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Notopia: ‘The post-industrial hollowing out of cities is a tragedy for civic identity’

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Many cities have been hollowed out due to the loss of industries that once gave them meaning, many of which are still struggling to form a new identity

As a child I was fond of a hand-me-down Victory jigsaw puzzle depicting the counties of England and Wales. Each county was represented by what it produced. Cheshire stood for railway locomotives and cheese. Gloucestershire meant aircraft and apples. Ceramics and stainless steel spelt Staffordshire, while Derbyshire was represented by Rolls-Royce, the crowning glory of industrial Britain.

What this jigsaw said in crystal clear tones was that different places had distinctive purposes, and, as we shall see, it was these differences as much as geography, local building materials and architectural movements that shaped equally distinctive buildings – especially civic buildings – in towns and cities boasting identities as different as sandstone is from clay.

The wonders of the internet mean that I now know what this forgotten jigsaw puzzle was (Industrial Life in England and Wales), where it was from (Boscombe in what was Hampshire and is now Dorset), and what happened to the company that made it. GJ Hayter was gobbled up by JW Spear & Sons, originally of Nuremberg, which in turn was swallowed by the US toy giant Mattel in 1994. Its Essex factory was promptly closed.

It just so happens that aside from Industrial Life in Scotland, GJ Hayter also made Industrial Life in the United States. Michigan was represented by automobiles, of course: millions of cars rolling off the intensely productive assembly lines of Motown (Detroit).

‘The loss of industry has witnessed the hollowing out of cities, notably in the developed world’

Since my Victory jigsaw was made, life in these towns, cities, counties and states has changed radically. While some might still make cheese and nurture sheep, many have lost their manufacturing industries and with them much of their economic independence, self-esteem and immediately recognisable identities. A new version of my jigsaw would see all too many counties of England and Wales represented by identical call centres, distribution depots, shopping malls and subtopian edge-of-town housing developments.  In the intervening years, between the printing of those industrial jigsaws and 2016, these once distinctive places have come to resemble one another ever more closely, in terms of what they do economically, in their social aspirations, in their ways of life and through their architecture.

It might be argued – fatalistically, I would suggest – that all this change has been inevitable. But do we have to clone our towns and cities worldwide today? Does manufacturing have to shift as if shoved by some invisible hand from Cheshire to China or out of Detroit faster than a Dodge Charger? No. For better or worse, we make choices, or allow these to be made for us by governments and corporations, and we have the power, if not often the imagination, to plan our towns and cities so that they can prosper as their individual identities bloom.

Whether traditional and heavy, or lightweight and ultra modern, manufacturing is so very important because humans are as much active producers as passive consumers. We are more likely to find contentment in the making of things – whether music, a poem, a computer program, cars, ships or buildings – than in pure getting and spending. Our cities are far more likely to prosper creatively and to shine culturally when shaped by the spirit of things we make in them.

Until it was liquidated in 1962, the North British Locomotive Company, for example, was at the heart of Glasgow’s economic and civic life. Its superb steam locomotives were exported around the world, each proudly bearing a plate stamped with the city’s name. Newly minted locomotives were towed through the streets of Glasgow to docks for export (see overleaf). These were festive occasions. So many families’ lives were tied up with the manufacture and shipping of these machines. They were a part of the civic life, the very identity of Glasgow.

‘Many cities are struggling to rediscover, let alone assert, new identities decades on from the loss of the industries that once defined them’

More than this, they did much to shape and frame the civic architecture of the Scottish city. In 1909, the North British Locomotive Company opened its new headquarters and drawing office in Springburn. This was an imperious Edwardian Baroque design by James Miller (1860-1947) crafted in red sandstone. A stone steam locomotive appeared to burst from a cartouche set in a split pediment over the main entrance. This was flanked by sculpted female figures representing Speed, in a flying cloak, and Science, holding a globe and compass.

Although the locomotive works has long gone, Miller’s A-listed building lives on as Glasgow Kelvin College where, among courses for hairdressing and beauty care, it is still possible to study mechanical engineering. And, yet, the building seems ghostly today, as was the sudden appearance – like some deus ex machina – of a 1945 vintage North British 15F Class 4-8-2 locomotive in Glasgow’s George Square in 2007. Repatriated after decades of sterling service in South Africa, the locomotive was treated by passers-by like a Zulu warrior might have been a century ago. I wonder how many busy shoppers noticed that this magnificent machine was framed on the south-west corner of the grand civic square by Olympic House, a powerful Edwardian Baroque building of 1903 by none other than James Miller.

