A Barry Parker Utopia

Photographer, Wes Foster explores the death of working class social utopias in Wythenshawe, Manchester

Words by Wes Foster

Wythenshawe is a space ostracized from the rest of Greater Manchester, having only being linked by tram in 2011, some seventy years after its conception, and is accompanied by the classical council estate legacy: youths and misbehaviour, burnt out cars and disrepair despite being originally designed as a utopia: green space destined to replace the slums of Hulme and other areas of central Manchester. An egalitarian move supposed to allow a new standard of living for all; a self sufficient estate contained within its own space: industry and housing, municipality and pleasure.

Designed by Richard Barry Parker, the space was to be a completely new way of living for the lower classes, hexagonal streets interconnected across the land and with parkways running through. Open plan streets defining a place of social cohesion and bright futures. Despite these grand ideals, only one of the hexagonal street designs was ever built, located in Northenden, a small area North of the centre. Over time parkways became segregated motorways, dissecting through the centre of Wythenshawe: a thoroughfare but not part of it, adding to the ostracized solitude unlike other satellite cities.

A design dream slowly forgotten since 1927, lost to standardisation, differing building practices and a gradual, but seismic, change in how we think about social housing, the area is now only half of the original vision, a subtopia. Being built upon rises allows for vistas unlike many suburban spaces creating a strange utopian feel reminiscent of landscape painting, and this alongside some of the original plan that remains in pockets of open space and colourful housing allows for a settled feeling that can’t be found further into the city. There is community here, and discernable calmness, which isn’t replicated in the jarring rush elsewhere.

Wythenshawe is so close to being a working class suburban utopia, though still there are the remnants of the death of this dream: unemployment hangs heavy over the area, and many of the population are destined to never really leave due to a generational lack of higher education; this is twinned with the loss of expecting to be able to do bigger things. The Wythenshawe set of estates is somewhat indicative of how we see council housing, welfare and the working class in English culture now, and is a community that has grown in spite of what it has been given. It is a working class space situated in a society in which all signs of a working class have been all but eradicated.

Suburban Subutopia

Exploring contentedness within suburbia with photographer, Wes Foster

Words by Wes Foster

Suburbia is a place that is often overlooked – it is so familiar to us that it feels as if it has come together organically. It is, unlike most other architecture, entirely not designed. Town planners have a hand in it, architects (or builder’s draughtsmen) have a hand in it, and the residents, primarily, have a hand in it.

The way they mow their lawn, keeping it either to a few centimetres of richly light green blades of grass or keeping it as an unkempt swamp of plants and vegetation; the way the front of the house is painted, with a rich white tone, left bare brick or left slowly for the paint that was once there to visibly chip away and eventually disappear; the way that either a stack of objects are left lining themselves along the windowsill, cacti and other plants or a row of dusty books, or in student properties a row of empty alcohol bottles as an act of strange bravado, or nothing at all to adorn the foremost point of the house.

All of these things contribute to the vernacular aesthetic of suburbia, but because it is so familiar, so ingrained it becomes passed over. Suburban Subutopia looks at taking these incredibly familiar places and placing them into an aesthetic context, through a photographic medium. Shooting on 645 but scanning on an extremely high resolution Hasselblad machine allows the dichotomy of contradiction between the form the image takes (the scan) and the subject (the familiar). This is the familiar, but in hyper detail, removed in slight uncomfort from reality, to highlight how we do not think or look at these areas – they simply are an organic development, and nothing more than the spaces that we occupy, that we cook in, that we sleep in, that we exist in.

Politically the project is bipartisan, though has some definite political readings – the images have a certain boundary threshold and either through distance or by the way in which the façade is a times cloaked by the fence or walls, hedges or trees with which we surround our private space, paralleling the nationalist feelings which have been portrayed by the media as the reasons for voting for people like Trump and for leaving the EU, though I see it more as a reflection for how true feelings are closeted, held behind the closed doors of normal residential areas, whilst they are let out in the way we vote or the comments section of news sites. This second life, in which we can live without
accountability and judgement spills out, but mostly we keep up the face of contentedness in the face of unhappiness. In a post-truth society, in which we have dismissed the word of experts, there is nothing stable, and there is no other outlet than the anonymous, because neo liberalism has made the focus of society upon the individual, not on groups. Tabloid newspapers critique people for how they looks, whilst broadsheets blame the individual rather than groups in an across the board ideological movement to separate, and dismiss any idea of pride between people.

Behind these closed doors and walled pathways, gnomes and ponds, ferns and trampolines, there is anger at the system which is left unexpressed, easily guided to populist nationalist expressions of how society can be changed in a simplistic way through fundamentally changing a single thing, rather than entire society, because it is simpler and safer. In part, these images begin to glorify and celebrate these areas again, which otherwise have felt no new funding, no new regeneration, and no outside interest. Because of this, there is little pride in community, little togetherness, and the things which divide are seen as more important than those which bring us together. These images begin to recognise the aesthetic value that is produced in a milieu of housing and residencies, despite it usually being completely unconsidered; by recognising the part we all play in the fruition of the façade we destabilise it, and therefore make it recognised for the aesthetic it is, rather than another overlooked piece of land.

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