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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Central Library refurbishment

Jonathan Schofield on whether the plans for the Town Hall Extension or Central Library are any good

Written by . Published on July 18th 2010.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Central Library refurbishment

Category: very good

The Central Library and Town Hall Extension refurbishments. Or rather reconstruction, reconfiguration and renaissance of the buildings all rolled into one.

In the future. By the end of 2013 all will be transformed. The old Central Library and the Town Hall Extension will have been demolished and the Lottery funded North of England McDonalds Roller-disco will be in place. The biggest in the world.

Oh my God, really?
No I’m lying. Outwardly apart from a general sprucing up there’ll be little different. Emanuel Vincent Harris’s 1930s civic pièce de résistance will look much the same as it did when it opened.

Tell me a little about Harris’s buildings
The Library is from 1934. A contemporary called it, ‘A good deed in a depressing world.’ Looking a little like the Pantheon in Rome from the reign of Emperor Hadrian (as in the Wall) it was described as ‘a wheel within a wheel’ with ‘wonderfully ingenious and complicated series of storeys, concrete vaulted passages and stairs giving access to different tiers of the interior.’ Probably designed with Chief Librarian Stanley Jast, after a trip to the States, it had the books stored in stacks for ease of access beneath a central dome – it was absolutely state of the art in 1934.

And the Extension?
This was finished in 1938 a nine-storey building of heroic externals. Those mad patterned gable ends of vast lattices with coats of arms are fabulous, as is the big bare wall over an arcade with its high roof facing St Peter’s Square. The interior spaces such as the Council Chamber and the Rates Hall are magnificent too. The overall modern meets medieval cloth hall design muted the contrast between Classical library and Gothic Town Hall. Manchester acquired a very noble set of Civic Buildings from Harris.

Did he build elsewhere?
He did indeed. Leeds Civic Hall is the other biggy in the North of England.

So what’s happening here?
Massive changes internally. In the Library, Ryder Architects are removing the theatre and the existing lifts (the slowest in the world, ever). They’ll then largely remove the stacks to create a large circulation space under the existing domed reading room. The latter will be refreshed but untouched including retention of the original furniture, although the asbestos that lines the dome will be removed. Removing the stacks fundamentally changes the building, as the arrangement of these with the reading room was integral to the original building. Ian Kennedy of Ryder told me that his practice are reversing the 30% public, 70% private space ratio, and that the stacks are not required in a modern library. Fair enough. The Library will house all the archive, research and study areas plus the historic ‘treasured’ collections. It will also have exhibition spaces, the North West Film Archive, the British Film Institute Mediatheque Viewing Pods (eh?) and, of course, a shop and a cafe. In effect the Central Library becomes a study centre for Manchester but also a centre for the study of Manchester.

Now what’s with the Extension’s changes?
The ideas come from Ian Simpson Architects for this building. The most intriguing element here is the link that is being created under Library Walk into the Extension, which effectively spreads the Library into the Extension. Thus the undercroft of the Extension will become the City Library and the Children’s Library – in other words the general lending library of Manchester (apart from Local Studies), remember, the archive and reference sections will remain next door. Given the scale of the existing Library this seems an odd decision, but not displeasing.

The Rates Hall above the new City Library on the ground floor will be restored and become the main point for Mancunians to get info about the city and the way it functions – the ‘Welcome Centre’. The courtyard in the middle of the Extension will be used properly, landscaped and host the children’s play area for the council crèche and nursery. There’ll be public meeting and break out rooms here too. The upper areas of the Extension will retain their current Council functions, Planning, Housing and so forth, but the corridors will be opened out to make the floor plates in the offices bigger.

Do you think it’s a good plan?
It’s almost too much to take in. Lots of people who appreciated the stacks in the Library will be appalled at their removal, as these were so important a part of the old building. But generally the emphasis placed on the archive, records, study and research elements in the Library are to be welcomed as is the opening out of the building under the Reading Room and the underground link with the Extension which knits the two Harris structures together. These are a strong, clear, exciting and bold pair of plans. But they change everything.

What do you mean?
The Harris buildings, especially the Library, will be so different as to be unrecognisable to Harris. The Library will become a husk inhabited by an alien new body. The architects call these changes ‘interventions’. Intervention is a complex Latinism, the favoured language of the lawyer, the priest and the bureaucrat when trying to keep people in the dark. What architects mean is that there will be a big bloody change made, a fundamental alteration. And we can never go back on it.

Is that bad?
I think not. These are public buildings, they have to accommodate us or die. To keep the Library as it is presently we’d have to turn it into a museum, pickle it - like the embalmed corpse of a stately home owned by the National Trust for day trippers to gawp at. ‘Interventions’ necessarily remove features which are part of the identity of a building, but they keep it alive. Perhaps the way to look at this is the way medieval architects constantly, as centuries passed, added bits on, took bits off and altered the great cathedrals. Maybe our Manchester temple of books is merely undergoing a similar renewal.

So you think these are good plans?
Yes. They get a big Manchester Confidential thumbs up. And it could have been worse for the Library, there have been several rumours about its fate.

Tell me?
Sensible rumours, such as it was going to be part of a city centre university campus or converted into a hotel. And mad rumours such as it was going to be a superclub or a big roller disco.

I sort of like the roller disco.
Bet you do, but haven’t you heard? That’s going to be the old London Road Fire Station’s fate opposite Piccadilly Station. A massive roller-disco. Don’t spread any rumours though.

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

AgricolaJuly 14th 2010.

Like the ideas. We can't stand still with buildings like these. We have to keep it all bumbling along. Love the underground idea.

ianianJuly 14th 2010.

