Architecture Now at Bury Sculpture Centre
A pair of giant female eyes, lashes heavy with mascara, glowers and confronts you on entrance to this city. They are set within the cross section of a female face, framed with full, dark eyebrows and pin-straight bangs, which rises above an impressive architectural relic. This image, this monument, is set on the outside of the city walls, surveying the main gateway. A mirror image sits directly behind, overlooking one of the two districts that make up this modest, low-rise cardboard realm.
Bury Sculpture Centre is an impressive space to host an architecture show. Part of Bury Art Museum – an Edwardian neoclassical structure, purpose-built for the Greater Manchester borough in 1901 – it features parquet flooring, elegant cornices and deep skirting boards throughout. Its two sections are connected by high archways, which allow you to take in the impressive thickness of the walls and solidity of the building. Frosted glass ceiling panels, originally intended to help illuminate the museum’s archives in the basement below through areas of glass floor, allow natural light to flood the room.
The Centre could be said to demonstrate the perfect balance of Vitruvius’ three principles of good architecture: stability (firmiatis), utility (utilitaris) and beauty (venustatis). The ancient Roman architect’s theory was based on the belief that architecture should possess these central elements, which connect the architecture of the body and that of the building. This concept is partly what informed the starting point for ‘Architecture Now’ – an exhibition curated by the museum and Sculpture Centre’s director, Tony Trehy, who argues that Manchester’s contemporary urban landscape is failing to meet the most basic requirements of its citizens.
‘Architecture Now’ brings together the work of architect Maurice Shapero and visual artist Sarah Hardacre, both Greater Manchester born and based. Hardacre’s contribution to the show might be considered controversial by some. Her series of unframed digital prints on heavy rag paper and four collages feature black-and-white photographs of brutalist Bury (which she located in the town’s archives), overlaid with provocative images of scantily-clad women lifted from 1950s and 60s ‘gentlemen’s magazines’. ‘This exhibition contains nudity’, reads several cautionary signs outside. The prints act almost like billboards, pinned and pasted onto the walls, surrounding an inner city – a ‘Shapero State’ – of cardboard architectural models that sit on the floor, rest on plinths and lean against the walls.
Specifically, Trehy is riled by the lack of imagination and increasing computerisation taking over contemporary architectural practice. His interest in Shapero’s work partly relates to his distinctly ‘low-fi’ approach, beginning each project by creating scaled models of his ideas by hand and drawing plans out with pencil on paper. At first, I found the amount of cardboard he had used a bit unsettling. Presumably, Shapero favours the material because it’s cheap, workable and easily sourced, but his models looked very fragile and vulnerable resting on low plinths where they could easily be damaged. When you bend down to examine them at eye-level, however, there is definitely a certain amount of craftsmanship to these playful and rudimentary prototypes – you can see detailed pen and score marks, no glue – which at the same time could reflect the somewhat precarious nature of many contemporary living spaces.
Shapero’s approach to architecture is underpinned by a consideration of the experience of the body in space. His striking design for 42nd Street Young Persons Centre in Ancoats (central Manchester), for example, was shaped by his desire to create a building that would reflect and reconcile the profound physical and psychological transformations undergone during adolescence. In a post on his website, he describes how he wanted the building to offer “security and familiarity, domestic in scale, but with unusual freedom – stable and yet free” at a point when (referring here to the body as the ‘home’) “the ‘home’ which [a young person has] loved throughout their life suddenly becomes alien.”
If Shapero was the starting point for the exhibition, Hardacre makes for a clever pairing. Both of their practices are a response to the ways in which the built environment can alienate the human body; and while Shapero thinks mostly about how to address this problem architecturally, Hardacre prods and provokes viewers towards a more conscious awareness through her boldly defiant images.
The feminist printmaker’s practice questions “the historic maleness of architecture, mostly relating this to the question of working-class experience and the objectification of women’s bodies.” She typically begins by scouring archives for images of brutalist and modernist buildings – often a mixture of brick and bare concrete, complete with elements like windows or steel beams organised into repeated modular features – fascinated by their shapes, forms and histories. The scaled-up female-figures that she then places within each image appear as giants and goddesses – they make the decisions and demand to be heard in their architectural surroundings. (They are also beauties; natural and unedited, unlike the airbrushed pornographic imagery of today.)
More billboards surround the perimeter of the walls, showing women in full colour who sit like goddesses, collaged within black and white architectural settings – a reminder of the city’s once hopeful brutalist past, when community and good, honest design once lay at the heart of its design. The women in these billboards oversee and inspire. Although confined to two-dimensionality, they are not trapped; they are liberated, commanding the gaze of the city and any visitors who pass through, encouraging exploration and consideration.
The collages presented in ‘Architecture Now’ respond specifically to the architectural ideas that have shaped Bury’s built environment and feature buildings that will be familiar to local residents, such as the iconic ‘World Famous Bury Market’, as well as lesser known spaces like the interior of Unsworth Library in The too-good-to-be-true Britt (2019). In To Swell Her Majesty’s Mail (2019), a blonde woman dressed in a kimono towers over crowds at Minden Parade (which remains part of the busy Millgate shopping centre in Bury), sunset-pink covering where the sky would be. Another woman struts through the corridors of Radcliffe Civic Hall, in The Banana Walk’s not better than this (2019), a well-loved and well-used building of the local community, which was demolished in 2016. These powerful women could easily pick the buildings up and relocate them if they wanted.
