So Much to Answer For

Post Punk Urbanism in Manchester

Another Council Tenancy

The Los Angeles-based property developer John Lydon recently opined that he’d seen what a failure socialism was because he’d lived in a council flat. This squares with the idea that punk was a sort of counter-cultural equivalent to Thatcherism – a movement for individualism, cruelty and discipline, against the woolly solidarity and collectivism of the post-war consensus. Council flats were always one of the emblems of punk, at least in its more socialist – realist variants. There was a sort of delayed cultural reaction to the cities of tower blocks and motorways built in the ’60s, to the point where their effect only really registered around ten years later, when a cultural movement defined itself as having come from those towers and walkways. It wasn’t always actually true, of course, but when it was – Mick Jones’s mum’s flat looking over the Westway, for instance – it led to a curious kind of bad faith, where, on the one hand, the dehumanising effect of these places was lamented, but, on the other, the vertiginous new landscape was fetishised and aestheticised.

Although post punk was always a great deal more aesthetically sophisticated, not bound by nostalgia for the old streets, this bad faith features here, too. Post-punk is usually represented in terms of concrete and piss, grim towers and blasted wastelands. This is best exemplifiedin the poster to Anton Corbijn’s woeful Ian Curtis hagiography Control, where Sam Riley, fag dangling from mouth, looks wan and haunted below gigantic prefabricated tower blocks (which were shot in Nottingham, not the gentrified-out-of-recognition Manchester). Decades ago, when asked by Jon Savage why Joy Division’s sound had such a sense of loss and gloom, Bernard Sumner reminisced about his Salford childhood, where ‘there was a huge sense of community where we lived . . . I guess what happened in the ’60s was that someone at the Council decided that it wasn’t very healthy, and something had to go, and unfortunately it was my neighbourhood that went. We were moved over the river into a tower block. At the time I thought it was fantastic – now, of course, I realise it was a total disaster.’ This is often quoted as if it’s obvious. Well, of course it was a disaster. This is the narrative about modernist architecture that exists in numerous reminiscences and histories – we loved it at first, in the ’60s, then we realised how appalling it was, so we knocked them down and rebuilt simulations of the old streets instead.