Back to the future: a trip to Infra_MANC

I took a day-trip to Manchester recently to see Richard Brook and Martin Dodge’s Infra_MANC exhibition, and it was well worth the time. The exhibition explores four modernist infrastructure projects designed for central Manchester: two that came to fruition (the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange and the Mancunian Way elevated motorway) and two that never got beyond the drawing board (the Piccadilly-Victoria railway tunnel and the Victoria rooftop heliport).

Noticing infrastructure

The curators note that sustained engagement with infrastructure and its materialities is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences (and I think we should extend this verdict to the humanities also). The exhibition therefore seeks to foreground the “culturally invisible” (both to those academics and the ‘general public’) and in their impressively comprehensive catalogue, the curators present a wealth of support materials to contextualise and discuss the plans, construction schematics and promotional materials which they present as artefacts in the exhibition itself. Through both mediums a compelling sense of the creative endeavour and optimism (perhaps hubris) of the technocrats and their visions for post-war reconstruction of Manchester via these four featured projects is presented. Here I want to draw some themes that occurred to me during my viewing.

Hubris and the come-down

As Margolis (2001) has noted, examining a generation’s aspirations, predictions and plans for the future will tell you a lot about the cultural sensibilities of the time in which those predictions and plans were made. In broad terms the exhibition charts the path of each of these projects from the ‘new Jerusalem’ optimism of the late 1940s and 1950s, through the dawning of the pragmatic realities of construction in the 1960s and the era-ending effects of the energy crisis of the early 1970s. It is a testimony to the confidence of the city planners, that they could initially assume such mastery over space and its use. Here we are in the realm of Lefebvre’s (1991) representations of space – the objectifying gaze of the technocrat, and his god-like designs for the city.   The technocratic optimism on display in the designs reminded me of Willy Wonka’s (delusional) declaration in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (1964) that:

“we are now going underground! All the most important rooms in my factory are deep below the surface…there wouldn’t be nearly enough space for them up on top!…But down here underneath the ground I’ve got all the space I want. There’s no limit – so long as I hollow it out.” (Dahl 2004, 59).

The fate of the Mancunian way shows (as every ‘delivered’ project will do) that achievement of the project requires evolution, adaptation, compromise and delay. Where the vision of the master planners may have been a system of efficient arterial roads ringing the city, the reality ended up much more reliant upon adaptation, and ‘fitting-in’ to the existing environment. Viewing the Mancunian way as it flies over Oxford Rd, I was struck by the way that the pillars of the elevated roadway seem to step ‘gingerly’ through that locality, much as I am forced to tip-toe my way through my kids’ toy strewn bedroom floors. The planners may have envisaged ‘cutting a swathe’ through tired portions of the city, but on the whole it didn’t work out that way.

As de Certeau notes, modernism lost its bullish self confidence somewhere towards the late 1960s, leaving amidst the new “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories[which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

Yet modernisms own infrastructural insertions are now themselves trace-like, and becoming the objects of ‘heritage’ fetishism. At some future point they in turn will collapse or be pulled down in favour of something yet to be thought of.

Making plans

The exhibition included many annotated maps of central Manchester, with the flyover’s route and junctions superimposed by hand and ink. These maps come close to showing the spatial inception of such schemes, the moment at which the first hand annotates the first map, sketching through (perhaps in trial and error pencil to start off with) possible routes for the roadway. This searching-out of ‘what might work best’, is a fascinating moment to catch a documented glimpse of. I can top it only with a description, offered to me by an official who had worked in Sheffield at the time of the large scale slum clearance programmes of the 1960s, that the condemning and erasure of selected swathes of terrace housing started with moments of ‘drive-by’, the official and his colleague setting the ball rolling by touring the neighbourhoods and ‘spotting’ what struck them from their car window as suitable candidates for further – slightly more formal – evaluation and plan forming. Such ‘spotting’ was rooted in subjective ‘feels’ for the character of an area and its populace. So, in that sense those projects at least in part started with a ‘social’ assessment (though one in hindsight that may seem to us rather paternalistic), before moving into the geometric human-less abstractions of lines on maps and charts.

