Manchester is, to say the least, an enigma. Ever since the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, the United Kingdom has been languishing in Brexit limbo, investment confidence has been flagging, and everyone has been fretting about the future. The North of England, where a majority voted to Leave, has long been notoriously, pathologically depressed, its cities and towns, one after another, the victims of postwar post-industrial decline and post-millennial austerity. So how to explain the recent show of confidence in the self-styled capital of the North?
The city’s postwar collapse rivaled that of Detroit. Today it is busily, loudly rebounding.
Manchester, whose collapse in the mid 20th century rivaled that of Detroit, is busily, loudly rebounding; the city is now constructing a cluster of skyscrapers on the edge of its downtown core, the scale of which dwarfs all existing buildings. 1 Not all that long ago, a big building here could perhaps boast 100,000 square feet; today “big” means half a million. The new South Tower of Deansgate Square, a collection of mostly residential towers, rises priapically to more than 600 feet, and it might soon be overtaken by the 700-foot-tall Trinity Islands. There were at the end of last year an unprecedented 80 construction sites in the city center, including 14,000 future apartments, many of which are underwritten by international investment. This is proving to be the most thoroughgoing transformation of an English city for some time; indeed, one of the great spectacles of contemporary Britain. “Manchester is visibly booming,” wrote Oliver Wainwright, the architectural critic of the Guardian. “Cranes cluster across the skyline and the concrete liftshafts of future towers dot every corner. The city is even beginning to look drunk on its own success.” 2
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Inevitably this is a local story, one that underscores much about the unpredictability and uncertainty of Britain as it finally leaves the European Union, a departure that was expedited by the Conservative party’s victory in the recent general election. Yet it is also a global story; a story about how a city that was at the center of the industrial revolution, and that shaped global capitalism in the 19th century, is today being reshaped by post-industrial globalized capital. As the geographers Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward put it in 2002, in a prescient book on the beginning of the contemporary boom: “Being first proved to be a double-edged sword. The first industrial city was the first to experience large-scale deindustrialization. … Once a global player, the city is in many ways now just another potential investment site in the global economic system.” 3 And now, as I write, the future of the global economic system has been put on at least temporary hold by the spread of a global pandemic; the partly constructed new skyline of Manchester now constitutes an unwitting memorial to the moment the city went into lockdown.
It can feel remarkable to recall that Manchester, in 1900, was one of the ten largest cities on the planet, with a greater metropolitan population just shy of two million. From a market town of about 40,000 in the late 18th century, the city had grown, over the course of the 19th, into an industrial dynamo, the world center of textile manufacturing and trading, home to so many mills that it became known as “cottonopolis.” “It was the principal site of what was rapidly coming to be thought of as the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the cultural historian Steven Marcus, “and was widely regarded as the ur-scene, concentrated specimen, and paradigm of what such a revolution was portending both for good and bad.” 4 In this light it bears remembering that Manchester was at once deeply enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade of the late 18th century and later one of the centers of the abolition movement in England. 5
19th-century Manchester was the focus of intense scrutiny, ‘the shock city of the age.’
Its rise was so phenomenal that by mid-century Manchester had become the focus of intense scrutiny, “the shock city of the age,” in the words of historian Asa Briggs. 6 Numerous illustrious visitors were both attracted and repelled. In 1826 Karl Friedrich Schinkel traveled to Britain as part of a Prussian delegation investigating new technologies; in Manchester he was fascinated by the scale of the warehouses, “seven to eight stories high and as big as the Royal Palace in Berlin.” 7 In 1838 Charles Dickens described his first visit in a letter to a friend. “I went some weeks ago to Manchester, and saw the worst cotton mill. And then saw the best,” Dickens wrote. “What I have seen has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure.” 8 In one of his novels from the 1840s, Benjamin Disraeli, the future prime minister, insists that “rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens.” 9 One of the most penetrating observers was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose travel diaries from 1835 capture the wondrous horrors of the industrializing metropolis.
