Asa Briggs, the Victorian historian, stated that Manchester was the shock city of the age: where ideas of society, economy, of the way people lived and worked, were turned on their heads.Read more
A City Speaks, Manchester’s post-war civic film of 1947, opens with a line from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, asking the question ‘What is a City but the People?’
As the film and Shakespeare highlighted, our built environment has the profound capacity to shape the identity of a city and its citizens. Civic buildings, in particular, speak of what we have been and sometimes of what we are becoming. When a building is lost, a city loses an element of its social memory. However, when a civic building is stripped back to its bones and then remade, the city reconfigures its relationship with its citizens.
In 2011, in the midst of a worldwide recession with widespread cuts in public spending, Manchester embarked on a visionary restoration project to transform Central Library and the Town Hall Extension. Both were built in the 1930s during the last great depression, another ‘counter-cyclical’ project. Was history repeating itself?
Early on in this major civic enterprise artists Dan Dubowitz and Alan Ward were given privileged and open access to witness this transformational period in the life of two of Manchester’s iconic buildings. Through large-format photographs, interviews and research into the city archives over a period of 18 months, they captured the moment when the city’s populace had been locked out and the spaces reduced to their merest shells. From the outset both artists were highly conscious of the significance of this redevelopment beyond just physical restoration, reflecting:
While creating the photographs on the grandest of building sites, we also recorded the stories of those involved in restoring the buildings and those who had inhabited them. And then in exploring the city archives, uncovering familiar images and others that had not been seen before, other stories emerged. The buildings stripped bare in our photographs were somehow animated by the souls of those who had passed through these spaces, as witnessed by the archival photographs in glimpses of characters, figures on the periphery, distant voices and still lives. Our images, the historic photographs and the personal testimonies and memories came together to offer new readings and provide an insight into how a building reflects its relationship with the citizens it serves.
Manchester was a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, one of the first modern cities.
In a post-industrial age, the city has reinvented itself, first by transforming the post-industrial wastelands and the city centre, and now through the revivification of its public realm. Citizen Manchester, as Dubowitz and Ward’s fascinating body of work has been titled, demonstrates the centrality of these buildings at a time when the city is re-establishing its place in the world. It reflects not only how the city shapes its civic buildings, but how they in turn shape the psyche of the city.
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (27 Mar 2014)
Dimensions: 37.4 x 30.4 x 2 cm