plaza in space

Here at [Re_Map] we’re not just about future visions and computation and an interesting exchange with a historian of technology this week brought together some thoughts, conversations and recent archive footage, of which we had been in receipt, to make this rumination. The historian in question had been to visit RAF Barnham where the Blue Steel nuclear deterrent was stored until 1963. His observations included one concerning the plan of the outer perimeter that had unnecessarily assumed a pentagonal plan, a type of fortification that stretches back to the C14 to contain C20, state of the art, weaponry. The point being that the act of ‘design’ in technology can be seen to be frequently referential to earlier forms and methods, as some sort of default and even in the most extreme of circumstances.

Much has been made, in architectural circles, of ‘interactivity’ and of designed ‘intervention’ in the public realm. One has to ask is this at the expense or in lieu of ‘decoration’? There has been a physical and metaphorical ‘flattening’ of the city in its vertical plane. Relief in facades, over the course of the twentieth century, has diminished, though depth has not necessarily receded in the same way, as new double-skinned solutions emerge to try and affect climate change and carbon reduction. Interactivity in material and built terms is often an applied surface with a variety of environmentally responsive reactions that may include automata, light or sound and in all probability began to emerge from museum display and theme park technologies. The augmenting of reality with some new form of audio-visual encounter that crosses the real-virtual divide is a difficult territory to discuss critically in a blog post – the question as to whether it is even worthy of discourse would have to answered first; are these types of experience in the public realm simply ‘entertainment’? Should we expect the continued Disneyfication of reality as we continue to be great consumers? The role of the ‘image’ in the urban landscape is also an essay in its own right, these are not questions to be answered here.

More exactly here is the fact that ‘interactivity’ and ‘responsive art’ is not new and attributable to the rise of the Arduino and other prototyping platforms. The cyberneticians of the 1960s were all investigating such and the Jasia Reichardt curated exhibition of 1968 at the ICA is now seen as pivotal in bringing together creative from various disciplines around the ideas of interactive, generative and responsive art. Somewhere, amidst the maelstrom of unfettered creativity that seems, from this distance, to characterise the late 1960s was an artist known as William (Bill) Mitchell.

Bill Mitchell explains the setting for his illuminated art on the narrow side of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester.

Mitchell doesn’t classify himself as an artist, in his words, “I’m a doer, I like doing things, making, and art gave me the opportunity to do that.” His output from the 1950s onwards was prolific and he pioneered new techniques in casting, blasting, moulding and formwork using concrete, plaster, glass, ceramics, rubber and other self-prepared compounds. It is this large scale and ‘machined’ art for which Mitchell is most well known, but his sparkling imagination would not confine him to ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense (despite his unconventional approach), he found himself concerned with the “brashness” of applied illuminated advertising in places like Piccadilly Circus and set about finding a way to control the arrays to combat the pollution by disorganised agglomerations of neon. He set his sights on the growing tower of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester, eventually subject to a suitably futuristic marketing campaign which saw it branded as the ‘Hotel in Space’. Footage sent by Mitchell to [Re_Map] shows him describing the context in which the new building sits as being formed mostly from a “bus station and lots of extraneous matter like trees, not very good trees”. He wanted to develop a design for a “flexible, sort of piece of drawing paper, that you draw on with light” that would cover the entirety of the narrow side of the new tower and would face Piccadilly Gardens.

Text from publicity brochure for Piccadilly Plaza. Held at Salford Local Studies & Archives.

Mitchell’s own working model of sensors and activated bulbs.

The 300ft x 65ft façade was to be covered with 16,000 photoelectric cells in panels each of 11ft in height to align with the floor-to-floor dimensions of the tower. The photoelectric cells when subjected to a signal, in this case light, would activate bulbs in a panel of a different scale, but the same gauge; there was a sensor for every bulb.

Mitchell stands in front of a full scale mock up panel. The model on the left is a scale model of the tower and the small white rectangle represents a single panel.

Mitchell was as much an inventor as a designer or artist and in his studio he mocked up a ‘Heath Robinson’ version of his idea using a  “home movie outfit” and sensors and circuits he had put together himself as well as a full scale mock up panel and models of the building.

The footage shows Mitchell explaining his role and that he then “had to get somebody who could put two wires together”. That someone was “Mr. Parker”, though we never discover where Mr. Parker came from. To produce a picture they needed to generate half tones using thyristors on the circuit boards, it was this sort of knowledge that Mr. Parker brought to the project. It is unclear from the footage whether indeed this was a commission to build or to experiment or just something that the energetic Mitchell decided to do. The conclusion of the footage states that the developer, Bernard Sunley, has yet to decide whether or not to stump up the £180 000 required to realise the dream – obviously he turned it down. It is also not certain whether the lights would be in lieu of the circuit board relief panels that were eventually used on the end walls of the tower.

Mr. Parker demonstrates his more sophisticated model that can produce half tones.

The possible application did not stop there, architect Gerry Matthews of Covell & Matthews thought that Blackpool promenade would be the ideal location for a similar set up based on two screens and outdoor amphitheatre adjacent the promenade. At the new Curzon Cinema in Mayfair Mitchell switched the light sensors for audio sensors and generated kaleidoscopic ambient projections that were years ahead of their time.

