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Architecture and people: review of the decade

Jonathan Schofield looks back at the noughties in Manchester's architecture

Written by . Published on December 22nd 2009.

Architecture and people: review of the decade

This has been the decade of statement architecture.

Of course we are still the archetypal Anglo-Saxon city prone to boom and bust in property, prone to the caprice of individual developers or city administrators, always stuck between doing too much or too little. We have been a bit like that ever since a small town grew into an industrial metropolis two hundred years ago. It's what we do.

Never before in Manchester's history have we seen such a wealth of huge public building projects.

Not in the 1870s with the Town Hall, the University's original Oxford Road building, the Minshull Street Courts and the completion of Manchester Central Station. Not in the 1960s when welfare state buildings started appearing with a vengeance and the post war building boom was in full swing.

This decade we got:

• The Lowry
• Manchester International Convention Centre
• The City of Manchester Stadium
• The Aquatics Centre
• Sundry other Commonwealth Games buildings
• Manchester Art Gallery extension and refurbishment
• The Central Manchester Hospital Trust rebuild
• The refurbishment of Piccadilly Station
• The refurbishment of Piccadilly Gardens
• North City Library
• Urbis
• Imperial War Museum North
• The Civil Justice Centre

At the same time we've had an infestation of apartment blocks in the central areas and we've got the imminent completion of Mediacity at the Quays. Towering over the city centre is the 171m Beetham Tower (Hilton Tower). This decade has seen an exponential leap for the heavens as the skyline has morphed into ranks of taller structures.

Meanwhile the city centre has spread or re-colonised barren post-industrial areas. We have now Spinningfields, Sportcity, Piccadilly Place, the Worsley Street/Britannia Mills area, the so-called Green Quarter and the aforementioned Mediacity. A start has been made in turning the area within Trinity Way, Salford, into a key city centre location.

But if the decade started with a flash of flamboyance with the Lowry (now looking a little faded), it ended with a splash of cold water. On Great Ancoats Street sits Sarah Village, dressed in the tatty clothing of a washed-up building project.

Indeed, think about the list of noughties buildings above and most of them were constructed in the first half of the decade. We've gone from riches to rags. Activity has been restricted to the completion of schemes from Peel Holdings for Mediacity (despite its unattractive buildings) and Allied London and Argent in Spinningfields and Piccadilly.

Otherwise the picture is bleak with stalled projects in New Islington, on Whitworth Street and elsewhere. And some areas which we thought might have blossomed have failed to live up to the billing. In the Northern Quarter there are still too many mouldering buildings on mouldering streets: it has yet to achieve full status as an urbane, funky city centre neighbourhood. Over Great Ancoats Street, the great industrial complex of mills might have been saved, but the dream of a dynamic re-enlivened Ancoats still seems as elusive as ever.

The decline of Castlefield has – started through a Confidential campaign – we trust been stopped, but now we must make Castlefield flourish. It's odd that as a city we don't seem to realise that this is not just a key area of Manchester, it's a key area internationally which in most European and North American cities would be elevated into the prime focus for tourist activity.

Again and again as we keep repeating in this magazine. Castlefield has the oldest railway complex in the world within the city's largest museum, next to the earliest industrial canal infrastructure adjacent to the original Roman settlement of Manchester. There's an outdoor arena too: and all of this set in a landscape to die-for, an epic conglomeration of brick, iron, stone and water with mighty viaducts and room for pocket gardens and huge amounts of Mancunian creativity to take root. Come on people.

Back in the core of the city the shift in retail focus has blighted pretty King Street and transformed St Ann's Square into the domain of mobile phone outlets. In fact an idea for the future, which we'll be discussing in a 2010 article, is the markets. Should we be thinking of abandoning the pokey Arndale Market and animating city streets more or less permanently with these centres of commercial activity?

Precious buildings remain at risk in the old business district as companies relocate to Spinningfields and Piccadilly Place. We have to find a use for Edwin Lutyen's Midland Bank on King Street, and 46-48 Brown Street. Two buildings at opposite ends of the scale in terms of size but both important landmarks in the city.

And what about the quality of architecture in the last ten years? There have been some real horrors. There seems to have been a desperation occasionally by planning authorities and civic leadership to encourage development, any sort of development, as long as there was economic movement. The crane count way of measuring the city economy has proved to be of limited long term value: ask Dubai. Looking back it seems both hubristic and shallow.