Raiders of the lost archive

The exhibition foregrounds the documentation of infrastructure, presenting them as artefacts in themselves, in addition to their ability to represent the enacted (or abandoned) schemes. This (as the curators intend) brings to the public gaze documents which were created by, and in the case of the majority of these artefacts only intended for, professionals. As I walked around I was struck by two things. First that out of the context of an engineers’ office these documents take on a different ‘feel’. The temptation is to read them as ‘art’ rather than ‘technology’. The second reaction to the curator’s very thorough raiding of a wide spectrum of archival sources was that it brought back memories of my own encounters with similar infrastructure schemes as a jobbing lawyer in the 1990s. I would often stop and marvel at the artistry, and alien-ness of the plans before me (a welcome break from a professional world dominated by A4 text heavy screeds). But sometimes clients might spot my reverie and prod me back to attention to the job in hand, they only wanted me to engage with these documents in a way relevant to their purposes (for which – to be fair – they were paying me): the purpose of identifying risk, allocating blame, checking legalities. In that world I had dealings with many types of engineers, and working on the same documents in parallel was always an interesting experience – because they ‘read’ them differently to me. They read them as instructions for buildability, as a user-manual for fault-busting and as an aid to materials and work planning. To the lawyer then these documents were about the future (what might happen?) to the engineer they were about the (then) present (how do we do this?) and here, to the curators, they are about the past, as past that is too recent and within which these concrete landmarks are “not yet archaeological” (Virilio, 1994: 13).

Infrastructure & myth

The exhibition takes a necessary shift of focus in its attempts to depict the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange (GUTE). For, whilst this structure was built (and therefore exists in that sense), it was created in the context of cold war civil defence. It started life as secret, and – as the curators note – remains so to this day. Therefore their depiction of it is through the eyes of others rather than through this structure’s designers or owner. Here curious local residents, urban explorers, heritage surveys and local media sources are invoked to give an account of these ‘secret’ tunnels under the city. The curators note the irony that infrastructure tends only to become noticed when it either breaks down or we are told that it is something that we are forbidden from knowing about. Here then we enter the realm of Lefebvre’s spaces of representation, a ‘bottom-up’ lived signification of space, a construct “embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life” (1991: 33). And these words are particularly apt here, for in their exhibition guide, the curators note the ways in which the absence of ‘official’ information about the role, location and layout of the GUTE tunnels, created a vacuum filled by mystification – meanings projected onto this prosaic underground structure by viewers who must embrace clandestine ways in order to ‘know’ this ‘secret’ place. This irony is part of the interplay of bunkers’ symbolic and concrete materialities, something that I explored in some detail in an article last year (Bennett 2011).

Reading infrastructure

For me then Infra_MANC gave a refreshing and fascinating glimpse of infrastructure, and the curators are to be commended for temporarily summoning these projects to ‘ground level’ and into public view. Whilst the exhibition was noticeably ‘light touch’ in its approach to narration of the what, why and wherefores of these projects, the catalogue provides plenty to burrow into if you are so minded. The exhibition closes tomorrow, so catch it if you can – before Manchester’s infrastructure once again slips into the background…

Bennett L, (2011) “The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management” Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173

Brook, R. & Dodge, M. (2012) Infra_MANC: Catalogue to accompany the exhibition CUBE Gallery/RIBA Hub, Spring 2012, The Authors: Manchester.

Dahl, R. (2004) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. London: Puffin.

De Certeau, M., Giard, L.& Mayol, P.(1998) The Practice of Everyday Life: Volume 2: Living & Cooking Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (trans Tomasik, Timothy J.)

Lefebvre, H. (trans Nicholson-Smith, D.)(1991) The Production of Space, Blackwell: Oxford.

Margolis, J. (2001) A Brief History of Tomorrow, Bloomsbury: London.

Virilio, P. (trans. Collins, G.) (1994) Bunker Archeology New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Source of photo of GUTE surface station: For a peek inside the tunnels see: a POV (Point of view) video of an urban explorer touring the GUTE tunnels sometime in the 1990s:

About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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