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Rebuilding Manchester

Jonathan Schofield reviews a book and wonders about city change

Written by . Published on July 4th 2010.


Rebuilding Manchester

This book is a labour of love.

A song from the heart from Town Planner turned author Euan Kellie.

In amongst the textile warehouses with plants springing from every cornice, I sensed even at that young age something was wrong, or had moved on, an absence.

Focussing on how the city centre has physically changed since the trauma of the spineless IRA attack in 1996, Rebuilding Manchester also has good sections on the present, the future and the post-WWII context of city centre development.

My first encounters with Manchester occurred in the late 1970s. I was about 12 and would come on the train from Rochdale with my older brother. We’d go straight to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop in St Ann’s Square and then Wilshaws bookshop on John Dalton Street. We’d stop at some type of Wimpey bar for a milky tea.

The city centre struck me as a blackened monster.

On the train you chugged past decrepit dying industry in the Irk valley and were disgorged into a crumbling (and still crumbling) Victoria Station. Then came the narrow streets around Long Millgate filled with soot stained facades. It was an alarming experience.

A break from routine one day and a walk around what is now Chinatown and the Village was even more disturbing. In amongst the textile warehouses with plants springing from every cornice, I sensed even at that young age something was wrong, or had moved on, an absence, an abandonment.

The year before the 1996 bomb Charles Jennings in his book 'Up North' had written: ‘Look again at these buildings, as examples of frozen energy they fill you full of amazement. Some Mancunians must have been giants. What dreams did those people have? And do they still have them?’

We did still dream, and by 1995 changes were taking place all over the city centre as a pragmatic council used the leverage of the Olympic Games bids to up its game.

Then came the bomb.

The Manchester Millennium Company, formed a month after the blast, had these aims. ‘We want to see a framework established which creates an architecturally distinctive core, which is of urban character, and is responsive to the needs of the young and the old, people with disabilities, and which is physically and socially integrated with the rest of the City. Our objective is to maximise private investment and stimulate economic activity. The framework must promote the widest possible range of opportunities to live, shop, work and relax safely; and where activity can take place at most times of the day and night.’

That was the wish list. Very ambitious.

On Tuesday this week I took a party of 29 postgraduate Saudi Arabian students and their university mentors on a tour from Piccadilly, around the Northern Quarter, through Exchange Square and Cathedral Gardens (where Manchester’s former grimness had struck me so forcefully back in the late 70s) and back through the traditional business core to Piccadilly.

Not everything in that 1996 wish list has been achieved. Whether the centre is ‘socially integrated’ with the rest of the city is open to doubt, at Confidential we still think Piccadilly Gardens shouldn’t have been grassed (more on this soon), Castlefield has gone backwards, The Triangle and Urbis are repeat failures as functioning buildings, while the loss of the majority of the Royal Exchange Shopping Centre is a shame.

But looking through the Saudi students’ eyes, hearing what they said, revealed how much has been achieved, how much activity brought into the city centre, how much more interesting it is, how much of the best has been retained and how nearly all the gaps in the gap-toothed city of three decades ago have been plugged. It would have been infinitely harder to show Manchester off back then. Poor tour guides.

So while we may not have, nor ever will have, a perfect city centre, we’ve travelled a distance. Many of the objectives in the 1996 wish list have been realised. Just ask outsiders who’ve been coming to the city over the past few decades. Just walk it yourself.

Euan Kellie’s book underlines this supremely well. It also provides a visual feast of documentary record, which will have Manc enthusiasts purring. The illustrations of plans which failed are almost as fascinating to pore over as the ones which came about.

Some things in the book are not so good.

The design is confusing with occasional pages picked out in different colours: the intended result of making the book more attractive fails and ends up confusing. Boxes of cut-away text do the same. The bolding of bullet points and quotes is unnecessary and also breaks the narrative. The designer should have been told to calm down.

Inaccuracies such as the claim that Benjamin Disreali came up with the phrase ‘What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow,’ are fortunately rare. Nobody’s quite sure who came up with that one and attributing quotes is a notoriously dangerous game – click here for why.

More seriously the text often reads as an advertisement for Manchester’s rebuilding and the Council’s policies rather than as a critical work. A bit more criticism would have been valuable and given the text spice.

Having said that, this book is still remarkably informative and is packed with hundreds of photos and graphics which reveal the recent past and visualise the future. Many of the photos come from Euan Kellie’s own collection and also from the important archive of professional photographer Aidan O’Rourke.

For anybody interested in how Manchester has morphed, particularly after the IRA ‘outrage’, then get the book, you’re bound to find something to love or intrigue in Euan Kellie’s song for the city.

Rebuilding Manchester is out now and costs £19.99. It’s published by DB Publishing. We have two books to give away. The best two rants below win them.

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

Burt CodeineJune 30th 2010.

Something to immediately place on my wish list no doubt.
Indeed, Manchester 20 years ago (when I first arrived) was infinitely hard to love...it took time but, by god, when that love came it stayed. The city is much, much more immediate now. All those years ago it would be fanciful to suggest that in the future the city would be held up as a fine example of urban regeneration and be talked of in the same breath as large European cities.
Unfortunately there are still bad examples of 'old Manchester' around (there are also good examples, thankfully, of 'old Manchester' still out there) - the Ramada on the end of Deansgate (though this too is being addressed) and buildings as close in as Portland Street having 'plants springing from every cornice...