Thus whole areas of the central areas of Manchester and Salford have been given over to tedious dross-like apartment pap. Drive along the Mancunian Way and, aside from Ian Simpson Architects powerful triptych of student buildings made heroic with a Cor-Ten facade, the other recent structures are shocking, particularly all those mealy mouthed red-brick excuses for design. Trace the Mancunian Way into Salford along Trinity Way and you'll find more of the same.

Yet we mustn't beat ourselves up too much. Many Mancs seem to suffer an introversion which causes them to criticise their own city without reference to the bigger world - this was a problem, or at least a perceived problem, with the now moribund Manchester Civic Society. There are similar ill-thought through developments in all the main cities of Europe. A trip to Holland in the summer showed that not everything those apparent paragons of virtuous architectural design, the Dutch, do works either.

And we have had real quality in the Manchester district as well: the Civil Justice Centre, North City Library, the Imperial War Museum North, the museum and art gallery refurbs, and the Piccadilly Station rebuild. The jury may be out on Beetham Tower and Chips but this writer admires their verve. Manchester-based developer Bruntwood has been particularly magnificent in resurrecting derided sixties structures: their re-invention of the 1965 Sunley Tower into City Tower has been a marvel as has their leadership in transforming the adjacent York Street into New York Street - despite the ludicrous name change. It's also (boringly) fashionable to dislike Spinningfields but the area is beginning to carve a useful niche out for itself in the west city centre, and will get better once the right food and drink tenants and shops are secured to pull people in. As for a new urban village, Urban Splash's Britannia Mills, Worsley Street developments might be a model for the future of Ancoats.

Manchester has, unlike so many other British cities, had dynamic leadership from Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein. This should be recognised. The result of their leadership in the last decade is a city centre transformed: fascinating in its mix of old and new and in how the street scene changes unpredictably as you move around. And don't accept my word either, ask the countless journalists and overseas visitors I've taken around in the last ten years, who've been intrigued and excited by the happy mess (or perhaps chaos) of the way Manchester's built environment has evolved.

Of course we are still the archetypal Anglo-Saxon city prone to boom and bust in property, prone - despite Leese and Bernstein - to the caprice of individual developers or city administrators, always stuck between doing too much or too little. We have been like that ever since a small town grew into an industrial metropolis two hundred years ago. But Manchester, if you have eyes to see, is an eminently enjoyable city to stroll around - do it yourself if you doubt this and then immediately get on the train to any of the other Northern or Midland cities and compare. Or even get on a plane. Those who think every building in a city centre during a building boom will be a classic are being childish, utopian. That's not how it works, especially in a city which should never be so heritage obsessed as, say, Chester or York.

Yet it's perhaps best to finish off - yes this has been a long piece - with more icy blasts of reality from outside the charmed circle of the city centre or the wealthier suburbs. The intractable problems of many of our urban districts across Greater Manchester is of prime concern. Despite the improvement, or replacement of existing housing stock and investment in new schools and social facilities - such as the absolutely splendid North City Library in Harpurhey - the national and European indicators of poverty, crime, unemployment and health remain stubbornly high in our part of the world.

This shows that cosmetic changes are well and good but also that they can be a distraction hiding the multiple problems, layered like courses of brick, through our notion of civic society. Buildings matter, they are a barometer for the design and taste of a city and its wealth, but they cannot make lives better in and of themselves. You can scatter as many PFI initiatives around as you want but how do you get the jobs in to lift people up - or can we ever again in this part of the post-industrial British world? Let's hope – contrary to experience perhaps – that we can make bigger inroads into the lives of people in the lost suburbs in the next ten years. That really would be something.

I used this quote at the end of the nineties but it still stands at the end of noughties and contains the right blend of caution and optimism.

Jim McClellan, writing in Esquire magazine back then, said: 'Manchester's size makes the social processes more visible. You can see how things are developing. Where they might end up is another matter. Perhaps it'll be the first place to show us whether our new cities work.'

Plus ça change.....as our cross-Channel chums say.

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27 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

GrahamDecember 22nd 2009.

