Memento Mori – Peter Mitchell

Continuing the theme of the changing British urban scene, this book is an in depth study of the ambitious Quarry Hill housing development in the city of Leeds that was designed to provide an alternative to the Victorian slums, photographed by Annan, that still made up much of the housing within industrial cities. Mitchell’s book is a multi-layered approach to documenting the Quarry Hill flats, incorporating personal narrative, historical newspaper reports, archival photos and blueprints, as well as his own medium format photographs, all combined together to produce a comprehensive account of this grandiose scheme to alleviate dire poverty.

Inspired by the Viennese workers apartment blocks built in the late 1920s, the Quarry Hill area of  Leeds, famous for its disease, squalor and crumbling tenements, was the site of an ambitious building scheme in 1935. This huge housing complex was supposed to offer a utopian alternative to the poverty that huge numbers of people endured in the city of Leeds. However, like many schemes that seem to offer a quick-fix to a complicated problem, the optimism soon faded and the unsuccessful Quarry Hill housing complex was finally demolished in the late 1970s.

After the First World War, Britain was struggling to come to terms with the changed social landscape of a country traumatised by four years of brutal war. The 1920s saw the rise of the Labour Party as a voice for the workers who would act in the interests of the common man and alleviate the conditions of poverty that had prevailed since the Industrial Revolution. As well as an increase in the political power of the working class during this time, the 1930s depression meant that tangible measures to pacify discontent found new impetus. The Quarry Hill complex was designed as a modern solution to the old and intractable problem of urban poverty and it was hailed as a model for other cities to follow in the years before the Second World War.

In a country where everybody’s home is still regarded as their castle, some commentators attributed the failure of the complex to the ‘foreign’ and un-English nature of communal living. Certainly the problems caused by huge numbers of people coming from traditional individual houses suddenly having to cope with shared spaces and facilities was a hard nut to crack and should have provided ample warning to the architects planning the high-rise developments of the 1960s. However, it is no coincidence that the late 1970s saw a sea change in terms of the state’s attitude towards the individual that found ultimate expression in the Thatcherite 80s.

The 1970s were a depressing decade in Britain as it struggled with the terminal decline of imperial grandeur, widespread social unrest and the collapse of heavy industries that had once defined its place in the world.  Thatcherism and the triumph of the financial service economy in the 1980s were the reaction to this collapse in traditional British power and the destruction of the flats can also be regarded as a harbinger of the new order to come. During the eleven long years she was in power, the communal social contract and the post-war safety net provided by the state in terms of basic social protections were a prime target for Thatcher and the subject of her most strident attacks.  The state’s obligations to the individual were reduced again and again as they were cast adrift on the choppy waters of the new free market service economy to either sink or swim as best they could in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘competitiveness’. Images of the crumbling flats, once hailed as a vision of social and collective harmony, can be read as a metaphor for the changing fortunes of a country that was trying to come to terms with a new world order in which it was no longer a global power.

Mitchell spent a number of years documenting the various stages of the demolition work which are presented throughout the book, detailing the slow process of pulling down this massive structure of concrete and steel that so many people had made their lives in. Interspersed with these images, he also provides interior photographs of the once proud flats still showing the ghostly traces of the hopes and dreams left behind by their former inhabitants.

The book uses newspaper cuttings charting the rise and fall of Quarry Hill to construct a narrative that begins with optimistic projections of communal harmony. Later the first criticisms of life on the complex appear showing that all was not going as planned. Finally, the book culminates with plans to obliterate this development from the urban landscape.

As well as this narrative, Mitchell successfully attempts to give some insight into the multitude of personal stories of the people who lived there and their changing aspirations and dreams.  Black and white archival photographs showing the construction work, birthday parties and ordinary life in the flats are woven in the pages alongside Mitchell’s own images of destruction.

For a nuanced example of the nexus between the official, political and personal narratives that are encoded within all such grand schemes of utopian planning and social engineering, this book is well worth looking at.

Information about Peter Mitchell is hard to come by but an article about the photographer can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Memento Mori – Peter Mitchell

  1. Excellent book about the demolition of a building that cast its shadow over leeds bus station for most of my childhood. I built a chest of drawers based on it, then a. Scale model of the flats. Skreeworld blogspot

  2. Hello
    Looks a great book. If you’re interested in selling this book, please let me know
    regards
    Eric

  3. Hi Eric,
    Sorry, the book isn’t for sale, but if you keep your eyes peeled in used bookshops you can sometimes find a copy.
    But there is a new monograph being published this year: Strangely Familiar by Peter Mitchell if you want to explore his work further.

  4. Very good Facsimile of Memento Mori to be published by rrb publishing in May 2016, I would know as I am putting it together for rrb …

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