Radical post-war changes to the North’s landscape and the legacy of industrial rise and decline are explored by Manchester School of Architecture students in a new exhibition.

Postgraduate students have produced models and drawings on the changing environment of the Yorkshire Coalfield, from the opening and closure of the mines to the decommissioning of coalfired power stations and the removal of industrial waste.

Their work features in a new exhibition, Powering a Nation, at the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, that tells the story of how Britain relied on coal as an energy source.

Their work responds to an AHRC-funded research project, Landscapes of Post-War Infrastructure, led by Professor Richard Brook and Dr Luca Csepely-Knorr, that assesses how people value the legacies of a period when the profession of landscape architecture moved from the design of gardens and parks to the design of entire visual fields, and engaged with the construction of motorways, reservoirs and power stations.

Brook, Professor of Architecture at Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The symbolic and iconic qualities of power stations in the landscape, their meaning and their value to heritage organisations, artists and the public has driven our research and it is this that we invite exhibition viewers to consider as they engage with models and drawings produced together with our masters students from the Manchester School of Architecture. 

"This research has accomplished more than most projects in terms of its connectedness. We brought UKRI funded work, with external partners, into our taught programmes and through a series of events achieved a professional standard of exhibition now being used for dissemination and feedback. The fact that all this was achieved through the pandemic is testament to the goodwill of our partners and the resilience and calibre of our students. Our project continues to form the intellectual agenda for the SODA Co-Labs module and we expect more great public facing results."

Through a series of case studies of Yorkshire collieries, mines and waste disposal sites, students show the interrelation of huge industrial processes in extraction, power production and waste management and their combined impact on a landscape, its cultures and societies.

Alongside the student work is a film that uses new and archive footage with interviews, to explore the birth, life and death of the post-war coal industry and its effect on lives and landscapes.

The students accessed archive material from the National Coal Mining Museum, Yorkshire Film Archive and the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading, as well as having lectures from Historic England’s documentary photographer. They conducted field visits to the sites to try and understand how the original landscape design had matured and how, during a period of decommissioning, the landscapes were changing.

They also developed a virtual resource for primary school children as part of MSA Live, an initiative for Architecture students to work on live projects with social impact.

The website helps young children learn about the historical importance of coal and power infrastructure, even as it fades from physical view. 

Molly Walsh, a student who worked on the project, said: “Its been fantastic to work on a real life project and contribute to the recording of these mostly demolished structures that had such cultural, historical and social importance. Translating our academic work to appeal to both younger generations has been particularly satisfying. We taught a class of 5 year olds (via Zoom) and made an interactive website so they could participate during COVID restrictions. Its great that even more people can see it at the exhibition, it didn’t seem possible when we produced it during the height of COVID.”