The city has held her breath along with the rest of the world in terms of new mass building work. The new foundations for the city-scape that have been laid over the past 10 years are sound, but the question remains as to whether the planned & stalled projects can be materialised as and when the markets have recovered and can the levels of investment of the early noughties be revived?The impetus of construction in the city remains, with large projects such as the Metrolink, Univeristy Projects, Media City and the Hospitals giving a focus and cause for optimism for the next few years. The civic leadership remains, but how will a general election affect this?Greengate and First St, appear to have public realm monies in place and the Northern Quarter continues to progress and improve albeit in piece-meal fashion.The Co-op building promises to be up there with the recent best, but can the other stalled, or much-hyped projects and master-plans come to life?: Gateway House, Piccadilly Tower, the 'Whitehall of the North', Victoria Station, Origin (Canal St, Princess St, Whitworth St), Axis?The prosperity of the city centre can only benefit the wider city region, but long-term social conditions cannot be changed as easily a new building can replace a demolished one.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

Very good article and realistic too.So often those in Manchester view their city through rose tinted glasses. Whilst there are many reasons to celebrate, there are still a significant number of reasons to be concerned when compared to the cities that Manchester aspires to compete with eg Munich, Barcelona Lyon etc.Areas for concern include: an inability to capture 'real life' in the city centre beyond the 21-35 age group; a branch office economy; a desire to blame the government / London for all kinds of failures instead of getting on with it; an inability to see beyond administrative boundaries; the airport; poor inter city region public transport; woeful trains apart from those that go to London; large tracts of industrial wasteland amazingly close to the city centre and a failure to capitalise on the two areas of the city centre that could be truely unique - Castlefield and NQ and to these two might be added Ancoats in a few years time.

The Real Mr AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

The markets - yes please. The importance of taking an initiative like this cannot be understated. Manchester is almost uniquely bad at markets. Markets have been, probably since the dawn of civlization, the heart and soul of any place of habitation. Even London, so often criticized for its overly corporate culture, has fabulously good markets, not just the famous 'touristy' ones but real community markets too.Markets offer the opportunity for entrepreneurs and artizans to get their goods and services to market at the lowest possible cost or viewed another way, a very low risk method of testing a business idea before commiting to expensive leases and service charges. Bring 'em on.Good locations? NQ obviously (preferably on the site of a demolished High Street car park !!) Castlefield and the Salford side of the new bridge going over the Irwell near the Cathedral. Preferably all three as well as the more established 'seasonal' sites. The private sector is usually good at responding to challenges as long as the opportunity is provided and encouraged.PS Agreed: the Arndale Market is a total embarrassment.

smittyDecember 22nd 2009.

Chris, they obviously saw you coming at the markets as a sausage was £3.50, not a fiver, as were the beers and gluwein (unless you forgot to give your glass back). Still a bit expensive but for god's sake it's Christmas! And completely irrelevant to this article which had nothing to do with the Christmas markets. Lighten up fella, or you might be getting a visit from three ghosts! Also, on Picc Gardens, don't think anybody really thinks they're great, but can you remember what the previous gardens were like? They were awful!

Darren ScottDecember 22nd 2009.

The best part about Manchester Art Gallery is the new extension which works really well. Same the content of the gallery is at best dull and uninspiring. The permanent exhibition needs a massive overhaul and an injection of some contemporary art and internationally recognised works. I am still championing a new ‘Tatesque’ worldclass gallery in Castlefield to attract locals and tourists all year round to the area!And I fear the original vision of Media City is in danger of becoming Mediocre City.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

Great article and makes a really interesting point: what is it that makes all this work so well at a macro level but then leaves citizens disengaged ? We're happy to admire the great architecture and the feel proud of this city, but let's face it if you lift on the fifth floor of a flat next to a busy road and you see the potential of a bit of wasted ground nearby, what are you going to do about it ? Not much , I guess.

TariqDecember 22nd 2009.

I remember on this site a campaign to have the grass remove in Piccadilly and just have it paved and thus perfect for events.

JohnDecember 22nd 2009.