In 2011, that North British locomotive re-emerged as one of the star attractions of Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum designed by Zaha Hadid. Although it is good to see this Glaswegian machine conserved in its home city and in a strikingly modern building, it is a phantom from the past, and while there have been some decent new buildings in Glasgow in recent years, none has the civic power (and poetry) that Miller’s North British Locomotive Company’s head office had when it opened, expressing the industrial lifeblood and identity of the city in those courses of red sandstone. Today, this handsome yet isolated building defends itself on all sides from the encroaching tides of soulless construction that have lapped here, sporadically, since the 1970s.

Glancey essay

Glancey essay

The loss of industry has witnessed the hollowing out of cities, notably in the ‘developed’ world. Old hearts have been wrenched out with dramatic changes to urban identities, and to the point where many cities are struggling to rediscover, let alone assert, new identities decades on from the loss of the industries that once defined them.

Detroit is, perhaps, the most dramatic case of all, a city that at the time it filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had seen its population fall by 60 per cent since 1951 when it was still very much the Motown of popular legend. Today, much of the city centre resembles a random sequence of abandoned sets from some wilfully dystopian science-fiction movie. It is as if the city has been struck by some untold weapon of mass destruction from which it is unable to recover.

‘We need to encourage research and craft as we create homes for those who truly want to live in and contribute to the prosperity, welfare and identity of cities’

Sheffield is hardly as badly off as Detroit and yet here is another city once synonymous with an industry it invented – stainless steel – that has been hollowed out like a cored apple. How wilful this process has been is witnessed by the presence of the gargantuan Meadowhall Shopping Centre that has squatted on the site of what, until 1983, had been the city’s Hadfields Steel Foundry. This is where manganese and silicon steels were invented and where thousands of skilled workers cast steel wheels for the world market and forged special steels for, among many others, the motor and aviation industries.

Steel production was sent packing unceremoniously from Sheffield. Instead of introducing new industry and building new city streets, homes, schools and colleges here, and so reconnecting the Hadfields site to the city, Sheffield looked to the hollowed-out cities of the United States for its future. Meadowhall tempted an increasingly deskilled populace with its offer of an almost infinite variety of disposable consumer junk served with never-ending helpings of cheap mid-Atlantic food from KFC, Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut to Starbucks and Subway. El Mexicana is ‘an authentic Mexican dining experience … No cutlery required’, not even if yours is stainless steel and made in Sheffield.

Infamously, Meadowhall, with its 30 million annual visitors, was responsible for the coring of Sheffield’s city centre and, so much so, that if and when the proposed HS2 (high-speed railway) arrives here in 2032, the new station will be at Meadowhall. Here in Yorkshire, edge-of-town shopping is king, queen and all American presidents.

This post-industrial hollowing out of cities is a well-known phenomenon. In terms of urban planning it has been a sorry thing, in terms of architecture a pathetic story, and in terms of civic identity nothing short of a tragedy. Just look at how Cambridge, for example, has sprawled from its venerable university centre in shamefully lazy and increasingly characterless rings around acres of fenland. It seems so very sad that the city’s much-vaunted Science Park, despite the innovative research and development that goes on here, looks for all the world like the kind of intellectually undemanding business park you might find on the edge of any town, old or new, anywhere in the world. The last time I drove around Cambridge Science Park, a determinedly car-based development dating from 1970, I spotted just one building – Arthur Erickson’s aluminium and glass-clad Napp Laboratories (1983) – hinting at the spirit of scientific inquiry.

‘What matters so very much is this sense of a city’s culture emanating from its own streets’

While it is perfectly possible to achieve great inventions in Nissen huts, the lesson of James Miller’s NBL head office in Glasgow is that architecture expressing both a sense of specific endeavour and place contributes to and even creates a city’s identity. It is all the more valuable for doing these things. In the example of cities that have nevertheless traded successfully in the post-industrial era, their centres have been hollowed out in new ways, stripping local identities in cynical and ruthless fashions. In London, a city seen by investors as a giant Monopoly board, gormless new office blocks in the City itself and witless residential towers along the Thames represent nothing more than a desire by mostly foreign investors to squeeze a big, fat buck from a city they care little or nothing for.

