By Mark Crinson, 28 November 2002
Image: Mark Crinson, Urbis, Manchester 2002

Urbis, Manchester's new city museum, has blended the hybrid processes of culture-driven regeneration into a single, sanitised symbol. Mark Crinson glimpses the hidden face of the 'degenerate' city through the chinks in Urbis's frosted glass exterior

The ‘regeneration game’ is now a common term for the antics that second-tier, once-industrial cities like Manchester go through in order to attract outside funding. The modern city fathers of Manchester – the networks of the Manchester Mafia, of thrusting local politicians (New Labour avant la lettre), leading businessmen and plugged-in culturepreneurs – have proved particularly adept at this regeneration game. The game is described in Manchester’s new Urbis, the self-styled museum of the city. ‘Rebuild your own 21st Century, Easy-to-Assemble Manchester’, one display suggests. All that is required is to connect local council, European Community grants and government money, add this to a city centre in decline to create an exhibition centre; make an Olympic bid and repeat; produce a tram system and a concert hall; follow a Commonwealth Games bid with an unexpected event (the IRA bomb in 1996); build stadia with lottery money, involve property developers, and create city-centre flats out of disused industrial spaces. But, the display warns, ‘The manufacturers cannot guarantee its design if subjected to recession.’

This is probably as much as most visitors will learn from Urbis. Indeed, to be fair, it doesn’t seem that Urbis is particularly interested in teaching visitors anything much. Beyond a peppering of Remarkable Facts About Cities, Urbis’s intent is rather to give us experience. (Think experience as in the Wigan Pier Experience or even the Arctic Experience – the packaged tourist guide to the outer limits.) But perhaps in the wider view, Urbis itself has something to teach us as a symptom of post-industrial urbanism, a reflection of the present state of city (re)building. It would be tempting to use Baudrillard’s old argument about the Pompidou Centre to explain Urbis – a cool if startling building, a space that is apparently people-friendly and suggestively placed in the disinfected buffer zone of its retailing context; yet also a building that works as a form of deterrent through the absorption and deadening of unruly, non-consensual energies.[1] And, like the Pompidou, Urbis re-uses the constructivist trope of the social condenser and its architectural symbols of transparency and the interpenetration of spaces, with wall planes deployed as sites for zippy electronic messages and projected imagery. There is even a lift that takes us on a ‘sky glide’ diagonally up the inner skin of the building – a little like the snaking escalator on the Pompidou. But all of this is wrapped in a glass skin of deceptive proportions and a form that is part curvaceous glass barrier, part urban lighthouse, seemingly generous to the city yet insulated from it and hermetic. Inside, the building tantalises us. On the one hand there are vistas across and through the carcass of the building; on the other, the bands of frosted glass frustrate the promise of the glazed walls, offering nothing but slivers of the city outside.

So what is that city outside? It is Long Millgate, once described by Engels as one of the poorest areas of Manchester, a mummified pre-industrial fly caught in the industrial city’s spiderweb, [2] and now finally buried under a newly landscaped public space already colonised by skateboarders; it is two pre-industrial pubs lifted up and moved a hundred yards after the bomb to help make an ersatz cathedral close; it is the toytown rolling stock and Brobdingnagian kids’ windmills outside the new Marks & Spencers – a building only recently announced as their largest store, and now half sub-let to other traders. This is the renovated heart of post-industrial Manchester, the neo-Haussmannised quarter of café-bars and dressed pavements – this is Urbisville.

But Manchester post-bomb is not Paris post-1968. While Urbis’ subliminal function is to dissuade, it doesn’t do that by denying the city. Rather, the parade of differences and the counter-cultural impulses of cities are remade into urban capital, the assets of a newly refurbished official culture. From the first room, where jungle music accompanies rapidly changing images projected onto all the walls around you, Urbis’s image of the city is that of edgy, fragmented, colliding and collaging rhythms. But no city is strange enough: ‘we were all new to this once but now we are streetwise insiders’, Urbis tell us. Whether we're in Tokyo, Mumbai, Lagos, Singapore or Seattle, doesn't make enough difference. Urbis lets us fly above the streets of Sao Paulo or talk to Rimbaud across a café table. We are like Urbis people, life-size Russian dolls that speak as we approach them, telling us that the cities of the world are all alike – a Benetton world of all colours and none. Urbis also shows us that – shock, horror – cities can be dangerous places. There is graffiti, the crusty sleeping bags of the homeless, the Mean Streets of Jack the Rippers and Big Issues. But this is an aestheticised danger. These are the anxieties of the caste of loft-livers, or the developer’s sense of danger as the commodifiable pulse of the city, a desirable urban ambience. The same kind that has recently prompted Crosby Homes to name their swish new apartment complex the Hacienda, after the famous club housed in the building that was demolished to make way for it. [3] Urbis is impatient of the forces of history, of the city’s glacial changes, of its quieter moments. The city-type that Urbis presents is rapidly pre-digested by its curators and designers and then spat out. It exhibits fear, but makes a genre of it. It tells us about surveillance, but makes a game of it. It shows democracy and dissent, but packages them. And this is why all cities appear homogeneous in Urbis – they are the juddery, interactive habitat of the Urbis Person. Any urban discord can come into the Urbis mill, it seems, and then be turned out as experience. Implosion follows explosion.

