To coincide with the summer solstice, here is a little extract from my essay in the Clockwork Jerusalem book published alongside the show I’ve co-curated at the British Pavilion. The book is beautiful – burt sadly only available from the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale right now, We’re hoping to have a little wider distribution very soon.
British Modernism begins in a different place and time from its Continental cousin. Unlike Continental Modernisms dream of the tabula rasa, a wiping away of history, it looks backwards in order to invent new utopian visions. But this is not nostalgia: the past is used as the baton charge of progression. Blake’s ‘ancient times’, for example, is not not safe or secure but a radical call to arms. History is polemic, a site to write vivid contemporary arguments. It’s this we find at the very origin of British architecture, the empty-yet-full sign, unreadable but endlessly writable zero point: Stonehenge.
In the words of Spinal Tap ‘Nobody knows who they were or what they was doing there’.
Since its “rediscovery” in the 12th century, Stonehenge has been a backdrop to projected imaginations from Hippy Convoy generator-powered space-rock festivals, to Victorian pantomime Druids, William Blake’s mystical Albionism and associated with a grab bag of folklore and conspiracy theories: King Arthur, Robin Hood and UFO’s.
Stonehenge’s tenuous relationship to history is neatly illustrated by the local guide who, when showing antiquarian William Stukeley around the site in the mid 1700s, scattered Roman coins in an effort to confirm Inigo Jones’s theory that it had been built as a Roman temple.
Jones had been commissioned by James I to carry out a survey of the stones but the document posthumously published as ‘The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury plain’ (London, 1655) was more wish fulfilment than archeology. Jones drew what he imagined rather than what he saw – the stones sharp and abstract in a perfect circle, a hexagon arranged in their middle.
By naming Stonehenge as Roman rather than pagan Jones was naturalising the roots of continental classicism at the heart of his Palladianism, co-opting indigenous Celtic culture as a way to speed a new vision of what he hoped Britain might become.
This is not the only time Stonehenge – or at least a version of it – has been written into the future.
The Royal Crescent in Bath (1767) is one of the grandest examples of Georgian architecture. The curved facade of the terrace faces onto a ha-ha-ed lawn as though it were an aristocratic house. It may be decorated with the kind of ionic columns and rustication that Jones introduced but embedded in its plan is something far removed from these Palladian references.
John Wood the Elder – who set out the plan arrangement – was immersed in pagan history and its his druidic interests that bent the crescent into an explicit reference to the inner horse-shoe of stones at Stonehenge. Connecting this crescent to the Royal Circus forms a sun and moon set out at urban scale, according to myth, along a ley line. Woods plan merges ghosts of Albion with speculative building to create a new urban typology of the crescent terrace for the rising middle class.
Two hundred years later it was the Royal Crescent that Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley had in mind when they were designing what was to be the largest public housing estate in Europe. The four Hulme Cresents, south-facing u-shaped blocks each named after a distinguished British architects Adam, Nash, Barry and Kent provided 3,284 deck-access homes for over 13,000 people.
They wrote of their approach: “By the use of similar shapes and proportions, large-scale building groups and open spaces … it is our endeavour to achieve at Hulme a solution to the problems of twentieth-century living which would be the equivalent in quality that reached the requirements of eighteenth-century Bloomsbury and Bath.”
Hulme was, in other words, a Royal Crescent for all with its bourgeois grandeur democratised. That their abstracted curves recalled the drawings Inigo Jones had made of the “most notable antiquity of Great Britain” is at least serendipity, if not intentional.
The crescents were built on a site that had once been the cradle of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, whose Blakian ‘Satanic Mills’ and circumstance Friedrich Engels described in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), as “chiefly bad and approaching ruin … generally sunk in filth.”
His description came to haunt Wilson and Womersley’s Welfare State Crescents. In 1974 a five-year old child died falling from a balcony due to a design flaw. After the incident residents demanded rehousing and the Council, deeming the flats unsuitable for families, agreed. By 1984 the Crescents had become so undesirable, and lacking the funds to demolish the housing scheme, the council stopped charging rents entirely.
Left to its own devices, The Crescents became home to an alternative subcultural scene. The Kitchen was an illegal nightclub created from three knocked-through flats and was described as a “much wilder alternative” to the nearby Hacienda club. Hulmes bohemian desolation provided the imaginative space for Kevin Cummin’s famous portrait of Joy Division on the pedestrian bridge leading into the estate – the only structure that remains standing after the Crescents eventual demolition in 1994. Describing it as a ‘portrait of space rather then a band’, Cummins suggests the significance of Hulme – in all its desolate misery – as an imaginative space inhabited by Joy Divisions iron curtain fantasies.
Films and photographs of the era of Hulme’s demolition show wild parties and a seemingly manic delight in its impending destruction. In these moments Hulme pulses with the entire bloodline of British architecture. The Crescents transformed into gigantic versions of Stonehenge – equally strange and mysterious, handed down from a vanished civilisation. Within the curling modernist arms of the Crescents parties unconsciously reenacted Druidic rituals fuelled by Ecstasy and Acid House before Hulme too would be consigned to the dustbin of history and assume its own mythic status in the pop culture of Manchester and beyond.