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The Good, The Standard, The Ugly: the Tree of Remembrance

Jonathan Schofield things a tree is better than an old queen

Written by . Published on March 22nd 2013.

The Good, The Standard, The Ugly: the Tree of Remembrance

Category: Good

What and when?

The Tree of Remembrance, Piccadilly Gardens, installed in 2005. An eleven metre tree composed of steel and bronze.


The artists were Wolfgang and Heron, or rather Fiona Heron and the splendidly named Wolfgang Buttress – the best moniker around.


The Tree of Remembrance marks the many hundreds of civilians who died in the Nazi bombing of Manchester in World War II, particularly on 22/23 December 1940. Over the two nights around 500 German bombers dropped 467 tons of high explosive and 2000 incendiary bombs on the city. 

The names of the dead appear around the trunk of the tree.

The dead of Manchester commemorated around the metal trunkThe dead of Manchester commemorated around the metal trunk

This is an appropriate location for the memorial. Piccadilly Hotel and City Tower were built on the site of blitzed textile warehouses.

The only survivor of the pre-1940 buildings to the south west of this point, is the Britannia Hotel (formerly Watts Warehouse). This was spared because the company fire brigade refused to move out as other buildings were demolished to stop the fire spreading. They even stayed put when the proper fire brigade turned off their water supply, smothering the flames with cloth close at hand.

My father can remember as a young lad walking out onto the moors above Shawclough in Rochdale where the ancestral home lies, to watch the distant fires as Manchester burned. 

He watched for two hours the glow from the flames, the bomb detonations and the swish of searchlights across the sky. The strangest thing for the young lad was that because of the distance and the direction of the wind he couldn't hear any noise of war.

Manchester burning appeared as a lethal silent movie, enthralling but deadly.

Parker Street blitzed - the rubble is where Piccadilly Hotel and City Tower now standParker Street blitzed - the rubble is where Piccadilly Hotel and City Tower now stand

What's the best thing about the Tree of Remembrance?

It's a piece of public art that seems to capture the reflective, sorrowful mood of its theme. It also merges and matches with the real trees and the urban landscape. The Tree makes a walk across Piccadilly more enjoyable. Unlike most public art it doesn’t get in the way, it enhances the space it occupies. There's something else too.

Delicate does itDelicate does it

Go on?

The landscaping in Piccadilly Gardens is from the Japanese practice of Tadao Ando. The most controversial aspect is the concrete wall (laughably called a ‘pavilion') which contains Caffe Nero. It’s justifiably hated as an ugly barrier to movement through the city.

But behind the Tree of Remembrance is a thin sliver of curving concrete wall standing apart from the main ‘pavilion’. This sweet slab acts as the perfect foil for the Tree of Remembrance.

For once, the two distinct elements, the landscape and artwork, combine effortlessly. This is a rare quality with public art.

It's interesting that the wall designer, Ando is Japanese. By happen chance, the cut steel and bronze panels, high in the tree, make up bundles of foliage on the boughs. These have the same delicate ethereal character that inhabits the pen and ink drawings of Japanese artists such as Hokusai or Hiroshige. 

Hokusai TreesHokusai Trees

Any other public artworks around you’d like to mention?

Yes, the Robert Peel and Duke of Wellington statues on the Oldham Street side are fine Victorian figurative works.

But the Queen Victoria statue in the Gardens by Edward Onslow from 1901 is hilariously clumsy. It got this write-up from the Westminster Review when it was unveiled.

'It is at once the most pretentious, the most incoherent and the most inept of any sculptural monument one has ever seen in England.’

It's easy to see what the Westminster Review is going on about.

Queen Victoria sits like a fat ugly beetle in a weird architectural frame. The bombastic excess displayed in this sculpture is a world away from the poignant beauty of Wolfgang and Heron's Tree of Remembrance.

Vicky, cast in bronze, proves yet again that not everything old is good. The 'pavilion' proves that not everything new is.

This article was first posted in 2008 and has been re-edited for the new Manchester Confidential.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here@JonathSchofield or connect via Google+

'Most inept' sculptural monument'Most inept' sculptural monument

Tree2Fitting memorial

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

DavidNovember 5th 2008.

The Piccadilly wall is just the wrong thing in the wrong place, looking at it from the market street/Piccadilly angle it kinda works, probably because its got planting (well kind of) and some landscaping in front of it, including the coffee shop and RICE making up part of it, however, its this is a big however, you try looking at the wall from the bus station/city tower side and it is the most absurd and uninviting piece of rubbish possible, it stops ANY view towards the gardens or the historic buildings lining Piccadilly and is a dirty great expanse of uninteresting and impenetrable concrete that divorces itself from half of the area and is reminiscent to 1960’s concrete construction that also didn’t have any regard or thought for the future or how it would be used or seen by humans

look-upNovember 5th 2008.

I agree that the Tree of Remembrance is a powerful and attractive piece of public art ... I would have preferred it to be a little further from "the wall" simply because its proximity makes the wall very inflexible in terms of how it could be used to 'make more of the city'. Most people think it extremely ugly ("its often referred to as the 'Berlin Wall') but it could be an outdoor cinema / projection screen for specific occasions, or a performance wall (for acrobats/bungee performers etc). As it is, it cannot have any other function than 'framing' the tree. Since I love making use of buildings and sculptures in as imaginative a set of ways as possible, this seems a shame.

