Manchester, England, was the world's first industrial city. It may have also been the place where post-industrial chic came into style.
That at least is the thesis put forth by the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age exhibit. The show highlights significant moments in the nation's post-War design history, looking particularly at how subversive design came to define Britain's visual culture.
A major moment in that transition occurred in 1982. It was a difficult time for de-industrializing Manchester, which was struggling with a lost sense of civic identity. This was tough for a city never known for being particularly cheery (it's no coincidence The Smiths hailed from there).
Manchester-based Factory Records tried to capitalize on the mood, transforming a former warehouse into The Hacienda nightclub. Factory Records founder and local television personality Tony Wilson was an ardent socialist who found inspiration for the project in a section from a Marxist manifesto, Formulary For a New Urbanism:
...without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
The hacienda must be built.
The Hacienda was not an instant hit, taking almost a decade to find a mass audience. The club's design was a playful take on the industrial aesthetic. But for many young Mancunians, working in factories and warehouses was still a way of life, not something to be deconstructed. "For so many of the young people who we hoped would enjoy it, it was actually too close to reality at that point," former Factory Records art director, Peter Saville told The Guardian's Miranda Sawyer. "We [Factory Records] were playing out our own romanticism about the industrial and the post-industrial city and what you could do in it."
Its design may have been rooted in romantic notions of industry, but some of its most memorable visual features were as functional as they were stylish.
The caution sign-esque striping pattern, now synonymous with Factory Records and The Hacienda, wasn't just for looks. "We established a sort of tongue-in-cheek safety hazard language," said the club's designer, Ben Kelly. "There were 3 or 4 huge steel beams on the dance floor, which could be unsafe and so the stripes served as a sort of warning for patrons."
The Hacienda took off in the late 1980s, and quickly became known as the most important nightclub in the country. More clubs were born in surrounding abandoned warehouses, and Manchester's famed Ecstasy-fueled music scene earned a new nickname, "Madchester."
But drug issues became the club's downfall. Turf battles sprung up between neighborhood dealers and led to frequent acts of violence inside and out of the club. In late 1997, The Hacienda closed due to financial troubles (rampant drug use led to low alcohol sales). Its main floor reopened as a snack bar in later years, but the city's urban renaissance created demand for more high-end land use and the club was never to return.
The Atlantic Monthly's Eric Schlosser reported on the Hacienda's impact in 1998, just months after the club's closing. He described it "as notorious in the United Kingdom as Studio 54 once was in the United States."
The Hacienda was demolished in 2002, but nostalgia for it remains. In fact, a Hacienda theme park of sorts has emerged. A new cafe called Caf51 (The Hacienda was alternatively known as Fac51) is in some ways the equivalent of an indie Hard Rock Cafe, decorated in a Hacienda theme, located 4 miles from the old club.
The luxury dwelling that replaced the club has kept the name, calling itself The Hacienda Apartments. Gentrified dwellings might go against the vision Factory Records had for their city, but the club's fame propelled a once-depressed neighborhood into a young, stylish section of a now confidently postmodern Manchester.
New apartments signify a city better off than it was 30 years ago. But many involved in or attached to the old club can't bear to see its reincarnation. The apartment's branding clings to the club's legacy. Familiar black and yellow stripes now cover the concrete columns in the new parking garage, visible from the street at times. "The cheeky bastards," Kelly jested, later adding, "but it's a compliment."
As for local club-goers, a slight compensation now exists at Fac251- a new music venue inside Factory Records' former headquarters. It too has been designed by Kelly - originally for the offices and again for the new club. His redesign references The Hacienda but avoids total nostalgia. "Instead of painted steel beams, we used neon lighting that referenced that striped form. It was important from a design perspective to keep moving forward even if we're also embracing that past," he said.
Manchester's history is one of innovation. It was there where the first railway station was built, as well as the first computer. It was where the atom was first split. They weren't the first to build a nightclub, but they ended up creating one of the most important ones.
British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age runs at the V&A until August 12, 2012.