Monday 16 August 2010

The legacy of Brutalist vitality

The People’s Republic of Hulme, BBC Radio 4 / English Heritage: Romancing the Stone, BBC2

The BBC was a joy for fans of Brutalist architecture last week with two fantastic programmes. Mark Kermode presented a fascinating documentary on Radio 4 The People’s Republic of Hulme detailing the controversially celebrated history of Britain’s largest concentration of deck-access flats, known as the ‘Crescents’. While the Manchester Crescents have been replaced, as Hulme has been transformed with the help of public money and property developers, Romancing the Stone, the second episode on BBC2’s series on English Heritage, followed English Heritage and Urban Splash’s defiant and unpopular plans to regenerate Europe’s largest listed building, Park Hill Estate in Sheffield.

The Hulme Crescents were a result of post-war growth, erected swiftly after the demolition of Hulme’s overcrowded and bomb-damaged slums. In the early 1960s, the prominent Labour MP Richard Crossman advocated the idea of well-designed production line housing and for a brief period the Crescents future looked bright. For the first time, Hulme residents had hot running water, indoor toilets and ample space. Unfortunately the Crescents were poorly built, cheap and rushed. With poor planning and maintenance the Crescents quickly turned into a ‘mugger’s paradise’. The 1970s oil crisis acted as a catalyst for Hulme’s degradation as the gas-powered estates’ costs increased dramatically. In 1976 the death of a young child and the spiralling costs of the Crescents lead to the removal of families, who were relocated across Manchester. Hulme and the Crescents became a dumping ground for immigrants along with the city’s poor and deprived. Roach and vermin infestations escalated as crime and drug abuse soared.

Yet Kermode and many other Hulme residents found something to celebrate in this dystopian existence. A transient and extraordinarily vibrant mix of people descended upon Hulme as the opportunity for cheap or free housing in the very heart of Manchester led to waves of youthful creative energy. Kermode gives the impression that you could reinvent yourself in Hulme, and no doubt many did. Hulme provided freedom and affordability. Both anarchist and left-wing activism flourished with several successful anti-deportation campaigns. Crime, however, was still a major problem. The council had lost control of Hulme as keys were handed out to anyone that would take them and a black market emerged as people traded and sold access to flats where rent was rarely paid.

Crime became an unavoidable part of life, and Hulme’s residents created various coping methods to deal with it. Hilariously, Kermode remembers shouting up stairwells in an effort to catch out potential muggers through the changing echo. Unsurprisingly the decision to demolish the Crescents came in the early 1990s despite the areas exciting nightlife and bohemian culture.

Although Hulme’s Crescents and Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate have had different fates, their legacies remain. Park Hill still looms over Sheffield, and its halted restoration will surely continue. In Manchester, the demolition of the Crescents has lead to the regeneration of Hulme, where its cultural influence continues. Corbusier’s architectural influence can now be found in Hulme’s Homes for Change co-op set up by ex-Crescent residents.  The co-op celebrates and revitalises the controversial idea of deck-access, with its development with the Guinness Trust, promoting positive social interaction in high density units. 

The most intriguing aspects of the Crescents are the parallels that can be drawn with contemporary London and perhaps major cities in general. Cheap inner city areas regularly see an influx of immigrants and young people. While Hulme was perhaps the ultimate example of this situation with the scale and severity of its redevelopment and subsequent devastation East London holds some prominent examples of similar situations. There is a strong connection in the sense of creative energy, optimism and activism, with relatively affordable accommodation and a young population. This is fuelled by an exciting party culture and open attitudes to sex and drugs.

East London has and will continue to share a similar fate to Hulme as redevelopment improves the area. Prices steadily rise as the process of London’s gentrification spreads. Where Manhattan once shared these free spirited urban qualities its gentrification has pushed the poor to the outskirts and no doubt London and Manchester will face similar futures.

As a Londoner, I have always found the most enchanting characteristic of the capital was the proximity of poor and rich. The Blitz and the post-war Labour government ensured affordable housing throughout the city. But as Britain becomes increasingly centralised and our industries have faltered, London has boomed. The Camden I grew up in has changed dramatically as the poor have been pushed out through increased costs of living. This can be seen in the arresting Rowley Way Estate which has been steadily gentrified with its close proximity to Abbey Road and the City of London. Cultural explosions won’t stop and the poor will always need housing. Unfortunately it’s unlikely that they will be housed anywhere near the centre, as development is prioritised.

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