In 2010, Manchester City Council partnered with engineering firm Laing O’Rourke to embark on an intensive multimillion pound refurbishment of two of the city’s historic buildings, its grade II listed Town Hall Extension and Central Library, both of which re-opened to the public in March this year. Photographer Dan Dubowitz and Alan Ward, artist book designer and publisher, were given unfettered access to the buildings during the renovations, spending 18 months creating Citizen Manchester, a project jointly funded by the developers, which draws on the idea that architecture can shape society and culture.
“I believe there is an important dynamic between society and its buildings,” says Dubowitz, who previously collaborated on book projects with Ward including, The Peeps. Ancoats: the presence of absence, which focused on the regeneration of one of the city’s former industrial zones. “We create the buildings, but they shape who we are because of the way we experience them – for example, by physically walking through.”
This idea of capturing the shifting relationship between Manchester’s flagship buildings and the city’s residents lies at the heart of Citizen Manchester. The aim of the project, realised as a book (published by Manchester University Press) and an exhibition of the same name, was to “capture the moment when the public and staff had been locked out,” says Dubowitz, an architect by training, whose photography centres around absence, dereliction and the transformation of a city’s identity through its buildings. “We were the only people allowed inside. Alan and I had an initial induction, which enabled us to go anywhere on site whenever we wanted, and a completely open brief. We photographed things as we saw them, which enabled us to get under the skin of the place.
“The photographs we took are not documents of the construction process as such, they’re more to do with the transformation of identity – of the city, its buildings and people,” he adds. “The photographs record a unique cultural moment in time that no one else experienced.”
In addition to photographing the spaces, the duo responded to archival material in the library’s collections and conducted interviews with everyone from the leader of the council to cleaners, architects and people on the street, asking to hear their personal stories about the buildings, which form part of the project’s narrative. Quotes from the interviews are incorporated into the book and used as captions in the accompanying exhibition, which sees large-scale photographic interventions set within the fabric of Manchester Central Library and Manchester Art Gallery, on until 22 June.
“We went deep into the archives to look for unusual photographs,” says Dubowitz. “Especially those that were under exposed, faded or had reticulation [cracks or lines in the emulsion], because, for us, these are fabulous artworks, which help shape the project. We wanted to include archival images that feature people to contrast with our images of the spaces,” he adds. “Together, the stories, archival images and our photographs form the artwork… It’s about allowing the viewer to put themselves into the project and to make their own connections.”