A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark labyrinth, but they are not at all the ordinary sounds one hears in great cities. …
From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage. 10
The city’s most influential chronicler was Friedrich Engels, who arrived in Manchester in 1842, just 22 years old, and set to work in one of the mills owned by his father, a wealthy textile manufacturer in the Rhineland. His family hoped he would learn the business, but within two years the politically precocious Engels had produced The Condition of the Working Class in England, one of the early classics of socialism. It was soon after its publication that Engels met Karl Marx in Chetham’s Library in Manchester; a few years later they would collaborate on The Communist Manifesto.
Engels’s experience of Manchester structured his broader argument about social and economic class and the failures of industrial capitalism.
Engels’s early experience of Manchester structured his broader argument about social and economic class and the failures of industrial capitalism. He writes vividly about the peculiar form of the city. In a much-quoted section, he describes how the city has contrived in its “curious lay-out” and “hypocritical town planning” to shield its appalling poverty from the prosperous factory owners and merchants: “To such an extent has the convenience of the rich been considered in the planning of Manchester that these plutocrats can travel from their houses to their places of business in the center of town by the shortest routes, which run entirely through the working-class districts, without ever realizing how close they are to the misery and filth which lie on both sides of the road.” Engels does not spare the reader, though. A few pages later he describes the “most disgusting spot of all,” a slum called Little Ireland: “The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted by the stench and darkened by the thick smoke from dozens of factory chimneys.” 11 Towards the end of the book, the author captures what he calls the “selfishness and moral depravity” of the city’s bourgeoisie.
One day I walked with [a] middle-class gentleman into Manchester. I spoke to him about the disgraceful unhealthy slums and drew his attention to the disgusting condition of that part of town in which the factory workers lived. I declared I had never seen so badly built a town in my life. He listened patiently and at the corner of the street at which we parted company he remarked: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here. Good morning, Sir.’ 12
A city created by capital, an industrial powerhouse shaped, or misshaped, in its image: it is hard to overestimate the persistence of this trope, even today. Otherwise sensible visitors like to declare how little has changed since Engels’s time, no matter that they are navigating an urban environment in which few of the 19th-century buildings and artifacts, industries and institutions, would ultimately survive the creative destruction of the 20th century.
Manchester is, I should now confess, my city. I spent my first eighteen years there, and then, after spells in London and Madrid, I came back. This was unexpected. I remember the Manchester of my youth, the city of the 1970s and ’80s, as a hollowed-out ruin, a landscape of big skies and palpable stagnation, the sort of place one left, only to return for funerals. One of the more moving accounts appears in The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, who arrived in 1966 to take up a teaching job at the University of Manchester. Here is the protagonist of his novel, describing what he sees on the taxi ride from the airport to the city.
I looked out in amazement at the rows of uniform houses, which seemed the more rundown the closer we got to the city centre. In Moss Side and Hulme there were whole blocks where the doors and windows were boarded up, and whole districts where everything had been demolished. Views opened up across the wasteland towards the still immensely impressive agglomeration of gigantic Victorian office blocks and warehouses, about a kilometer distant, that had once been the hub of one of the nineteenth century’s miracle cities but, as I was soon to find out, was now almost hollow to the core. … One might have supposed that the city had long since been deserted, and was left now as a necropolis or mausoleum. 13
The Victorian terraces were demolished to make way for the Crescents, then the largest social housing project in Europe, and soon to become notorious.
