Heavy reading

Manhole Covers
January 13, 1995

There are those who say that the new London Water Ring Main is the most significant engineering achievement of recent times, because the origin of all local government lies in the management of utilities. The London Ring Main, the argument goes, could be the vehicle by which a unitary London Authority is resurrected. Poor old London. This book on manhole covers reminds us that the federation of United States of America could teach the English a thing or two about local democracy. The whole project is scented with that brilliant American egalitarianism that is founded on 18th-century ideas of utility.

Manhole covers? A whole book of them? Yes: 214 large format monochrome photos of manhole covers from all over the United States. It started life as a home improvement interest 20 something years ago in Los Angeles where Mimi and Robert Melnick hit on the idea of hanging a manhole cover on their wall. Call it Pop art. They soon discovered that manhole covers are too heavy to carry home, let alone hang on the wall -- but their interest was aroused. First they photographed the huge variety they found under their feet in Los Angeles, which was published -- underground -- in 1974. They then embarked on a vast project of record covering the whole of the continental US, which culminates in this beautiful book. It is a collection of shining iron mandalas in which resides the history of modern America and the progress of public utilities.

It is Mimi Melnick's own complementary text to her husband's photographs which reveals the charm of the whole thing. She is an amateur, and amateurs love their subject, unlike professionals, who are committed to it. Professionals know the boundaries of their subject, they respond in trusted manner, they are efficient. Amateurs are driven by passion. They start with an interest and spin from it a view of the whole world. So Melnick starts with manholes. She goes into their history and distribution, she goes into their functions, their making, their cost, the competition American foundries face from Korea and the problems of gender-specific nomenclature. Then there are iron founding procedures, from the composition of grey iron -- which includes the occasional shipment of confiscated handguns from the police -- to the way that foundry men warm their lunches on cooling fresh-cast manhole covers. She is not some po-faced cataloguist. She does it all with humanity and subtle humour, which extends into the captions she gives to the photos. We learn in passing that Broadway was the first street all lit up by electricity, and nicknamed the Great White Way -- in imitation of Antarctica? We lean that the use of gas lighting was fostered by the hike in price of whale oil -- or seal oil? -- at the turn of the century. She shows us the beautiful covers that Seattle commissioned for the bicentennial, with designs based on Tlingit whale motifs -- and she shows us, without comment, a cover saying WaterGate. You can imagine the hilarity when they found that one.

Melnick puts forward the project as a memorial to her husband, who died before the book was published. In their pursuit of novel covers, she and he travelled the whole country, and found them getting older the further east they went. It is almost inevitable that she should end with an archaeological stance: "They are veritable historical gems, embodying the rich design vocabulary of bygone eras; they are our history alive in our communities. To destroy such treasures is to destroy our own historical record."

The moment a nation falls in love with its past is the moment at which it reaches the height of its power. The English could teach the Americans a thing or two about that: about how, after the apogee, comes the slow tumble towards zero. Let us hope the Melnicks' discoveries are the pattern that is followed -- preserving the old things, but leaving aside the old narratives in favour of new understandings.

Paul Shepheard is researching landscape themes, assisted by a grant from the Graham Foundation for advanced studies in the fine arts.

Manhole Covers

Author - Mimi Melnick
ISBN - 0 262 13302 4
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 252pp

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