I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time in Lancashire allotments on a research trip sponsored by Livesey/Wilson associates – the regeneration consultants set up by the late Tony Wilson and his partner Yvette. Yes, that Tony Wilson: Factory records, the Hacienda, Joy Division et al. This boggy, scrubby, almost abandoned allotment overlooking Accrington seems a long way from the cool, sparse, post-industrial sound of the North West wrapped up in Peter Saville graphics.
Factory Records borrowed Andy Warhol’s art affectation – the appropriation of an industrial term to describe art practice – and applied it to the original landscapes of the industrial revolution. By inverting the idea of a Factory, the normal Fordist aims of industry are suddenly perverted and equally artist-as-genius mythologies are overturned. Warhol and Wilsons Factories manufactured culture rather than goods. For Factory, this crystalised in the Hacienda which retooled a Victorian textile factory into a industrially themed machine producing youth culture by the yard.
Perhaps, in an echo of this inversion-of-expectation, Livesey/Wilsons suggestion is that allotments could be a place which produced much more than prize-winning marrows. An allotments produce might also be cultural, its fruits being community, education, independence, and health benefits. In this way, allotments – usually left over spaces around the ‘important’ bits of towns and cities – could become significant regeneration drivers producing both fresh veg and social capital.
Stepping into an allotment is stepping into a domain that’s somehow different. The origin of allotments are ancient – the common ground of Anglo-Saxon Britain. They are a type of space that has survived a thousand years of increasing private control: The Norman concentration of land ownership into the hands of manorial lords, monasteries and church; The Elizabethan enclosure of common grounds; the shift from agrarian and rural to urban and industrialised society and so on. Contemporary allotments are a formalisation of these ancient territories by Victorian legislation which required land to be set aside for allotment use for the landless poor.
The era of industrialisation links factories and allotments. They are opposite kinds of production: one private, the other public. It’s this history which provides a neat connection between Livesey/Wilsons Factory and Allotment interests and suggests they might be part of the same project: the reinvention of the post-industrial.
Perhaps another attraction is that an allotment might be the closest urbanism gets to the ability of a record label to manufacture creativity out of specific, localised condition. Could the model of a bands trajectory from a bunch of kids rehearsing in a nearby yard to stadium tours be played out through vegetables? Perhaps the spirit of post-punk independent music – extinguished by the tedium of a corporatised music business – is alive and well in the municipal vegetable patches of Britain. Maybe horticulture is the new hedonism, rotavating the new rock and roll.
Depsite their apparent ephermerality, the sheds built entirely out of old doors, old caravans propped up on bricks, tarpaulins roped over improvised structures, allotments are serious and significant spaces. They give us a glimpse of another set of architectural possibilities: a different order of space whose politics and heritage are different from the cities that have developed around them.
Allotments have a spatial archeology that contains other means of organization, other kinds of collectivism, other definitions of productivity. As Livesey/Wilson suggest, they might well be places fertile enough to cultivate a particularly juicy, succulent kind of regeneration. Just as Factory and the Hacienda drew on Situationist tradition – Wilson quotated from the ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism‘ : “The Hacienda must be built” – so too does the allotment project. Beneath the topsoil, a terrain of unknown pleasure.