All of Hardacre’s prints have rather comedic titles, which she pieces together using sentences from the magazines in which the women originally appeared or sometimes using lines from pop-songs and television soaps. (Interestingly, before realising this, I initially read them as if they were snippets from a housewife’s narrative, spoken from the body of another, less-dressed woman.) Apart from these titles and the gallery interpretation, there were also a couple of printed documents presented within the exhibition. One contained news articles relating to the challenges faced by female architects. Another, titled ‘Making Space: Women and the Man-made Environment’ (1984) by Matrix Pluto Press, examines the ways in men have typically designed houses for women to work in but failed to consider their bodies in the process.
I was unsure of how many people would delve into these formal-looking files, however I spied a few sentences in the gallery comments book by a female visitor remarking on how, after having commissioned a newly-designed house-build of her own, she found that the cabinets, mirrors and workstations were all too high for her to use. This is exactly the type of reflection that the exhibition is intended to draw from visitors: How or for who has ‘my’ home or environment been built and why? If we can begin to identify where things have gone wrong, can we start to design our buildings and spaces differently?
Though Shapero and Hardacre’s physical contributions to the show are very different, clear conceptual connections can be found between them. For example, the low-angled diagonal protrusions that feature in many of Shapero’s designs quietly mock the towering developments which are rapidly rising on every available plot of land in central Manchester, shrinking the possibility of affordable housing or access to green spaces. This theme is mirrored in Hardacre’s prints which often reference the phallic nature of the towering apartment blocks from the 1950s and 60s and that dominated Salford, where both Hardacre and Shapero are from
Hardacre lived in these blocks for twenty years (originally built following the wide-scale slum clearance projects of the 1960s onwards) and experienced first-hand how they didn’t quite live up to the utopian dream that they were based upon. Instead of open-plan community living, poorly maintained high-density housing became the reality as a solution to a mounting population on the outskirts of the city centre. Over the last few years, Salford has been through what has been described as a ‘renaissance’ with districts such as Chapel Street and Greengate undergoing a huge amount of regeneration and the integration of high-spec housing, leisure facilities and shopping areas. Though many are now being torn down, the brutalist and modernist buildings in Hardacre’s prints were also once heralded as the architecture of the future, seen as permanent additions to towns and cities; fit for purpose and built to last for the ‘everyman’ in the post-war period and beyond.
Brutalist architecture divides opinion and while many may welcome the clearance of these structures, others, like I, still find them fascinating and consider them to be part of the history of a town like Bury. Following on from Radcliffe Civic Hall, Bury’s infamous Irwell Street Police Station, which features in Down among the frozen peas she starts her daily beat…(2019), was demolished in 2018. Why are these buildings being destroyed? Who is making the decisions and what are the motivations behind them? Hardacre’s prints call into question whether the new developments springing up at such rapid speed today will stand the test of time, or if they will succumb to the same fate as many of Salford’s past tower blocks. I am inclined to agree with Trehy; much of Manchester’s contemporary urban landscape is increasingly standardised and disappointing. Pieced together as quickly as Lego, there’s a sense that many of these new buildings have not been designed to last.
Carefully planned, well designed and interchangeable futuristic structures sit within the two districts which make up this land. Most of the buildings are modest and compact, but there are three larger developments where many of the inhabitants live. These are furnished with diagonal towers, paths and protrusions that connect each individual dwelling whilst staying clear of dominating the overall skyline. A metallic chapel-like space reflects light like an inverted floodlight upon a tower where a lone female resides. Doors and entrances are impressive, while external walls are adorned with neat cladding. Triangles form a repeated motif. These structures are simple and stylish, if some topsy-turvy. They work with the city’s populace, not against it.
I believe it’s important to ‘make new’ when thinking creatively, but this exhibition leads me to consider how much of the architecture of today fails to meet the Vitruvian qualities inherent within many of the buildings and spaces of the past. A growing urban population, tight timescales, high construction costs and the fight for available space all pose challenges. Yet a quick walk around Manchester city centre highlights many obvious oversights. The forceful wind tunnels created by the city’s multiple high-rise towers, the powerfully intensified rays of light reflected by large stretches of glass façade (which, we are told, will help large buildings to blend in), the increasingly dark and lonely walkways. The amount of homelessness and the memory of Grenfell Tower also lurk in the background to this article, cities not even managing to provide safe and adequate shelter for all residents let alone fulfil the demands of stability, utility and beauty.
The exhibition intentionally prompts more questions. Do we really need so many identical buildings that no average-earning Mancunian will ever be able step a foot into? What is the relationship between architecture and people today? Are we building for people or for profit? Do we care about cities but not those who live in them? And what will be our cities look like in the future?
The towers that dominate our skylines continue to be a reminder to society of who is on top and who isn’t – and where citizens fall in order of priority. At first, I thought Architecture Now seemed a little sparse, but this space is full to the brim with research, ideas and important provocations.
‘Architecture Now’ at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre runs until Saturday 29 June 2019