Nice article.
Where are these plans up?

AnonymousJuly 15th 2010.

Thanks for this overview, very helpful!

Jonathan Schofield - editorJuly 15th 2010.

Sorry Ianian, that one's come and gone but the St Peter's Square proposals are available to view in the old Manchester Visitor Information Centre in St Peter's Square in the corner of the Town Hall Extension. We'll have a judgement on though shortlist for that tomorrow.

Peter RivendellJuly 15th 2010.

Wow. Really interesting. Who even knew there was a landscapable courtyard in the extension? Hopefully this means that 80s monstrosity of a children's play area is being demolished. I can't wait to see what's to be done to the Library Theatre's new home...

charlotte15929July 15th 2010.

I'm glad to hear a positive response to the plans as I wasn't able to get to the consultation myself - and I was thinking "how can they be spending all this money without actually doing any research into what people want?" so I'm glad there was a consultation, albeit extremely brief.
I am still concerned that there is no more of a market for archive, research & local history than there ever was for the previous contents of the library...how is this huge project actually being justified? Whose views were canvassed before the project got the go ahead?
(I'm not closely involved with the library so maybe the redevelopment is the outcome of a big research project into the public's needs - I don't know & am very happy to be corrected if i'm wrong!)

John HarrisJuly 15th 2010.

I hate to quibble Jonathan, but strictly speaking the Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa, during the reign of Augustus (around 15-20BC I think) and later rebuilt by Hadrian. I should get out more, I know

Jonathan Schofield - editorJuly 16th 2010.

Far be it from me to quibble either John but the building that the library may have been influenced by is the one with the dome which is the Pantheon as completed in Hadrian's reign. Anyway do you like the plans?

NortherngeezerJuly 16th 2010.

I've been to the Acropolis many times............in fact twice already this morning!!!!

John HarrisJuly 16th 2010.

Yes, the plans do look imaginative. Hopefully it'll be all done and dusted and ready to enjoy by the time I move back to Manchester.

AnonymousJuly 17th 2010.

Whatever the building eventually results the question is what services will the Library actually offer? I assume books are so last century, and Kindles will be everywhere (or iPads).
Whatever the externals which will remain, for the internals, form should follow function flexibly.
Presumably the proposals have gone to planning and the docs are on the site. Do tell us but should the complete proposals/plans and the rational be available in the temporary Library or do we have to serve an FOI request?
What is the risk to the money running out and Manchester being left with another dead site.?

BenJuly 17th 2010.

The only things that can be guaranteed is that it'll cost more, take longer and the plans will change because the architects will encounter hitherto unknown factors that prevent them from building quite as planned; loads or research notwithstanding. And I bet the Library Theatre company doesn't get its anticipated new home @ old Theatre Royal , Peter Street either!

Jonathan Schofield - editorJuly 19th 2010.

Ben don't be a miserable whinging git. You seem to be arguing that we do nothing at all ever in case there are problems. Have you ever had the builders in for your own home renovations? Sometimes things happen that can't be foreseen, sometimes snags occur. Let's not give all hope because that happens. Progress man, progress.

AnonymousJuly 20th 2010.

I think there's been another escape from the asylum that is the Manchester Evening News messageboards!

Anonymous, the council isn't some fly by night builder with the option to abandon a development. The Central Library is a Grade 1 listed building and they

AnonymousJuly 20th 2010.

Ooops, accidentally hit submit! As I was saying, I think there's been another escape from the asylum that is the Manchester Evening News messageboards!

Anonymous, the council isn't some fly by night builder with the option to abandon a development. The Central Library is a Grade 1 listed building and they haven't got the luxury of just abandoning it. They also would have had the money set aside before they started as that's the rules for this kind of massive project.

I think the fact that the council is spending this kind of money on a library when so many others around the country are being shut down is pretty impressive. Anon, if you want to see what a modern library looks like, go visit the City Library on Deansgate. Guess what, it has books AND computers. Who would have thought such a thing possible!

Ben, I'm going to adopt your philosophy on life and never go out my front door again because I might get hit by a bus.

NikeJuly 20th 2010.

Just do it!

J E SibberingJuly 24th 2010.

Central Library is a Grade II* listing building, not Grade I.

Daniel GriffinFebruary 10th 2011.

Quality article. Whenever I see building work going on in Manchester nowadays I get nervous. Mancunian town planners get it wrong so much of the time!

Colin McWilliamFebruary 25th 2011.

hmm, a nice new library...
I'm glad MCR has its priorities in good order...
I mean, its not that finance is tight right now is it?... or that huge cuts & job losses have just been announced in the public sector...
.. at least those who DONT loose their jobs at the town hall will have somewhere nice to read during their lunch hour!

What did that Mayor of Christchurch NZ say earlier this week? - Oh yeah:
"people are more important than buildings"... lets get *him* over here... can we?!

AnonymousMarch 20th 2011.

So basically Ian Simpson is going to gut the entire space out of this GRADE II ( so who on earth has approved these plans?? English Heritage are probably fuming!) and decimate the beautiful neo georgian building internally and do what he always does and fill it with glass and metal and turn it into yet another monstrosity picking up a nice fat cheque in the process!! Why do the council insist on using this man??? Surely there are more talented and sympathetic architects in the city? I bet you most people if asked dont want this refurbishment anyway they'd rather keep essential services like local leisure facilities, libraries and surestart centres open....not spend 160m+ on this? We are not worthy of a decent public consultation and our views are often ignored anyway...as long as the council receives accolades and awards they don't seem concerned with what WE actually want. BTW has anyone got a breakdown of how much this is costing us as taxpayers?

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