In this short film is encompassed a mass of ideas and latent commentaries that are contemporary in the twenty-first century; the notion of brand and its impact upon the city, the idea of reactive and responsive environments, the role of art in the public realm, kaleidoscopic urbanism and electronic art to name but a few. Mitchell is an intriguing character who is currently penning his own biography and this will undoubtedly yield more evidence of the innovation embodied in his practice.

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Infra_MANC Catalogue

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The 2nd Edition of the catalogue to accompany the Infra_MANC exhibition [February/March 2012] is now available at The RIBA Hub on Portland Street Manchester and will be on sale from tomorrow via the Manchester Modernist Society online shop. The first edition of 100 copies vanished in under 4 days, this edition is also limited to 100 retail copies, so don’t sleep.

From the introduction:

One way to academically approach the city is to interrogate the infrastructures that keep it moving, operating and communicating. Engaging extensively the materiality and technicality of infrastructure is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences. It is also somewhat unusual to focus on infrastructure that never came to be and technical systems that remained on the paper plans.

Infrastructure typically exudes physical permanence, at least to superficial visual inspection, and on the overview plans and construction schematics, it can appear so believably real. Moreover, the functioning of technical space and built structures as infrastructure services for the city often equates to cultural permanence, which has generated a widespread lack of technological comprehension [or even awareness] by the general public. Essential to infrastructure is that it can be seen as invisible and ignored in everyday discourse. In established industrialised cities, like Manchester, the ‘basic’ utilities of water, power and communications are seemingly present everywhere and  always ‘on’ and working, presenting an image of infrastructural permanence and stability. In contrast to this image of permanence and stability, systems of infrastructure are in reality delicately balanced and prone to failure, which can expose the vulnerability of urban processes that depend upon them. As such,  one of the defining aspects  of utilities and structures, which achieve cultural status of infrastructure, is that they become ‘visible upon breakdown’.[1]

This limited project has sought to uncover the technical specification of, and socio-political context for, several infrastructural elements and plans in Manchester  as a means to examine the post-war decades and the dreams, ambitions and realities concomittant with societal changes between the early 1950s and the mid 1970s.

The research conducted over the last half year has delved into the engineering detail and concrete materialities of a number of iconic projects and several unrealised infrastructural dreams within post-war Manchester and the impact these have had on the shape of the contemporary city. The immediate goal for the research was to build up a narrative understanding and a visual record of the four key modes of communication – road infrastructure, railway transportation, passenger aviation and telecommunication –  and to display this to people in the city. The results are assembled as Infra_MANC an exhibition that seeks to analyse the conception, planning, construction and promotion of four key infrastructural projects: the Mancunian Way, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian telephone exchange and fanciful dreams of a city centre heliport.

Two were built as planned at considerable financial cost, but were rather ineffectual by completion, two were to remain the unrealised dreams of city planners. They were large scale pieces of infrastructure, that it was imagined would create new spaces for communication, with two being buried underground and two being up in the air to facilitate movement above the congested city. They partially overlap and intersect across and through the central area of Manchester [see Overview Map]. One is an infrastructure icon  [the Mancunian Way] , another is a source of intrigue for some [the Guardian underground exchange], and the two unrealised infrastructures are significant in that they offer scope to imagine how the city would be different had they been built.

We have chosen to approach the materiality and imagined forms of these four infrastructures by analysing them primarily through visual artefacts of engineers and original mapping of the planners, much of which is never normally published or even meant to be exposed to the public. Undertaking primary research in archives, seeking recollections of those involved and borrowing key items held in private collections, we have striven to present the distinctive aesthetic of a Modern city as viewed from the professional eyes of the engineer, technically-minded architects and the transport planner. Many of the drawings are highly technical – apparently de-humanised and seemingly a-political – showing only what was to be manufactured and installed. Whilst harsh at first sight, infrastructure often has sculptural qualities to its insertion in the landscape, the angular geometries, specified materials and architectural styling often speaks of the age in which they were conceived. Infrastructural plans, sectional diagrams and drawings depict fluidly shaped lines of piping routing, sinuous steel reinforcing and muscular concrete forms, along with arrays of cryptic acronyms and hand-drawn annotations that truly invites visual scrutiny. The rewards from the time one must take to decode the content of such engineering schematics and planners diagramming of space, we would argue, bring a new kind of mechanistic beauty to the fore. Of course, one might counter-argue that it is not beauty one is seeing displayed, but merely infrastructure being laid bare to be easily objectified as pornographic exposure of the working of city space. We leave it to the judgement of visitors to the exhibition and readers of this catalogue to reach a verdict.

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[1] Star, S. and Bowker, G. [2006] ‘How to infrastructure’, Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. [eds] Handbook of New Media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs [London: SAGE], p.231.

the everyday

Manchester bore witness to a procession of the everyday, and the not so, on Sunday 5th July 2009. Jeremy Deller‘s Procession as part of the Manchester International Festival drew together specialist interest groups who represent parts of the diversity of this and any other city. The parade exposed networks of middle aged people in technical fabrics (ramblers) and young men perfumed by petrol and hair gel (boy racers), it celebrated the mundane (valerie’s cafe) and championed the ordinary (chipshops). 

090511 goto run

This is the blog based archive of events, objects and spaces that are pertinent or of concern to the Re_Map B[Arch] at the Manchester School of Architecture. It represents the interests of Dr. Nick Dunn and Richard Brook, their travels and working diary.