The environment around us informs our being, but equally the nature of our being can inform our environment. We can forget in among our insistence on individuality, of personal freedoms and beliefs, that we are profoundly psychologically affected by the environment around us. Just as our moods can rise and fall with the weather, we are effected by what is built around us.
Variations in the physical characteristics of our surroundings influence our psychologies. In older cities, there is a confluence of designs and movements in their built spaces, these often inherently contradict each other – the sociological and aesthetic aims of architects vary from era to era and street to street, and therefore, there are wide variations in the physicalities and atmospheres induced by our urban environments.
Photo: Urban75 Blog
The streets dominated by close, tall buildings can inspire intimidation, the human being is rendered small and inadequate in their shadows. In heavily built inner-city spaces, where large populations work, overcrowding causes tension. Personal space is limited in the financial and commercial centres of cities. There is often little space for greenery, and therefore shelter and shade. Rain collects quickly in these tarmaced and paved spaces, and is splashed back at pedestrians by heavy traffic. Often the volume of people using these spaces means there is little room for seating, so it is a space for moving through. Stress and anxiety are indicative of such area, just as a dark open space can inspire fear. With the variation of some variables, the same open spaces can inspire relaxation, and populations gather towards them in their leisure time. Parks offer a holiday from the stress inducing spaces of the inner city; they offer places to go to at the weekend or somewhere to take a lunch break in. The light, colour, space, materials, geometry etc, of space influence us constantly, and transform our behaviours, moods and aspirations.
However, sometimes our pre-existing anxieties make or transform a space beyond the typically natural evolution of the urban. The abstract nature of individual and collective fear can become solid, physical, realised in matter – a fear that builds walls, fences and forts. The built environment in late-capitalism comes to reflect the psychology of the population. Especially as the idea of living collectively and communally has diminished through the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.
Post-war architecture had aimed at re-establishing communities; the philosophy of re-building after the war held at equality its centre, but it widely failed. Much postwar architecture attempted to invent utilitarian landscapes and communities, but found such buildings inept and people unwilling . Though the collapse of New Brutalist ideals is a complex issue, at an emotional level a prevalence of grey and brown can be debilitating, the heaviness and bluntness can cause unease, and the foreboding that results from visible decay can promptly destroy any community pride.
Photo: Martin Godwin
The failings of the project reflects the wider issue of the increasingly economically disparate populations. With the late 20th Century emphasis on privatisiation and liberal markets the communal social housing project was undermined as dated and undesirable, consequently the desire to fund and sustain these projects waned. The idea of the democratic city fell apart with the increased emphasis on egoism.
With the failings of the modernist project the singular community dwelling is a thing of the past. The form our private and public spaces take now revolves around the singular rather than the collective. This is where we witness the rise of gated communities and segregated urban spaces. Where in advanced capitalism the pressure for success is paramount, emphasis is on the individual. We want privacy over community, and build it that way. The public walkways of mass-estates and shared green space are deeply mistrusted now, and instead there is an emphasis on ‘defensible space’. Many have sought to escape the dangerous and spontaneous side of urban life by removing themselves from it.
Gated communities are fear manifest, traditionally the domain of the retired, they are fast becoming the primary architectural model for masses of people. Many monitor everyone who goes in and out, wall themselves in, and camera the exteriors. They are conditioned and sterile, removed from the spontaneity and danger. Many attempt self-sufficiency, including their own private roads, shops, leisure amenities, and even energy supply and schools. The architecture here is built out of emotion rather than aiming to create it.
The complexes popping up all over the world reflect the desire to escape the stress and uncertainly of a working urban life, but equally to provide an environment where one can pursue one’s desires without shame or guilt. A major feature of many gated communities is the emphasis on the leisure, from availability of green space, to golf complexes, tennis courts, running tracks and swimming pools.
©2013 – Country Wood at St James
The architecture that follows fear lacks progressive design as it is not seeking to inspire beyond the nostalgic. Such architecture inspires simplicity and familiarity, whereas the modernist constructions of the past have left a legacy of unsurity. Fear stems the flow of creative design, so many of the newest gated communities offer nothing architecturally exceptional.
Urban populations are more and more economically polarized – neo-liberal economies have moved affluence and poverty to extremes. The prevalence of cameras, wire, and walls in cities world-wide is not just symptomatic of a certain class to privatise their social life and leisure pursuits into a certain area, it is endemic of a profound disparity groups of people. The ever-increasing economic differences make the technicalities of living and existing together more and more difficult. Where economic difference extends beyond a traditional lower, middle and upper class mentality, to one of abject poverty and profound affluence, living side by side becomes incredibly difficult. It is unfair to assume that all gated communities are the result of unbridled golf egos, as crime in the most economically divided cities of the world is pandemic and violent. The social problems created by income cause robbery, muggings and assaults as the social contract collapses with the desire to recoup some of the difference.
