authorisation. Their landmark win set an enthusiastic, yet controversial precedent, as the group were awarded an incredible $6.7m in recognition of their erased wall work.
The decision raised eyebrows on several fronts. Could graffiti that was created without permission come under the protection of the law? How can such artworks ever be considered separately from their supporting surfaces? And who could possibly designate under what circumstances this type of work should be protected?
Above all, the episode prompts a fundamental question. What value does graffiti bring to our urban environments?
The 5Pointz saga offers some useful pointers on this front. It highlights how our society has come to collate value with permanence, and how we possess few ways to show our appreciation of “good” work, unless we protect, stabilise, or somehow fix its condition. You could say that the entire culture of heritage is predicated on this. Just look at our treatment of listed buildings – as we recognise their architectural value, we simultaneously restrict alterations being made to them.
But does this go against a culture whose very essence is its continuous change? The Lloyd’s building in the City of London, for example, was designed by Richard Rogers so it could be altered and upgraded. But it was awarded a Grade I listing, making it almost impossible to adjust. Similarly, wall stencils by the street artist Banksy are now protected behind Plexiglass sheets, or even removed from their public walls to be conserved into “safety”.
There are of course many historical examples of preserved graffiti (think Pompeii, or Lord Byron’s carving on an ancient Greek temple). These are mostly based on appreciation of their value in hindsight. But, in my work I have explored ways to recognise graffiti’s value in the present, as a form of creative and political practice.
I believe that graffiti’s importance lies less in its visual language or aesthetic merits and more in the evolving quality of the practice itself, which creates communities, develops visible voices and expresses urban identities, not just for the future, but now, in the present, for the present.
5Pointz was not a painting project that went up overnight, but the result of a cumulative, multi-year practice, whose communal production was intrinsic to its true value. Not only would the final result have been impossible without this, but I believe the quality recognised by the 5Pointz trial judge comes secondary to the dynamic, relentless nature of the culture of graffiti. It is not the aesthetics of image production but the collective action of producing images that makes a difference for the quality of urban spaces and the lives of the people who inhabit them.
Having written a PhD on graffiti – my friends call me Dr Wall – one of my most important takeaways is this: colour and beauty are not intrinsically valuable for cities. Yet our possibility to edit, refuse and appropriate wall discourses is. In other words, permanently becoming creativity is preferable to creativity becoming permanent.
This is the heritage of inhabitation, of the everyday. Mobile, active and practised, it constitutes an important method of fighting against inequality. It is telling, for instance, that the toppling of statues and public building takeovers of the Black Lives Matter protests this year were accompanied by a flurry of graffiti and communally produced visual symbolism. Graffiti is the visual language of the many, together, in public, and taking place in public is fundamental to the affirmation of subjectivity and urban citizenship.
So, what if we created a heritage system where you don’t protect walls against graffiti, but rather you protect their potential to be graffitied, and secure their openness to being changed? Like a present heritage of activity and urban culture, articulated through graffiti, a right to visibility and expression, this could act as a protected claim to contribute to the image of the city. Can we make this happen, anyone?
Dr Sabina Andron is an architectural historian and urban theorist based in London. She researches and lectures on urban public cultures, creativity, transgression and disorder in cities.