I too remember the districts where everything had been demolished; those enormous clearance zones marked the city’s landscape from the end of the Second World War right into the 1990s, and you can still perceive their legacy if you know where to look. In the working-class neighborhood of Hulme, the Victorian terraces, which had been heavily damaged in the Blitz, were demolished to make way for the Crescents, then the largest social housing project in Europe, and soon to become notorious. The project consisted of four large, seven-story, U-shaped blocks meant to recall the Georgian crescents of Bath and London (they were even named for the Regency architects Robert Adam, Charles Barry, William Kent, and John Nash). But it quickly became apparent that the systems-built, deck-access superblocks had been faultily constructed and were badly managed; by the mid-’70s the project was savaged in the Guardian as “a morass in which design faults and tenants’ revulsion at their environment have combined to produce staggering maintenance demands and angry howls of neglect.” 14
In those years the downtown too felt eerily depopulated, home to just a few hundred people, most of them concentrated in the small flats built on the roof of the Arndale Centre, a giant shopping mall that was constructed in the ’70s along Market Street. With its immense bulk clad in yellow ceramic tiles, the Arndale, which was designed by the same architects as the Crescents, was dismissed by one critic as “distinctly lavatorial.” 15 The interior mall had replaced an eclectic assortment of Victorian buildings in a center that had lost much of its older architecture. You could park your car in the empty shell of the Central Station, a once impressive Victorian terminus that had been derelict for years. From about this point, a few hundred yards from the celebrated and still prepossessing neo-gothic Town Hall, the formal city began to thin out into a weedy zone of industrial ruins and, more often, cleared lots.
I will admit that the devastation was, in a way, spectacular; in those years we hadn’t learned to condemn such appreciation as ruin porn. There were sharp contrasts of scale and finish, a characteristic that continues to the present. Amidst the vast decay there would emerge the crisp outlines of the CIS Tower, completed in 1962 and as fresh as anything in postwar Chicago. In the center of downtown, there was the Royal Exchange Theatre, renovated in 1976, and possibly the most complete realization anywhere of the radical ideas of Archigram: a 750-seat theater resembling a lunar lander, perched in the middle of the former trading floor of the Edwardian cotton exchange that had been damaged during the Blitz and abandoned in the late ’60s. The prices on the closing day, December 31, 1968, remain visible on the display boards under the dome to this day. 16
Some of the club scene was nurtured in the failed spaces of postwar planning, when the dilapidated Crescents became ‘a bohemian paradise for ravers and punks.’
More furtive but no less artful and just as significant was the music scene, the numerous bands and clubs, from New Order to The Smiths, from the Boardwalk to the Haçienda, that made Manchester in the ’80s such a potent incubator of global youth culture. Located on Whitworth Street West, in a converted warehouse that had most recently been used as a yacht showroom, the Haçienda opened in 1982 and by the end of the decade had somehow become the most sensational nightclub in the world. Some of the club scene had been inadvertently nurtured in the failed spaces of postwar planning. By the mid-’80s the Crescents had gotten so dilapidated that the city council stopped charging rent, and the buildings soon attracted, as the local author and Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam recalled, “a growing community of musicians, artists, dropouts, students and squatters. By the end of the decade, the buildings were slowly collapsing and another generation of punks, anarchists and travelers moved in. Stray dogs roamed the wasteland.” 17 Or as another local critic and DJ put it, “Europe’s worst housing estate became a bohemian paradise for ravers and punks.” 18 Such accounts suggest the tenacious legacy of Engels, an almost pleasurable obsession with the evidence and images of decay and ruination, on the part of locals as much as visitors. This was a place in which sophistication and squalor could seem inseparable, even co-dependent.
When I returned in the mid-1990s, to study for a doctorate, Manchester looked much as I remembered it because, apart from some banal office development, almost nothing new had been built. Which seems to have been the plan. When later I started to research the city in earnest, I learned that the local Labor party administration of the mid-1980s had adopted the policy of “managed decline,” an idea first advocated by the Thatcher government for Liverpool, and which in fact reflected a growing conviction across the political spectrum at the time. Cities like Manchester, it was widely believed, simply had no future. 19 Some parts of the city were even more rundown than before; by this time the city council had found the funds for demolition, and the Crescents was gone, the site now cleared, save for a few fragments. Also around then the population of the city dropped below the psychologically important threshold of 400,000 for the first time in more than a century. Manchester looked like a city facing its own erasure.
Manchester looked like a city facing its own erasure. Except it didn’t feel like that at all.