Buildings don't represent the whole story of course, but they are hugely significant on a symbolic level. When I was a kid in the 70's both the Royal Exchange and Manchester Central, for example, were in a dismal state of disuse. The message for our generation seemed to be that we were born too late. This was once a great city but not any more and not any time soon either. I remember how ingrained this mentality became and how, as late as 1988, our Politics teacher at Xaverian College could advise us not to enter a career in local government as "all you'll be doing is managing Manchester's decline". How about that?It's terrific then to see how these symbols of Mancunian grandeur (including Salford Quays too of course) have been reanimated and reinvigorated over the last couple of decades. Throw the new buildings Jonathan mentions into the ring and here's a city centre second to none in the UK for the depth and range of its architecture. This has (in my case at least) a wholly positive effect on the psyche and yes, that's absolutely right, walking around the city centre can and should be a tremendously exciting experience. The wonderful juxtaposition of old and new in our city can give writers and artists all the inspiration they need. I often wonder, for instance, how that great poet of city life, Baudelaire, would bring contemporary Manchester alive on the page.So, a city's buildings on their own can't solve the deeper problems of poverty and inequality but they can and do play a big part in how we feel about the city and how we view ourselves, both in national and in international terms.My only concern is a nagging sense that over the last decade too much of the city centre has been given over to corporate interests and that commercial growth has become the overriding concern in the Town Hall. Is this in the best interests of Manchester people?Anyway, all the best.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

Is that a picture Sarah Tower? I thought it was Great Ancoats Tower...EDITORIAL: Thanks Anon we meant Sarah Village not Tower which was to be on Dale Street - changed it now. The name of the tower pictured here was due to be either Sarah Point or as you state Great Ancoats Tower, but the latter may have just been a name of convenience during construction. If you have any other info let us know.

DavidDecember 22nd 2009.

nice article, the only serious negative for me in the decade is Piccadilly Gardens thanks to Howard Bernstein, it can't even be used for anything, like market concert etc because of all the clutter like planters, walls, kerbs, fountain etc. A real opportunity lost. I would level it and make it an event square for markets and concerts and so on.

ianDecember 22nd 2009.

Sarah Tower is a dead parrot, it will not be finished. Or so we were told at the last meeting about the future of Ancoats. The Ice Factory should be starting again in a few weeks though, thankfully (even though the new bit is going to be very 'architecture by numbers', Ancoats needs some shop space!).

ChrisDecember 22nd 2009.

"The refurbishment of Piccadilly Gardens" - or the destruction of a Victorian sunken garden and the creation of a wall that turns into a pissoir once the sun goes down. The fountains are cool in summer though. But the pissoir-wall is awful, and breaks completely with the Japanese design aesthetic that underpins the refurbished gardens.

ChrisDecember 22nd 2009.

HusslaThis is a forum for all to express their views, disagree all you want, insults behind a keyboard only make you a gutless internet warrior.

ODecember 22nd 2009.

Really good article. None of the pretencious, self indulgent, 'witty,' cringeworthy wannabee elitism that often plagues this website (usually the food reviews). For what it's worth, if this was a vote for top architecture of the decade, my vote would go to Beetham Tower. A striking building.

jaybeeDecember 22nd 2009.

Yes indeed, an excellent article.One thing though, Jon forgot to mention Miles Platting where the 120 year old pub, the Ace of Diamonds, will be forced to close on 11th January. We all know it has been hit with a Compulsary Purchase Order ( CPO ) leaving the citizens of that community without a warm place to meet for a pint and a natter. Never mind eh? I bet our Labour masters in Albert Square will have the place redeveloped before you can say Tory Government. Surely they will have the bulldozers in asap after the demise of this old famous pub? Or will it, as I suspect, simply lie empty until it resembles the disgusting eyesore that is the Osborne Dancehall? An empty and derelict Ace will remain an embarrasment to those Labour Cllrs; who voted to shut it down and depriving regulars their one and only local! Shame on you all.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

Great article - anyone know whats happening with 'First Street' off Whitworth St West?The plans look grand indeed (http://www.colourmylife.com)

HusslaDecember 22nd 2009.

Great article we do have so much to be proud of yet still have a long way to go.I cringe at some of the buildings that have been thrown up though & wish a bit more thought would have been put in.Have to disagree with chris though we have two great leaders in manchester anyone with half a brain can see that.please get back to the m.e.n fourms where you belong!!

championDecember 22nd 2009.

Great article Jonathan - you only have to walk along Ducie Street to see the contrast you highlight between the elegant and innovative BDP Manchester Studio and the monstrous Issa Quay right next door

Jonathan Schofield - editorDecember 22nd 2009.

