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
• 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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I started work at Dial House in 1946, as a trainee telephonist . Did any body else work at the…Read more
I'm sure it will happen over time, the sprawling suburbs will start to creep back towards the city…Read more
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I'm basically saying that 2 peters square is set to be an equivalent North tower. But at least that…Read more