Regen08November 5th 2008.

yes, I have seen the other side of the pavillion (the station-facing side). But there are enough ways to see through and around the pavillion to be able to intuatively work out that its primary function is to enclose the gardens; that it is a pavillion and a piece of architecture and not merely a wall. An elegantly shaped, well proportioned pavillion at that, too, providing better definition and enclosure to the gardens than the opposing streetscape!

leeNovember 5th 2008.

Also Peter Loo, the writer says "The bombastic excess displayed in this sculpture is a world away from the poignant beauty of Wolfgang and Heron's Tree of Remembrance" if that’s not wrongly comparing today’s tastes and styles with those of the past, then I don’t know what is!

DavidNovember 5th 2008.

Regen have you ever stood on the other side of it? it blocks the entire view of a) the Gardens that you say it enhances and b) the rest of the streetscape

LeeNovember 5th 2008.

I understand that Peter Loo, similar harsh comments were made at the opening of a lot of our now loved Victorian and Edwardian buildings/statues, it doesn’t however mean that that point of view has been long-lived or is relevant today, in the light of listed structures(for which the Victoria statue is) I was commenting on jonathans comment that it is "hilariously clumsy", what exactly is hilarious or clumsy about it?

MuzzyNovember 5th 2008.

The concrete wall is an ugly, brutal addition to the city centre landscape and a highly unwelcoming sight for both locals and tourists, setting a bland tone. However, the wall could be used or decorated in a good way. If anyone has seen Lemn Sissays wall mural on Hardy's Wall pub in Rusholme, I think a similar thing could be done with the wall. For example, use the countless great musicians Manchester has produced to create something positive: I think Noel Gallagher's lyrics in Live Forever ("We see things they'll never see") or Morriseys ("There is a light that never goes out") pretty much sum of what Manchester, and Mancunian spirit is all about. And I speak as a Scotsman living in the city. Lets face it, one of Manchester's defining traits is its bolshiness and its superiority complex (I mean this in a good way)- why not use the wall as a public display of how proud Mancunians are of their city. Anyway, its got to be better than the current monstrosity

chris BNovember 5th 2008.

I'm sorry? Is that 'wall' situated there simply to act as 'a foil for the tree?' Surely not..That whole pavillion is THE singular most distasteful recent architecture to have been permitted in Manchester. it really is dreadful and everybody* (*99% of people) agree. It's just horrible. I'm just about old enough to remember teh slightly sunken Hobo-jungle that existed prior but this keeps being used as an excuse for the ridiculously ugly concrete that it has been replaced with. Surely by usuing teh 'wall' as a foil to the tree doesn't justify the absolutely terrible architecture taht confronts us everyday.. not to mention what disappointed vsitors must think about our 'central showpiece square'. Horrible..Having said all that I'm really proud we live in a city that so proudly demonstrates and acknowledges its debt to the war dead. The tree works.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousApril 7th 2013.

The 'Piccadilly Wall' is privately owned and the owner has resisted efforts to soften it by planting for example.

Maybe compulsory purchase?

Regen08November 5th 2008.

leave the wall alone! Not only is it a striking piece of architecture but it provides much needed enclosure, animation and a human scale to the gardens. The gardens would be a much pooer place without it. Its an easy target but one whose benefits are easy to overlook.

LeeNovember 5th 2008.

I think thats a tad unfair on the Queen Victoria Statue, i would like to see how else a 1901 sculptor would tackle a large and elderly queen in any other way. I think statues from the past should be looked upon with the eyes of 1901 people, not our present day eyes because that would blow it totally out of context, you could easily say the exact same thing about any historic building in Manchester, talking about the overly fussiness of its detailing and ornamentation, and comparing it to the stark steel and glass buildings we build now saying for example “the Royal Exchange is blocky and bulky with unnecessary carvings compared to Urbis” The Queen Victoria statue is typical of the time it was carved, I love the remembrance tree, but im sure people in 100 years time will wonder why its so plain

Peter LooNovember 5th 2008.

It got this write-up from the Westminster Review when it was unveiled.Lee you daft thing....the point I think the writer is making is that the Queen Victoria statue was criticised at the the time by the Westminster Review as 'It is at once the most pretentious, the most incoherent and the most inept of any sculptural monument one has ever seen in England.’ Read the piece properly would you.

patNovember 5th 2008.

I agree that the tree of rememberance is a splendid piece of public art - of its time. Similarly Queen Vic / monumental art at its grandiose best. It surely provides the perfect riposte to the grandiloquence of Albert in t'square. If Manchester is going to have statue of the beloved Queen & Consort let's 'ave a dobbin' big un

Matthew CobbMarch 22nd 2013.

I remember in the late 60s, during student Rag Week, students painted big red footprints going from Victoria down into the Ladies toilets that used to be on Piccadilly Gardens. They stayed for years. These days the council would blast them off overnight...

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