No Chris. I mean proper markets. Fish and meat in St Ann's Square close to where the original market of Manchester was held: household, electronic, fancy goods maybe at Piccadilly. Let's get medieval. But also lets keep the fun and seasonal speciality markets in Albert Square environs - an expensive sausage every now and then never hurt anyone.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

On the stalled sites I can bring news about Origin. We who live next door of course talk regularly to West at all levels but the latest from the top was that they hoped to make an announcement in mid January.My view have been that some of the other sites my well be used for temporary purposes... a City Of Pavilions see www.propertyconfidential.com/index.asp… some guerilla gardens

J HartDecember 22nd 2009.

Please Mr Schofield. More articles like this, more analysis. More Manchester articles which are ambitious. This looks at the city with a grand view rather than a mealy mouthed narrow.

AnonymousDecember 22nd 2009.

"In fact an idea for the future, which we'll be discussing in a 2010 article, is the markets. Should we be thinking of abandoning the pokey Arndale Market and animating city streets more or less permanently with these centres of commercial activity?" In short - YES. It is imperative that streets are animated in order to instill a sense of vibrancy and community cohesion within a essentially bland uninspiring concrete jungle. The true sense of a market is indeed outdoors, lively, multi-faceted and inspiration; not the bland, uninviting and least of all uninspiring environment of Arndale Markets.

smittyDecember 22nd 2009.

Brilliant article Jonathan. Not one for blowing smoke up people's arses, but this is exactly what I love about Mancon - the pride you guys take in our fantastic city combined with thoughtful analysis. Pity that pride wasn't replicated in certain other Manchester publications...

PaulDecember 22nd 2009.

Great article! I first arrived in Manchester in 1998 as a student, shortly after the bomb. The old Marks & Spencer store was in the process of being demolished, the Royal Exchange was still a shell and Piccadilly Gardens was awful. Ancoats was a wasteland, Deansgate was blighted by the hideous old MEN building and the grandeur of the Central Library was hidden behind the black pollutant.What I have loved about Manchester in the 11 years I have now been a resident here, is how it has transformed beyond recognition into a city that is genuinely attractive to look at - go to Liverpool and Leeds and there is still someway to go. Manchester seems to me unique amongst the big British cities as one where you can walk across most of the city centre without stumbling across a bleak, grim street straight out of the 1960s.Of course, the article makes a good point that a lot of the city's handsome attributes stop at the periphery of the city centre, but that will change. I used to go clubbing to Sankeys in Ancoats and remember the frightening trek back to Piccadilly through the abandoned warehouses, and now this same area is so gentrified.Of course, back in 1998 Castlefield was also great. Quay Bar, Barca, lazy summer days on the grass verges by the canals. It is a shame that in the same period of time that much of the city centre has been improved beyond recognition, that this district has gone in quite the opposite direction.

Carolyn @ manchesterisaceDecember 22nd 2009.

Enjoyed this article - it's nice to be reminded how the city has changed SO much in the last decade. It will certainly be interesting to see which of the new apartment blocks will still be there in 40 years. Some of them just look so disposable or temporary, and I can't imagine even noticing if they disappear. But then there's some buildings which have really added to the city: the Edge, the NV Buildings at Salford Quays, and even Leftbank. I think the Imperial War Museum is my favourite architecture tho. Does anyone know what's happening to the proposed West Properties development, between Canal St and Whitworth St that was so controversial? If they turn it back into a car park it could be THE most expensive car park ever built!Agree about the markets definitely. Having visited Borough Market in London recently, how is it that all we can manage is the Arndale food hall and a few stalls at Piccadilly once a month?

ChrisDecember 22nd 2009.

Graet article, but have to disdagree with the dynamic leadership tag. These two are not great leaders they are followers who hoped to destroy the City Centre with a Poll Tax on transport. Street markets great idea as long as we are not subject to all year rip off Xmas markets prices £5.oo for a sausage and £5 for a beer pleaseeee

ChrisDecember 22nd 2009.

JonathanGreat would bring back some much needed life to the City Centre streets, fresh produce yes o yes. Still have to disagree on Xmas Markets - Braturst sausages are £1.89 for six at Aldi.

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