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?’
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.
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.
18 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.
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
To digress a little but in a similar mindset,why has nobody done anything about regenerating…Read more
I'm basically saying that 2 peters square is set to be an equivalent North tower. But at least that…Read more