There is a fundamental desire to hide from the ever-more increasing differences in urban populations, especially where these differences can come back to haunt the more fortunate. Everyday architecture is increasingly undemocratic, from large-scale measures of gated communities to the everyday anti-sitting devices on any flat services, and the innumerable CCTV cameras on every street. The ideals of urban community end when certain populations opt out of the city and others resort to crime to sustain themselves. The result is an architecture of division and fear, and these forms are certainly the shape of the future.
© Jessica Gregory 2013
The unrelenting curse of Hulme, inner city district of Manchester, is that it is forever being pulled down. Constantly returning to rubble and growing up out of the ashes again and again with new ideologies.
It is a temporal district, where the architecture moves with the coming of age of its residents. As the children grow up and flee the nest, the nest disappears. Where one expects to be outlived by the permanence of stone, brick and morter, those in Hulme seem to survive their homes. The deceased buildings haunt the streets, rather than the dead.
Hulme originally served the mill and factory workers of industrial Manchester. In the 19th Century it was rows and rows of terraced houses. Hundreds of thousands of workers powering the first industrial revolution. Hulme was a stable for the first mass-manufacturing class, placing workers within walking distance of their factories. The thousands of identical homes reflected much of the city; as thousands of people started the 19th Century phenomenon of emigrating from countryside to city the streets filled to capacity and beyond. The red brick terraces became synonymous with the British working class, of hardship and reality. It was a area of Engel’s Condition of the Working Class, where cholera, whooping cough and other diseases took hold, choking its residents. In 1934 the area was declared unfit for human habitation and began its first journey into the dust.
Hulme was slowly un-built through the mid 20th Century, and brutalist concrete came to replace the bricks. High rises sprung out of the ground, and the biggest public housing project in Europe was born. The project sought to house 13,000 people and was completed in the early 1970’s.
The Crescents were designed by Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley, taking inspiration from Georgian crescents in Bath. Around the time of the Crescents construction shops on the Stretford Road high street began to disappear, and the factories of Dunlop, Gaythorn gas and Rolls Royce had long been forgotten. Hulme was to serve as a mass residential enclave on the outskirts of the city centre. A functional housing area and little else, the Crescents would reflect a new architectural style and provide a vibrant communal and aesthetic experience for the new residents. The glory of the idea faded within a couple of years of their construction. The new Mancunian Way motorway cut off Hulme from the city creating isolation in and via concrete. The quick and cheap construction of the Crescents meant they soon fell into disrepair, the new heating systems failed, and families were soon moved out due the dangerously ill-designed balconies. In fact, the project was abandoned altogether by Manchester City Council and the estate left for dead.
The Crescents became isles of their own, framed by motorways, unwanted by the council, they were essentially abandoned buildings. So in came the artists, creatives, punks, homeless, the wondering, criminals and various sub-sectors of society. Graffiti climbing up the walls, there were huge parties and happenings among the crime and degregation. The Crescents even had their own illegal nightclub. The degenerating buildings soon established an identity of their own where abandonment ruled and its citizens made the area their own. They continued to exist in this precarious state, unguarded by the council, slowly falling, open to the inspiration and desolation of their residents, awaiting their inevitable destruction.
This destruction arrived in the 90’s. The government supplied Manchester with the money to regenerate the area and slowly to the delight and dismay of many they were knocked down.
Manchester in the 90’s was in flux, transforming into a shiny, new, cosmopolitan city. With manufacturing dead it embraced the services revolution and soon found itself caked in glass. The newbuild mentality inevitably found its way into the architectural and identity void that was now Hulme. Manchester City Council found itself daunted by the task of rebuilding a physically and morally derelict area and responded in a typically detached fashion. Emphasis shifted from mass social housing to private enterprise. Planners wanted to create a village-y feel, but created a Ballardesque new town.
The post-crescent Hulme project hoped to establish a village like community with vitality and character, but ironically it achieved none of these. The new bricks; the carefully orchestrated spontaneity of housing; the specific spacing of greenery; and the private rents full of students and professional couples sitting behind the primary coloured railings of their tiny balconies inspired a vacuum of identity. The streets were constantly quiet and Hulme in its new form was grayer than ever.
Hulme is constantly in flux, and so are its citizens. To be a resident of Hulme in the 20’s had entirely different connotations to being a resident in the 70’s. The architecture can frame its residents, unifying the masses in their unified housing, or likewise, cast one as an outsider in a failed project. Social status has been overturned again and again as perception of the area changes with its buildings. The many outcasts from Hulme’s relentless destruction can find themselves relaying very different streets, different characters, different atmospheres to each other. The impermanence of the area makes its character and occupants unknowable.
There is no singular progressive direction for Hulme, it slips and slides backwards and forwards on the tides of higher plans. It is never given the space to grow organically. Today there are more plans for Hulme. A huge student campus is planned for Hulme and once again authorities beyond its borders will force the area into a new unknowable era and leave yet more ghosts in its wake.