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A Kracking Time

Myself and a friend are just back from visiting Krakow, Southern Poland – my first proper trip to Eastern Europe! Well, I have been to Vilnius (in Lithuania) but by post-Cold War definitions that’s actually Northern Europe and to say otherwise would be lazy journalism. Still, my initial impressions were that there is a similarity […]

Burning Bright

For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.

Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.

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John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.

Tales of Two Cities

En route to see the new Batman movie, myself and a friend took a slightly circuitous route as part of an effort to remind ourselves that yes, there is an amazing city out there beyond our cosy home in Chorlton – even if it’s not quite so darkly evocative as Gotham. 😉 We stopped to admire some of the old mills, factories and locks between and around Oxford Road and Deansgate, which have mostly now been (or are being) repurposed to become galleries, studios, commercial spaces and flats as part of a continuing redevelopment plan. Visually retaining a sense of social history amidst patchwork modernity, many of the exteriors are as yet unchanged – spiky green weeds protrude from chipped and broken windowpanes amidst beautiful red brickwork covered in flyposters and colourful grafittied chipboard. The names of defunct-factories imprint themselves in giant letters on the area’s memory while underneath, delicate gold might signify the entrance to private apartments and graphic design firms; secure entry only. Even the most compelling of visions can’t escape the contrasts and contexts of transition.

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As for The Dark Knight Rises. Well, aesthetically speaking, Christopher Nolan and his crew have created a predictably excellent atmosphere of electrifying gloom. Performances alternate between strong and muted, keeping us generally interested in a twisting and turning narrative full of politics and references to previous film The Dark Knight. J.G. Levitt as new character John Blake is particularly memorable although I’m not sure Marion Cotillard’s Miranda really works (or shocks) as intended. Now and then, everything threatens to become laborious, almost collapsing (appropriately enough) under a crushingly heavy but unevenly balanced symbolic critique that plays out over nearly 3 hours.

The Batman movies always (and increasingly with Nolan) combine socio-political metanarratives and allegories with moments of kitschly sexy cartoonishness. Here, I think that combination goes wrong, forced towards a conclusion that might be heroic or might be ambivalent and contradictory. Being asked to consider economic injustice; 9/11 and the War on Terror; the trade-off between nuclear weapons and environmental responsibility; the culpability of the stock exchange in financial disaster, AND the effects of torture, false prophecy and violent revolution is a lot for any mainstream movie. Doing so at the same time as we follow the gymnastics, jewel-thieving and repartee of Anne Hathaway’s well-played but confused Catwoman is just a little bit too much. Certainly nothing comes close to the perfectly pitched genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker. All that aside, it’s definitely worth seeing!

Narrative building blocks

Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.

Carefully composed – but mutable

There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:

After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.

In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.


I don’t know much about ornithology or birdwatching (although strangely I do remember carrying around a Bill Oddie birdspotting/colouring book at some point during my childhood and consequently being able to startle bored classmates with my knowledge of Oystercatchers on school trips to the coast). Anyway, who wouldn’t be cheered up on a cold, misty day at the sight of two lovely grey and black geese (you can blame Bill if I have misidentified!) chasing two others aggressively down the street for no apparent reason other than fun? Maybe they’re the neds of the geese world.

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These pictures were taken last weekend at a very atmospheric Salford Quays (sadly the two victims had made their terrified exit by the time I got my camera ready; this pair are the cheeky aggressors). In the third shot, you can see just how high the lift bridge – designed by prolific Spanish bridge architect Carlos Fernández Casado, she even has a little-known sister in Plentzia – goes in around three minutes. The 95m long bridge reaches its full 18 metres almost silently and apparently it’s unusual to see it raised at all at this time of year. I’m not sure why it went so high since the boats passing by certainly didn’t need that much room. Maybe it was some sort of a test? Anyway, everyone down below in the mist was excited to see it and I wasn’t the only one taking photos. The pedestrians who walk over the bridge when it’s just a wee bit lower down were more than happy to wait for it!

Media City’s Aeolian Cadences

A lovely day for late October and a lovely day to meet with an old friend from Glasgow (well, Northern Ireland actually, but let’s not split hairs). We first met during our long-ago Undergrad days at Glasgow Uni – which suddenly didn’t seem so very long ago after all. Naturally my being new to the city meant a good excuse to go exploring, so we headed away from the city centre into Salford, and down to the Quay to look around the undeniably beautiful Media City UK complex where the BBC, ITV, Salford University, and various start-up media companies (“Media Village”) will make, or are in the midst of making, new homes. Right now, the BBC make a very 21st-century impression while the ITV “quarter” is still a literal building site – meaning that Simon Cowell and Tracy Barlow grin unconvincingly out from their posters as if to distract us from the fact it’s JCBs behind them rather than sweeping, angular glass and metal.

A little bit like Glasgow’s Pacific Quay (where BBC Scotland and the Armadillo sit) in its aspirations to state-of-the-art waterside glamour and a combination of business, creative industry, and apartments, it’s far grander, much more spacious, and infinitely more interesting to photograph. No matter which direction you look in, you are guaranteed to find a good shot.1 Media City may have “installed enough fibre to stretch from Salford to Sydney” to cater to the “bandwidth-hungry requirements of the media industry”, but it really does feel like a public space; especially with the Lowry Arts Centre and the Imperial War Museum North also on its banks. Everyone can wander around and enjoy the landscaped park, the piazza, and the bridges that cross the river. Near the BBC building, a temporary sound sculpture (or, if you like, “an acoustic wind pavilion”) called “Aeolus”  made delicate and almost harmonic sounds in accordance with the movement of gentle winds. The installation captures the music of Salford’s breezes via a combination of strings and amplifying tubes. You can hear it here, at the website of Luke Jarram, the artist who designed it in collaboration with acoustic scientists at Salford University and Southampton University.

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Still, the Media City UK complex has not been without controversies. It has brought about a certain (probably inevitable) amount of “upheaval” and some political wrangling both within the BBC, and with the institution’s favourite sparring partner, Westminster. Some question the justification for moving operations all the way up North from London. There has also been criticism about the pretty exorbitant cost to Salford University of moving its media students there. I guess that over time, we will find out if the “vision” can become part of a successful reality. As one overheard passerby, on his way back from Manchester City’s resounding victory over Man U at Old Trafford, commented to a friend: “Just so long as they [the BBC] keep charging us the same license fee”. Sadly, it’s doubtful that Salford University will be able to charge its students the same tuition fees as previously when they undertake studies on the site.

I can’t find anything to criticise about my experience today of the place in terms of its design and use of space. I had a great time looking around. Hopefully it will remain accessible to everyone and not become upmarket to the point of ultra-exclusivity as business gets properly underway.

Well, I hope you’ll agree! p.s. can’t promise any prizes but let me know in the comments if you appreciate the Beatles reference. 😉