The Council Chamber Anteroom in the Town Hall Extension. The latter was opened in 1938 by King George VI. 1938 was the centenary year of Manchester as a municipal authority.
The architect was a man called E Vincent Harris who did civic buildings up and down the country. Manchester Town Hall Extension and the earlier and neighbouring Central Library (1934), are his best works. He designed the pair in 1925 when Manchester decided it needed to have more ambition in its civic buildings and to give the Town Hall area a grander profile. The Town Hall, by the way, was hemmed in on all sides, except that of Albert Square, by modest structures and Harris’s pair gave it more room and more dignity.
But you’re not talking about the building are you? You’ve chosen just a room.
Yes, but this is more than a room. It’s a sublime essay in cool authority, a masterpiece of design that captures what civic pride is all about. From the double cube proportion to the detailing on walls, windows and on the doors, it’s nigh perfect: perfect for its time but also right for 2009.
First you notice the light streaming in from the four huge windows, which give it an Elizabethan Long Gallery feel, such as you might find in Haddon Hall or Lyme Park. The long gallery was the space where the well-to-do would promenade and take exercise on wet days. The Anteroom here is where democratically elected councillors, the ladies and gents of the press and the citizens of Manchester could (and can) meet, stroll and chat prior to or after council sessions.
Fair enough, but more description please.
The light comes in through the windows and is enhanced by the polished Portland stone of the white walls, the rendered ceiling is recessed to add texture between the supporting beams and is white too. This makes the space cool and elegant. Decoration is minimised. Again the wall girders holding up the structure are smoothly covered with Portland stone but expressed, as they rise from the floor, as though they are traditional pilasters. There is simple moulding around the door frames, the impressive fireplace and at floor level. There is no cornice just a simple thin line of black stone. The firedogs are like two giant spindles - perhaps a reference to the cotton trade. On the west side there are stained glass windows with Manchester’s coat of arms and others, these add vivid colour. The doors into the Council Chamber and the light fittings are a real treat.
Tell me more about the doors and the lights?
The doors are covered in studded brown leather mainly in a series of scallop shell shapes. The latter design is the basis for the peep holes into the Council Chamber. There’s a Moorish feel to the doors but a dreamlike one, like a 1930s’ Hollywood set of the Alhambra, like the door of a harem in a Cecil B DeMille movie of Ali Babar and the Forty Thieves.
And the lights?
Look at these babies, simple and bold in design, grand too. Fitting light fittings for a serious space.
They look Art Deco.
Exactly. So while there are historical references to Elizabethan and Classical architecture in the Anteroom it’s really a modern design, as up-to-date and stream-lined as one of those great ocean liners which were steaming between the Old World and the New in the twenties and thirties.
Yes there are a few sillinesses. The plastic clock on the wall looks as though it were bought from B&Q for £1.99, and the water-cooler looks out of place. Then again the jaw-jaw in the Council Chamber no doubt raises a thirst. I’ve not mentioned the names on the outer wall of the Council Chamber either.
Ha, so the writing’s on the wall?
It is. And it features the Freemen (and women) of Manchester. Some interesting names are up there from prime ministers via presidents via charitable folk to footballers. There’s Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, President Woodrow Wilson, Sir Alex Ferguson and Bobby Charlton amongst many others. Indeed, with Sir Matt Busby as well there is a lot of Manchester United up there and nothing (unless I missed it) of City. There’s also Anthony H Wilson. With most of the other people there’s a name alone or sometimes a job title - Prime Minister of New Zealand for instance. Wilson gets this description ‘Broadcaster and Cultural Catalyst’. He would have smiled at that. It’s also appropriate that this writer on a radio interview was told by AHW that his favourite building in the city was the Town Hall Extension. Take a trip to the building, stand a few moments in the Anteroom and you’ll understand why.
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