Except it didn’t feel like that at all. There were dozens of small schemes along Whitworth Street West for repurposing old railway arches and small-scale industrial buildings, and there were plans for the intimately scaled industrial neighborhood of Knott Mill. The old Central Station was no longer a car park; it’d been redeveloped into the Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre, or G-Mex. 20 In the early ’90s there was a bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics; Manchester United F.C. was the country’s most successful soccer team and by the decade’s end its manager Alex Ferguson would be knighted (true Mancunians will point out that Manchester United is not the “real” team, its home being the adjoining borough of Trafford; no matter). The cultural impresario Tony Wilson, co-founder of the Haçienda, could regularly be spotted around town, golf umbrella in hand, scouting real estate opportunities. The streets somehow were humming again; Manchester may have been smaller, and more battered, but it was alive.
One hyper-local and characteristically self-mythologizing response to this tumultuous period was an academic conference held in January 1996. Called “The Haçienda Must Be Built,” and held, appropriately, at the Haçienda, the event was at once an analysis of the influence of the radical Situationist International on Manchester popular culture, and a celebration of the contribution of that culture to the city’s redevelopment (thought nobody would have put it in quite such instrumental terms). 21 It was not, as you might guess, a typical conference. The nightclub venue was hardly conducive for a speaking event, and the wintry weather made it less so; I recall that we were all either freezing in our seats or, when the blasty heating system was finally turned on, unable to hear the presentations. A hundred or so showed up to lecture or listen, many of them veterans from the early days of the Situationist International in postwar Paris. There was also a smattering of local musicians; Mark E. Smith, lead singer of The Fall, brought his usual blend of enigma and belligerence. The organizers, Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd, were young academics; neither were native Mancunians, but they realized something was going on.
The Haçienda nightclub was named for a Situationist text that envisioned a space devoted to pleasure, a refuge against the consumer society.
The event was striking for its synthesis of apparently mutually exclusive subject positions. How could a movement like the Situationist International, ostensibly so hostile to capitalism, find itself on the same platform as real estate developers? The partial answer could be found in the presence of the polymathic Tony Wilson. More than just a club owner, Wilson was also a music producer, television presenter, social activist, and intermittent real estate developer; a decade later, his Guardian obituary would describe him as a “unique hybrid of selfish visionary, TV hack, charming bully, generous tyrant, commissioning editor, playful philosopher, inconsistent genius and down-to-earth intellectual.” 22 Along with his entrepreneurial activities, the Cambridge-educated Wilson was well read in French cultural theory. The name of his nightclub came from a Situationist text that envisioned a space devoted to pleasure, a refuge against the consumer society. 23 What Wilson understood, and could communicate, was that an avant-garde of any sort, for all its oppositional and anti-authoritarian energy, could only exist in a reasonably functioning city. That two-day academic conference was, as such events always are, a small-scale affair; the Haçienda itself would close a year later. Yet it represented an emergent pro-urban mentality that was somehow sympathetic both to cutting-edge culture and urban redevelopment, with the implicit hedonism of the Situationists helping to bridge the divide.
What happened a few months later was anything but small-scale. On the morning of Saturday June 15, 1996, a large swath of downtown Manchester was destroyed by a bomb set off by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, part of a violent campaign to pressure the British to leave Northern Ireland. The 3,300-pound bomb, to date the largest exploded in the country since World War II, was delivered in a Ford Cargo van parked near the Arndale Centre. The bomb was on a timer, and the IRA, following its usual practice, sent one-hour advance warnings to newspapers and television and radio stations. Tens of thousands of shoppers were evacuated from the crowded mall, and though a couple hundred people were injured, there were no fatalities.
The bomb, to date the largest exploded in the country since World War II, was delivered in a Ford van parked near the Arndale Centre.
