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.

mobility and legibility

Manchester motorway sign

There was, perceptably, a golden age of branding and design acting in tandem, when the value of design was truly celebrated in the context of advertising, when brand was still identity, and identity mattered. From global corporations to municipal departments, the development of new, but legible and concise, fonts and logos, throughout the post-war era, was remarkable. The timely and fortuitous collision of mass production and the advanced art of typography, just prior to the advent of the computer as a design tool, saw the mass implementation of quality fonts with perfect kerning and character spacing. It was this early work that laid the visual foundations upon which many brands were to ultimately found their cognitive presence, though in the UK much of the groundwork was for companies and agencies that were, at the time, nationalised.

The work of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for the Department of Transport’s (DOT) Anderson and Worboys committees is perhaps exemplar of the quality of output during this period. Their now ubiquitous ‘Transport’ font was developed for the rapidly expanding British motorway network from a German sans serif font, the ironically named Aksidenz Grotesk.  The demand for legibility imposed by the anticipated speed of travel meant that the engineer specified, uppercase, directional signs of the pre-war era would not suffice. Kinneir and Calvert developed a system based on clarity and the geometries of the letters, it was the spacing between the characters that ultimately determined the size of the sign, the content driving the form. The signs were tested in London before being installed along the country’s first motorway, the Preston bypass (M6) in 1958, generally hailed as a success, this initial foray into traffic applications lead ultimately to the pair being commissioned for the wider development of an integrated national highway signage scheme.  The systematic and coded approach that seems so familiar, almost unquestionable, in its expression and application, was at once both pioneering and classical; it remains virtually unchanged to this day.

The shape, colour and iconography used in this type of application are critical and the subsequent familial expansion of this specific system into a universal sign language or pattern is so pervasive that it becomes impossible to negotiate a genealogical construct. The nuances of type, that had been so intricately adjusted and distilled in Europe since the 15th Century, sustain an inter-relationship wherein the distinguishing and mutating serifs and stems and the chronology of their later metamorphoses is too complex to accurately ascribe authorship. Similarly the adoption of recognisable and mutated versions of the icons used in traffic and other functional signage is difficult with respect influence and origin. It should be acknowledged that the work of Kinneir and Calvert drew heavily on continental examples, though reworking of the entire iconographic alphabet by Calvert into the recognisable form, based on the geometries of Transport, were effectively new.

Whilst this type of comprehensive design manifesto is not exclusively the realm of the nationalised services and utilities, though it is perhaps best exemplified by this condition in the UK. The undisputable brand strength of British Telecom, British Rail, Royal Mail, British Gas all have their visual roots in this era. It was in fact Kinneir and Calvert who also designed the British Rail Alphabet; James Cousins  refers to Kinneir and his peers as having been part of a “special generation of British graphic designers”, “trained in the 1930s”.  Livery had been applied to trains since the 1840s, but it was not until nationalisation, and the ensuing brand development, that the graphics of the railway attained the “clarity and quality” attributed to the time.  Cousins also suggests that the success of the BR Alphabet (it was used by Denmark and Norway’s railways and adopted by the British Airport Authority) is down to its legibility  and the test work by Kinneir at the Road Research Laboratory.  Whilst the font was the hand of Kinneir, there were other agencies employed by British Rail, most prominent was the Design Research Unit, for whom Kinneir had previously worked, a celebrated multi-faceted agency that retained architects and interior designers as associates, Sadie Speight and Frederick Gibberd amongst them.

Whilst sign is not the embodiment of most brands, the sign was the most common method of physical communication in a commercial context, whereas livery had perhaps been the preserve of identifiably ‘national’ organisations. As companies and corporations became global in their presence, the convention of inscribing buildings, vehicles and anything else associated with the brand was increasingly commonplace, yet, still, the retention of designers of repute and of testifiable calibre was recognised for the qualitative associated value. In a relationship that spanned over a decade, Eliot Noyes’ work for petroleum giant Mobil anticipated the design of everything, from forecourt to fleet, all governed by a comprehensive design manual. It is this scale and depth of commercial visual communication practice that is akin to the national programmes undertaken and executed in earlier in Britain. Noyes had worked in the office of émigré Walter Gropius, immediately following his graduation and the impact of a pseudo-bauhaus education and the intrinsic attitude toward the holistic nature of design practice and the German tradition of Gesamkunstwerk. Paul Rand for IBM and Dieter Rams at Braun can perhaps be seen to have similar, if not total, impact on the brands for whom they designed. The brand though, if truly successful, becomes bigger than the designer and is governed by rules established and so immutable that they are applied unquestioningly and thus demonstrate their conscious acceptance.