City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

New Islington, new hope

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The second recent regeneration-based post, based on some photos I took six months ago on a grey day in Manchester. So, below, a short photo-essay based on a walk through the New Islington redevelopment in Manchester.

The route goes like this: head out of the city centre, up Oldham Street through the Northern Quarter and start at the Daily Express building – the Northern mirror of Fleet Street’s gem – on Great Ancoats street, head north-east into the wilderness, and then drift. The landscape opens suddenly, almost as if a plain, with the great hulks of former mills looming out of the mist. Some, like architecturally significant Beehive Mill (1824), have been managed workspaces for years, and we hear a band rehearsing, drums booming around a cavernous space. Some are still empty, and some are being converted into the first signs of the Will Alsop– and Urban Splash-led Chips redevelopment. The space is amazingly close to Manchester city centre – ten minutes? – and yet a giant unused area, remarkably green in places.

The former Cardroom estate becomes New Islington – apparently the new name is actually old, despite its unfortunate overtones – and the adventurous architectural practice FAT has created a highly idiosyncratic new housing estate. On the day we visited, murky grey Mancunian weather drained the life from FAT’s flourishes, yet the scheme is imaginative. While part of me would prefer an evolution of the surrounding industrial architecture – as per Alsop’s Chips redevelopment further up the road – I also know that if I saw this scheme in, say, the Netherlands, I’d probably say, "Oh how daring and witty", despite it not being to my personal taste. The images linked to from the Building Design article below indicate the houses in a sunny architect’s rendering – doesn’t everything look great in the sun? I’m not sure how many days they’ll look that good, perhaps as my photos indicate (albeit mid-construction.) What colour should one build with in the North?

But I’ve pulled a few quotes below; one, a volley by Jonathan Glancey about the importance of style, aesthetic experimentation and quality in public housing – and it’s clear that FAT’s project has been implemented with real care – and the others from Building Design and Deyan Sudjic praising the scheme itself.

My photos below show Manchester in a somewhat-clichéd misty late-February afternoon gloom  – overcoat collar pulled up round the ears, cap pulled down, trudging back towards the smeared glow of town. It’s all too easy to take photos which do nothing other than reinforce an air of grim-up-north urban decay. Yet even in this grey-brown light you could see there’s something going on here: the proximity to the centre of a thriving, increasingly European city; combined with the acres of usable space; the canal winding through fields and trees; the open streets dotted with a few majestic former industrial buildings, bookmarks of the past; counterpointed with brave new architecture; and a community with deep roots … I hope it works out.

On FAT’s Woodward Place and public housing:

"This sensibility clearly owes a significant debt to Fat’s spiritual grandparents, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Many of the formal strategies employed – the flattening, the enlarging, the use of variable scales within a single composition – are familiar from the Venturis’ work. Nonetheless, the voice that emerges is very much Fat’s own. The two firms may share a common ambition – to make work that is situated at once within the worlds of high architecture and popular taste – but their architecture is really as different as the contexts within which they are practicing. Seen in context, much of the oddness of the Venturis’ buildings is revealed as being entirely of a piece with the nature of the American vernacular landscape."

"Similarly, as shocking as Woodward Place may be within the context of current British architectural production, a visit reveals the building as a remarkably plausible proposition. The language on display is certainly no less fruity than much of 19th century Manchester – the Venetian gothic Ancoats Hospital that sits at the end of the same street being a prime example. Given the authorship of the surrounding masterplan, one can safely speculate that much of the new architecture will be no less rambunctious. "

"But what of the residents? Well, the ones I spoke to loved it. With ornaments on windowsills and dummy fireplaces in living rooms, they were already beginning to tune the image of their individual homes. It is a process that shows every sign of consolidating rather than detracting from the architect’s design ambitions. Crucially, as associative as the architecture may be, its myriad motifs are both sufficiently abstracted and sufficiently diverse in origin that the building resists any fixed reading. The image it presents is an open-ended and ultimately generous one – ripe for appropriation by the diverse fantasies of its users." ["The Last Laugh", Ellis Woodman, Building Design]

"Fat likes to talk the language of populism. It looks for inspiration in the world of DIY and in the way that New Islington’s remaining residents had used prefabricated ornaments to soften the monotony of the ubiquitous grey concrete and to personalise their homes. But Fat’s members are ideologues themselves; their designs could have turned out to feel like an experiment perpetrated on the deserving poor by well-meaning, middle-class architects. But it’s not that. Fat has worked hard on getting the little things right. Each house has its own garden. Big, barn doors can be opened to allow residents to drive their cars into private yards off the street. Projecting bay windows bring more light into the interior. On this evidence, Fat is playing the very traditional architectural game of planning intricate interiors behind elaborate facades. John Nash was doing just the same 200 years ago in Regent’s Park, when he styled up simple, terraced houses in stucco to look like a palace. But then, with its abiding interest in pop culture, the last thing that Fat will want to be seen as is original." ["No More Bleak Houses", Deyan Sudjic, The Observer]

"Architecture of the very highest calibre, a matter of aesthetics as well as planning, functionality, common sense and all the rest, should be available to everyone. Few traditional societies live style-free lives. Much modern urban society does. Fey though this will seem to tough-talking, self-righteous politicians and their placemen, I think many of us would hope that the government’s commission for architecture might just have a jargon-free word to say in favour of the way our houses, our homes, look." [Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian]

Photo-essay after the link below (full set on Flickr.)










































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