The core of the city was devastated. Some 1,200 buildings were hit, including the 19th-century Corn Exchange and Royal Exchange, the latter with its extraordinary theater. The Arndale Centre was massively damaged. I walked the perimeter of the exclusion zone on the afternoon of Sunday, June 16. The day was bright and cloudless, with a light breeze. The entire downtown was sealed off, and it took a couple of hours to walk the whole site. I still remember the sounds of fluttering blinds in the shattered windows along with the wails of fire alarms, ringing from seemingly every building in the zone. 24
What was new, after the bombing, was a widespread enthusiasm to repopulate the central city on an unprecedented scale.
The rebuilding that followed was remarkably swift, and even now Mancunians will argue that it was the bombing that propelled the subsequent boom. Yet the catastrophe did not so much galvanize new ideas as give new momentum to redevelopment ambitions that had been gaining force for years. But what was new was a widespread enthusiasm to repopulate the central city on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, and as part of the same process, the city council became notably more open; the insular and defensive administration of the ’80s, preoccupied with crime, drugs, and sexual delinquency, became convinced of the value of enterprise, and of global presence. One month after the bombing, the city launched an international design competition for a downtown master plan; the competition was won by a team led by EDAW, and before the dawn of the new millennium the city was celebrating the reopening of the rebuilt center with a parade and fireworks.
Redevelopment would continue for years afterwards and the Arndale Centre would be extensively refurbished, the unloved ceramic cladding replaced with sandstone and glass; the mall remains one of the largest in the Britain. Unsurprisingly, the regeneration of the past two decades has been recognizably “third way” in character and scope, part of what Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward described, back in 2002, as the city’s “entrepreneurial turn,” or, more specifically, the city council’s “abandonment of municipal socialism in favor of a pragmatic strand of interventionist neoliberalism.” And as they argued, the processes are contradictory:
Contemporary Manchester exhibits a perplexing mix of both ongoing decline and dynamic transformation. While the narrative of success is certainly the dominant one in the city, only its most zealous advocates would claim that the work is done, that the deep-seated processes of decline have been arrested and reversed. In essence, the regeneration and restructuring of Manchester remain a work in progress. … [But] what seems certain is that twenty-first century Manchester will be both more cosmopolitan and heterogeneous and more unequal and divided than before 25
The pace of change has increased markedly since the turn of the millennium, and the regeneration and restructuring are proceeding apace; but Peck and Ward are still right. The tensions and conflicts are easy enough to delineate. On the one hand, the prediction that Manchester would become more “unequal and divided” has unfortunately been borne out; the city’s provision for its poorer residents has been patchy at best. It was no surprise to see Mancunians join in the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis; shaped by successive waves of immigration over two centuries, the city is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the U.K. 26
In his Guardian critique, Oliver Wainwright invoked Engels’s description of the slum called Angel’s Meadow as “Hell on Earth.” But the new hell isn’t made up of slums. It’s an enclave of high-rise luxury, secure against the poverty of the streets; of glassy towers like the 41-story MeadowSide, funded by a Cayman Islands-registered, Hong Kong-originating developer, and also like the penthouse of the 47-story Beetham Tower, part of Deansgate Square, where the building’s architect, Ian Simpson, can enjoy both the panoramic view and the personal olive grove he has planted in the glass-walled duplex. Such displays of wealth can feel egregious in a city that still has such conspicuous poverty.
Yet Manchester defies neat analysis. There’s no doubt the city is increasingly the play-space of restless multinational investment, the sort that is notable for its lack of local commitment. But the interaction of this capital with local traditions is producing a cityscape that so often and so disarmingly exceeds expectations. Here is an example. Head to the southern end of Deansgate, the road that bisects the downtown from north to south. Stand outside Atlas, the bar that’s nestled within a converted railroad arch, and you will find yourself surrounded by the 19th-century industrial-prototype city, done out in the red brick and terracotta characteristic of central Manchester. For a city so identified with large-scale industry, this part feels surprisingly intimate. Most of the pubs and lock-keepers’ cottages reach no more than three-stories high, and the railroad viaducts are only twenty feet above your head. But then turn around and look across the viaduct near Deansgate station and your eyes are drawn to a clutch of flange-profiled, glass-walled towers arranged like gigantic vases on a table-like podium. It’s not just the height that feels surprising, but the density, for what is emerging is a whole new district along the southern fringe of the city.
