They don’t make factories like they used to

Manchester skyline. A reminder of the city’s rich, industrial past.

I’ve been working in Liverpool and Manchester the last few days and it’s painful to see how two, once mighty and proud industrial cities have been brought to their knees. I’m not deceived by blue skies, Instagram filters or rose-tinted spectacles. I realise life in the mills and foundries and dockyards was hard and that by most empirical measures we’re better off now. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent for these places to rediscover meaning in a post industrial world. We can’t all work in the service sector. As the community historian, Professor Carl Chinn, once put it to me in relation to Birmingham: “The problem is we’re not mekin’ things anymore.”

So what can Britain’s former industrial heartlands do to reinvent themselves? A lot, of course, has been done already. Running along the Mersey from Pier Head via a statue of the Beatles to the Albert Dock and beyond, that much is clear. But most of what has been done is refurbishment – looking back to a real or imagined past rather than forward to a brighter future. It’s the same in Manchester. And beyond those narrow strips of hope , further along the towpaths and riverbanks, the other side of the crunch of broken glass underfoot, lies despair and decay. The tide went out in the 70s and 80s and it’s been out ever since.

A sign of the times in Manchester. Did we turn our back on industry?

That’s not to say there aren’t modernist beacons shining out like the lighthouses that guided ships through the shifting mudbanks a generation before. The Echo Arena, for example.  I can’t help thinking, however, that the lack of ambition in much modern industrial and commercial architecture is unwittingly contributing to the malaise. No need to look after it. It’s temporary. Unlike the handsome red brick structure at the top of this post which at least has the feeling of permanence. Or the Radio City Tower pictured below that dominates the Liverpool skyline. Daring. Bold. A statement to the rest of the world. But built in 1969.

Radio City, Liverpool.