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.
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.
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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