Benjamin DisraeiJune 30th 2010.

‘What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow,

You can quote me on that

andrew19941June 30th 2010.

I'm from Manchester ,
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, There's nothing you can't do...well you can't drink out of glass on the street, but other than that go for it.

Bernstein for PMJune 30th 2010.

I organised a quiz walk around Manchester for my company away day a couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to turn the 'grim up North' opinions of the Cambridge/London offices around - as they only ever see the Piccadilly end of Manchester they were really impressed with the rest of the city and I felt proud to show it off. Sir Howard came to give us a little pep talk about the regeneration progress that had been made in the afternoon. All in all very good...except as one director noted, "Shame the Arndale Building didn't take the brunt of the bomb." Possibly.

Richard Hector-JonesJune 30th 2010.

Perhaps this book will go some way to dispel the myth that regeneration only started after the bomb.
As an aside, part of the reason I moved to Manchester (mid 80s) was precisely because the breakdown of traditional urban infrastructure made the city a cheap playground for people to roam freely and creatively.
I - like most people - hate the cut and paste high streets of Britain. H&M? Check. Tesco Metro? Check.
Having said that in the old days you could happily get mugged anytime after 5.30pm on Market Street as people left the city desolate after a day's work it was such a ghost town.
Arty swings and violent roundabouts.
If I went into the Top Cat Tavern on Hanging Ditch of a night - a Manchester Hopper painting if ever there was one - the landlord would pour my then better half a glass of warm wine straight into a pint pot and charge £1.20 whilst being bemused by their own actions.
I miss that wild west element a bit but I'm not sure I'd want it back if faced with the harsh reality of city centre street girls and frequent muggings...

Jonathan SchofieldJune 30th 2010.

Dibigo I was hasty with Castlefield. I meant it went backwards and is now coming good again. I am president of the Castlefield Forum and together with the residents, businesses and the Council we're making sure the place is clean and well-maintained. At the same time we're making physical changes with new signage and in September, a new ornamental garden to be looked after by the residents and enjoyed by all.

I wish I was wearing shorts today...June 30th 2010.

An ornamental garden? Sounds good. I saw some litter pickers in the area on my way home from work yesterday and noticed that some kind of canal drain thingamebob was being repaired this morning, so Castlefield seems to be getting the attention it deserves. I'm looking forward to seeing the new signage. I hope a local design company's been commissioned to do it. How about the Roman Fort historical chart up the street from Barca? Bloody embarrassment. Can that be fixed too and made scally-proof? Oh, and what about that patch of land where Quay Bar used to be? Can it be turfed like the area next to Jackson's Wharf? That would be most pleasant.

ClubcardJune 30th 2010.

I'll sign up as a member if I get one ;-)

Friedrich EJune 30th 2010.

That would be Manchester Capitalism in its purest form!

Peter KJune 30th 2010.

Thatcher's Britain

AnonymousJune 30th 2010.

the gaps have been filled... well there is a big gap next to me, and another on Aytoun Street (the old Employment Exchange) and the Old Fire Station is still another, and soon one more MMU Aytoun building. That's just in 200m

There are lots more all over, Owens Carpark... City Centre South)and the area between the Rochdale Road and Oldham Rd. And the old Odeon Cinema on Oxford Street

And is Whitworth Street West up for any aesthetic prizes?

And as for social integration surely Richard Leese's remark that city residents were cash cows who needed no services showed what the true policy was.

And where is the 24 hour cafe society?

I came to Manchester in 1973 and I think Council and citizens missed an opportunity in their haste to do 'something'. The blame rests beyond the politicians, but lies at the top of the administration.

Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 30th 2010.

Anonymous walk the city and tell me nothing has worked. Strikes me that if you'd lived in London, Copenhagen, Sydney, Barcelona or wherever since 1973 you'd be having a whinge. I've lived in Madrid and there is no 24 hour cafe society either, that's a marketing nonsense. Walk the city and try and recall 1973 and then honestly and maybe with your real name rather than that silly anonymous mask - maybe I need to re-think having that field on these rants - tell me truly that the peripheral gaps you mention are as major as say the whole of Central Station area or all the bit off the junction of Portland and Oxford Road, or most of what we now call Spinningfields, or the whole of Castlefield?

SophJuly 1st 2010.

I work for an organisation based in lovely Castlefield - how can we get involved in the Castlefield Forum?

Jonathan Schofield - editorJuly 1st 2010.

Soph get in touch with the Forum secretary Ian Christie and he'll welcome you onboard: ianchristie2@btinternet.com

AnonymousJuly 1st 2010.

Whose idea was it to turn The Conti club into a block of flats. . . . n

SophJuly 2nd 2010.

Thanks Jonathan - have done!

Eddy RheadJuly 7th 2010.

Can i have a free book please?

Eddy RheadJuly 14th 2010.

Can i have two free books please?

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