Medieval alchemists were fixated on achieving the transformation of base metals into gold and their scholastic methods comprised dialectic reasoning and inference. Despite being practitioners of much that was pure quackery, interestingly the alchemists were also the forefathers of modern chemistry and rational materialism – a change led by Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century. In the case of alchemy, the difference between the old dialectic and the new chemistry was a shift from occasional random good fortune, such as the invention of alcohol distillation and some useful recipes for creating acid, to reliable and predictive chemical transformations. Sadly this never extended to creating gold.
In a city, alchemy also relates to transformations. There are many historical examples of unintentional urban alchemy that were the unforeseen consequences of enterprise transition. One such example revolves around the movement of goods through city docks and it is described below as a detailed example.
The Albert dock was opened by Prince Albert in Manchester in the UK in 1846 (Figure 1). This dock was at the cutting edge of technology. Constructed from cast iron, brick and stone instead of timber, the dock offered the first fireproof buildings for the storage and transfer of goods. The Albert dock had the first hydraulic cranes for lifting goods directly on and off the ships. This dock performed admirably for a hundred years. However, the invention of the ISO shipping container by Keith Tantlinger in the US in the 1950s made the Albert dock redundant and it was closed in 1972. ISO containers were standardized boxes for the transport of goods around the world and today they transport 90 per cent of non-bulk cargo. Container terminals replaced docks across the world and they comprise vast expanses of asphalt with lifting cranes. A small number of crew can do the job that used to require hundreds of workers and, unlike traditional docks, container terminals are rarely in the centre of a city. Docks facilitated globalization of trade and the containers cemented this phenomenon.
Mirroring the decline of the dock, the city of Manchester itself fell upon hard times with high unemployment and inner city decay. Manchester ‘s Toxteth riots in 1981 brought matters to a head and the British government set up the Merseyside Taskforce to help revitalize the city. Social problems continued and there were further riots in 1985. The Albert dock was reinvented and reopened in 1988 as a new multi-use attraction that has become the most visited tourist destination in the UK outside of London. The Albert dock has the UK’s largest collection of grade one, listed buildings and it is part of Manchester ‘s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Maritime Mercantile City (Carter 2003).
The redesigned dock has been a huge success as a cultural centre. With six million visitors a year, the Albert dock now houses the Tate Manchester art gallery, the Merseyside Maritime museum, the International Slavery museum, a Beatles museum and numerous shops, hotels
Figure 1: The Albert dock in Manchester , UK. An example of urban regeneration in 1988. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
and restaurants. Architecture as the new alchemy for enterprise in this case was able to recover social and cultural capital from economic capital that had been destroyed by the evolution of technology for globalized trade. The necessary political condition was met by a government that desperately needed to regenerate a city that had suffered.
Enterprise and innovation had brought Manchester ‘s Albert dock to the point of dereliction, but a redesign has made it a success. Stories like this have played out in many of the old docks and old industrial buildings of cities all around the planet.