Across central Manchester, another of the poorest areas in the inner girdle of the city, as described by Engels, has recently begun to be redeveloped. From being Little Ireland in the nineteenth century – the ‘most horrible spot’ in Manchester [4] – the area was taken over by the Dunlop company and is now being rebuilt as Macintosh Village (at the last count, the fifth newly named ‘village’ in the inner city). Little Ireland was recently the subject of an exhibition by the Canadian artist Edward Hillel at the newly-extended Manchester Art Gallery. Sponsored by the developers Taylor Woodrow, Hillel’s Coming Soon was also symptomatic of Manchester’s present state. If Urbis is largely an exercise in amnesia, Hillel’s is that kind of remembering that makes us forget more easily. The exhibition consists of industrial objects recovered from the site, a series of colour photographs taken inside and around the old Dunlop buildings at the last moment before redevelopment, and a video installation supposedly evoking factory life in the empty buildings. As an artist-archaeologist, Hillel has totemised the relics of rusty machines, made talismans of the sets of keys to forgotten doors, even fetishised the glossy posters of calendar girls scattered on the empty factory floor. Part archive of a place soon-to-be-lost, part wistful expressionist conjuring of a darker city, Coming Soon also implicitly endorses the view that Manchester’s regeneration is relentless, irresistible, and disinterested. The only question is whether it is fast or slow change, while the tacit response remains 'the faster the better'. Coming Soon has now gone, but its images (‘Old Manchester’, antiquarians would once have called them) have been saved for memory and a ‘stylish, environmentallyfriendly community’ created by the good conscience of the developer. [5]

Urbis is one of the beacons of the new Manchester, as Macintosh Village typifies the style in which the city centre is being repopulated. Along with the Imperial War Museum, Daniel Liebeskind’s vision of a world blown apart in the old Salford Quays, and the new City of Manchester stadium in East Manchester, it caps a remarkable recent chapter in the history of this remarkable city. The city’s Piranesian landscape of chaotic elevated railways, looming warehouses, and neglected canals – until recently the haunt only of buddleia and empty cans of Boddingtons – is being remade as the city beautiful.

When the Commonwealth Games was recently held in Manchester, the city suddenly recalled the Manchester of Jeff Noon’s cyberpunk novel Pollen (1995). In Noon’s vision the inner city towers are lived in by the ‘well-done and the well-to-do’, the streets are left to the dogboys, and in the limbo-land beyond live the dodos. Here the old ‘dark place of wet desires’ that was industrial Manchester is threatened by an invading floral dystopia as clouds of pollen choke the city, shoots spring from the pavements and the green veins of a new living flower-map take over. The monstrous regeneration of Pollen was briefly echoed during the Games as volunteers wearing yellow sprays on their jackets flooded in from the outskirts, and fountains, flags and flower baskets decorated the city squares. Even a new fleet of taxis – like the Xcabs in Pollen – materialised, their yellow pennants fluttering as they carried athletes across the city’s normal flows to the new stadia. Was this a sacrificial display of excess energies, or the trumpeting of ‘competitiveness’ now required of the post-industrial city?

Certainly a great deal has happened in Manchester, but what is the real significance of it all? The often astonishing transformations that have taken place in central Manchester seem to want to assure us that the beautiful city is here to stay. There is a can-do spirit among local politicians and businessmen that is the envy of many other British cities, there is brave architecture and there is plenty of interesting art being made in and about the city. But the regeneration seems narrowly limited to the city centre, the problems shunted out but far from solved. Drive into the city from the north or the east along the Oldham, Ashton or Rochdale Roads, or along the old sheeproving road, the A6 from Levenshulme, through the badlands of Longsight and Ardwick, and the benefits of Manchester’s much-applauded cultural and urban renaissance are hardly evident. These are economically dislocated areas, still awaiting the trickle-down effects of post-industrial regeneration. Will connections be made between the vicarious thrills and participatory delights of Urbis, the continued deprivation of these areas and the social redistribution of money from lotteries and conventional forms of welfare? If there is a connection between the policies of regeneration and suburban car-jackings, student muggings, derelict housing, endemic low pay and the cash-and-crime economy, it is not one often made by those who most enjoy Manchester’s cultural facilities.

For the truth hidden behind Manchester’s high profile regeneration is that so far it has been played only as a game. Manchester has not recaptured its status as a global city – it is still more at the receiving end of globalisation than able to control its destiny in the world order. Despite its attempts to reach beyond the nation-state and not to be seen as a merely provincial city, despite its success in winning European money for cultural projects, and despite the fashion for devolution and regionalism, Manchester is still peripheral to the major European economic developments. 6 The message that Urbis conveys, that Manchester shares the reducible essence of all cities, is a truly dangerous and delusive one.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Beaubourg-effect: Implosion and Deterrence’, in Neil Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

[2] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), London: Penguin, 1987, p. 88.

[3] The Guardian, 29 August 2002.

[4] Engels, p. 98.

[5] Alasdair Nicholls, managing director of Taylor Woodrow, in Edward Hillel, Coming Soon, Manchester: Manchester Art Gallery, 2002, p. 5.

[6] Peter Dicken, ‘Global Manchester: from globaliser to globalised’, in Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward (eds.), City of Revolution: Restructuring Manchester, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 28.

Mark Crinson <> is co-curator of the exhibition Fabrications: New Art and Urban Memory at the CUBE Gallery, Manchester – 11 September - 2 November, and a lecturer at the University of Manchester