For longtime observers, it can still seem miraculous to see any development at all in the central city.
What is the appeal of this view? It’s not the new architecture per se, which though generally well-constructed is neither very bad nor very good. And it’s not the repurposed fragments of the vanished industrial city, which are far from the finest examples of such heritage. What is remarkable is the close juxtaposition; or more precisely, their juxtaposition here in Manchester. For longtime observers of the city, it can still seem miraculous to see any development at all in this location; here is where the experience of the power of capital in a second-order city feels different than it would in London or New York or Tokyo, in cities that never experienced the dramatic vanishing of that power.
Manchester is not mired in old debates about style, or endemically hostile to modernity and slow to change.
Personally I am drawn to the architecture, to its impropriety, its refusal to accede to the traditional tropes of the English city. This is architecture that’s undiplomatic and vulgar, and moreover fast to appear. Manchester is decidedly not mired in old debates about style, or endemically hostile to modernity and slow to change. The city might even be perceived as an anti-establishment spectacle, resistant to the guardians of architectural heritage and national sentiment. Consider the 40-story, mixed-used St. Michael’s tower, now being designed by SOM and local architects Hodder + Partners; the controversial project is located on Albert Square, right near the old Town Hall, one of the greatest of the city’s historic structures, designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1877 and now Grade-1 listed. The original scheme for the high-rise development was fiercely opposed by preservationists, but the city council tenaciously supported the project, conceding to the retention of an old pub and a neoclassical police station but refusing to scuttle the high-rise scheme with all its investment potential. Manchester’s culture of redevelopment can seem sometimes almost Futurist.
But what Manchester offers most of all is the spectacle of city as process. The city has monuments yet little coherence; perhaps paradoxically, what feels most enduring is its fragmentary and provisional character. (I suspect this impressed and appalled the 19th-century visitors, as much as the horrors of the factories.) I will admit to liking this, and it’s why I come back often. From that vantage point outside the Atlas Bar, you can see several versions of the modern city, all fighting it out. There is the industrial city, until recently occupied by light manufacturing as well as the odd recording studio, eking out an existence as the old music scene has morphed into the culture industry. There is a provisionally gentrified version of the post-industrial city, where the lock-keepers’ cottages are now pubs offering artisanal spirits, and where the old warehouses are now loft-style apartments. Meanwhile not far away there are the remaining voids, the cleared lots that are the vestiges of postwar demolition. Finally there is the currently dominant narrative of high-rise, high-density redevelopment. All these disparate parts invite reflection on the future of their interactions. What will be the effect of installing tens of thousands of new residents in those towers, where there were previously only light industry and car parking? What new cultures and pressures and challenges will come about? And now, of course, there are the nervous new questions: Will rebuilding continue at its old pace, post-pandemic? Will it continue at all?
The city has monuments yet little coherence; what feels most enduring is its fragmentary and provisional character.
To makes sense of such a dynamic landscape, we might recall earlier discourses about cities under similarly volatile conditions; in particular the architectural and urban theory that emerged in the 1960s and sought to make sense of the growing cities of the American West. Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, and Steven Izenour, remains after all these years the most powerful example of such transgressive theory; for it insisted upon accepting the desert metropolis as a multiply authored form produced by (often) outlaw capital under unusual local conditions, a city that needed to be understood without reference to the canons of art history or the conventions of architectural taste. The authors were, here and elsewhere, open to the likelihood that cities would change and that a form built for one purpose might be adapted for some very different application in the future. Manchester has not yet evolved built forms as novel as Caesar’s Palace. But it has done enough to need new urban theories that will help us understand the city beyond Engels, beyond the industrial powerhouse and the post-industrial ruin; a theory that will meet the city on its own proud, unpretentious terms.
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