Life Without Buildings

This is a story about absence. About the void left by disappearing buildings, a void filled with distorted memories, with the longing for a community that never existed in the first place.

On the night of March 27th 1993 Hulme was saying goodbye to the Crescents the ward’s monumental estate, equal parts concrete, shame and creative furor. It was supposed to be the jewel in the crown of the ‘cities in the sky’ model of social housing, its deck-access design should have brought its inhabitants together: plenty of space for the children to play and for the mothers to socialise. In fact in 1974, just two years later since its inauguration, the estate was declared unfit for families: safety issues and design flaws turned the buildings into a cockroach-infested nightmare. In 1984 the Manchester City Council abandoned this festering wound in its pride and stopped collecting rent. The People’s Republic of Hulme was born: students and addicts, immigrants and bohemians, misfits and mavericks, together in this unplanned urban experiment.

For almost a decade the Crescents became the entropic epicentre of the city’s countercultural scene. Fanzines, parties, Nico from the Velvet Underground living in the neighbourhood, punx picnics, concerts, Joy Division posing on the Hulme Bridge, artists: it all converged around this dysfunctional behemoth, scary enough to keep the Council and the police away, but not scary enough to dissuade those in search of a (piss-stained) haven. They also became acid house’s throbbing underbelly, not far from the famous Hacienda in fact prospered the darker, more adventurous side of Madchester. But if all good things must come to an end,  so did an unhealthy alternative reality that could not be reconciled with the rest of the city. And so it began, the demolition of Manchester loud, grimy subconscious. But not before one last, epic sendoff. “Dogs of Heaven” the Crescents’ goodbye party did not disappoint: acrobats climbed, kinetic sculptures danced, cars were thrown off the top of the buildings. Just look at the video below.

The estate, as both a physical and metaphysical entity, occupies a crucial role in Britain’s collective imagination. Even when a lot of money and effort are put into a regenerating erasure, life without those buildings will be forever lacking something. It doesn’t matter if its nostalgia for something that really existed or  the expression of the human need to remember and long for simpler, better times that never actually existed: everyone still feels orphaned of a place in time and space, a place where to belong together.

In the case of the Crescents, their ghost is kept alive by the memories of those who lived there and by those who wished they had lived there, or at least spent a couple of hours at a party there. Old tenants and architecture students are united in mourning the disappearance of a symbol. Ex-ravers and new kids on the block are all saddened by the loss of a mythological scene.Perhaps those that didn’t choose to be Hulmans have a different recollection of those claustrophobic walkaways. But in the collective narrative of brutalist hopes and concrete sense of community, the reality doesn’t matter.

Walking through Hulme today, among the neat streets of semi-detached houses that have replaced the estate, it’s hard even to imagine that twenty years ago something like “Dogs of Heaven” happened. Except for some stoic member of the old guard that stayed, and some memory tourists such myself, it’s hard to locate a place that doesn’t exist anymore. But the Crescents still stand, thanks to  a new-found  ’emotional’ existence, leaving a trail of digital  pseudo-memories: blogs, videos, forums, Facebook groups devoted to an absence. Just like its wayward community of heathens, never quite there, never quite gone.

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