Quite how two successive elected Mayors of London can have allowed this hollowing out of the city is hard to square with any notion of civic mindedness. How odd it has been to see an exact replica of the 1,800-year old triumphal arch destroyed by terrorists in Palmyra recreated, courtesy of 3D printing and the Oxford Institute for Digital Archaeology, in Trafalgar Square. Unveiling the replica, the then Mayor of London,

Boris Johnson, said it was ‘in defiance of the barbarians who destroyed the original’, adding, ‘When history is erased in this fashion it must be properly and, of course, thoughtfully restored.’

Who will disagree? And yet, this nominal classical scholar is the same Mayor who encouraged the eroding of London, the stripping away of an identity built up over centuries and the construction of so many hapless developments aimed at making money to the exclusion of contributing to or shaping a worthwhile identity for the city today. It was another classical scholar, Harold Macmillan, who, as an injured officer in the First World War, read Aeschylus in a shell hole while waiting to be rescued. Half a century later, and now the British prime minister, the same Harold Macmillan gave the go-ahead for the wholly pointless destruction of the Euston Arch, a noble Greek propylaeum (Philip Hardwick, 1837) that was an intimate part of London’s civic identity.

Wilful destruction of historic cities around the world is rightly associated not just with wayward mayors, but also with the ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ schemes of the 1960s and ’70s. Communist countries like China were equally complicit in this act of civic vandalism. The enviable hutongs of Beijing – a model of intelligent urban planning, and a delight in every sense – made way for crude replicas of the worst examples of soulless capitalist design.

‘We need to seed our city centres and their inner rings, especially those that have been hollowed out, with new forms of enterprise, production and manufacture’

If a number of celebrated cities, like Venice, have survived architecturally intact, their culture has been eroded to cater for a careless global tourist market. Today, Venice goes through the motions of being a great medieval or Renaissance city while its population falls and, to date, new ways of milking it are made by crafty politicians and businesses with no true love of the city itself and little or no real care for its remaining populace.

Curiously, perhaps, Venice offers something of a solution to the question of urban identity. Against the odds, new businesses are opening in the city, often in the least obviously propitious spaces. A mixture of new technologies, craft and nimble enterprise allows new businesses to set up where weighty corporations could only find local conditions, at best, hard going. If Venice were wired with the best digital communications, equipped with the latest clean and small-scale manufacturing technologies, it could – allied with its universities – transform the city, making a virtue of its physical attractiveness and creating a truly purposeful identity.

In Dresden, the exemplary Volkswagen Transparent Factory (Gunter Henn, 2002) rises from Straßburger Platz close by the Baroque Grosser Garten and just 15 minutes’ walk from the restored Frauenkirche. Freight trams running through city-centre streets bring components to the impeccably clean factory where VW has replaced the assembly of conventional cars with prototypes for altogether cleaner machines. The public is most welcome here and encouraged to contribute to ideas while touring the factory or attending open-air concerts in the grounds. Here is that remarkable thing: a city-centre factory suited to the demands of the early 21st century and a part of the culture and identity of Dresden just as the North British Locomotive Works had been in Glasgow at the beginning of the 20th century.

What matters so very much is this sense of a city’s culture emanating from its own streets. Where, for example, local museums once told us about the cities they adorned, most new museums and galleries are imposed from on high and as if freighted in by giant helicopters. Such interventions rarely feel at home and especially when the things they show, the artists they fête, the ambitious curators they employ, are repeated in similarly imposed museums and galleries across the country and around the world.

What is to be done? We need to seed our city centres and their inner rings, especially those that have been hollowed out, with new forms of enterprise, production and manufacture. We need to marry this to high levels of education, both practical and theoretical. We need to encourage research and craft as we create homes for those who truly want to live in and contribute to the prosperity, welfare and identity of cities. If we could do this, while curbing our seemingly insatiable lust for shopping and speculative development, we could yet see new forms, types and styles of architecture that say Glasgow, Dresden, Detroit, Sheffield, Cambridge or London clearly and with civic meaning and even cultural panache. There is much to do and, piece-by-piece, we might yet restore our cities while looking to the future, in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle at once purposeful and distinctive.