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One Of MCR's Great Rooms: Rates Hall Revealed

Jonathan Schofield likes it in marble

Written by . Published on August 29th 2013.

One Of MCR's Great Rooms: Rates Hall Revealed

IT's right to spend public money to create an effect. It's right to make citizens proud. Council budgets can't just be for front line services, there has to be confidence to exercise flair, to show off.

If you are designing a space to reflect civic authority, dignity and duty then you can't get better than this. A room full of symbolism, a representation of the bigger idea, of shared identity for rich and poor.

That's what Manchester thought in the 1920s and 30s when completing the Town Hall Extension and the Central Library.

Emmanuel Vincent Harris, the architect of both, was given enough funds to not only complete the buildings but also to create assertive, exciting, civic spaces.

The project to build the Town Hall Extension (completed in 1938) and Central Library (completed in 1934) was tagged 'the really big thing' in UK architectural circles and the results were called 'a good deed in a depressing world'. 

The Rates Hall in the Town Hall Extension now opened to the public shows how Harris delivered for Manchester a stunningly beautiful room. Having been wonderfully restored by Ian Simpson Architects, it is again one of the five best rooms in the city and amongst the best in the country.

The curve of the space as it enfolds Central Library, the use of polychromatic marbles, the lofty doors, the exceptional light fittings, the splendid coats of arms, the light casting shadows from tall windows, the repeated pattern of arches on each side impresses the viewer with its power but also its feeling of 'rightness'.

If you are designing a space to reflect civic authority, dignity and duty then you can't get better than this. A room full of symbolism, a representation of the bigger idea, of shared identity for rich and poor, a common purpose. This message is reinforced by the coats of arms which, interestingly, include both Manchester's and Lancashire's. City identity and regional identity.

Of course those notions of duty were twisted in the eighties when - let's be frank about this - idiots with no sense of why cities need spaces such as these, chopped up the Rates Hall, hid its grandeur behind partitions and poorly designed posters and denied the city this beautiful space. 

In my early twenties I took a spin round Waterhouse's great Town Hall next door and found that someone had thought it a good idea to suspend a glitter ball in the middle of the Banqueting Hall. 

The city council is - usually - cleverer now and they are to be congratulated with Ian Simpson Architects for opening up the Rates Hall and using it as a meet and greet area for Council customer services.

But there is a cloud on the horizon in the form of the glass link proposed between the Town Hall Extension and Central Library which would impose a doorway through one of the windows in that sweet, sweet curve of the building. 

Maybe the unimprovable beauty of this space will act as a deterrent to the idea.

Having rediscovered the Rates Hall for Manchester why would anybody want to mess with it. 

There will be a full review of the architectural merit of the Town Hall Extension when it is fully open. You can visit the Rates Hall every weekday during business hours. The entrance is from Mount Street.

Manchester Coat of ArmsManchester Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms detailCoat of Arms detail

Approaching the lovelinessApproaching the loveliness

Img_2989Marble at this

The Rates Hall from the eastThe Rates Hall from the east

Civic grace from the westCivic grace from the west

The Lancashire coat of arms is equally prominent

The Lancashire coat of arms is equally prominent


Grand doorsGrand doors

Light fitting another viewLight fitting another view

Central Library through the arched windowCentral Library through the arched window

A stylised City coat of armsA stylised Manchester coat of arms on the Mount Street entrance

Eagles on the windowsEagles on the windows. The only slightly sinister note in this glorious room are these eagles on the outside of windows which are very much of their time and somehow recall the Fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. 

Sweet spaceSweet space

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

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

ChorltongalAugust 29th 2013.

Been here when Cityco did a Library Tour. I was totally blown away. It's magnificent and the images cannot possibly do it justice. I really hope they start hiring it out for weddings. What a bridal procession that room would allow!

AnonymousAugust 29th 2013.

We can have a very nice view of what is going on at the Library Walk, for those who may be interested in. Also, if you go down the corridor down, you can reach the "temporarily library", a small collection of books and internet. Here again, very nice view of the Customer Service rooms and outside (St Peter Square) under-construction area. It is worth visiting, really.

angelsAugust 29th 2013.

Thanks for unlocking a hidden gem

MagurdracAugust 29th 2013.

...and the cost?

1 Response: Reply To This...
Ghostly TomSeptember 5th 2013.

Probably a lot and worth every penny...

Peter CastreeAugust 29th 2013.

Yep! That's what it was always like before it was abused by those with no taste. Nice to see the Rates Hall back to its magnificent self after so many years in the doldrums. It's just a pity the effect will be spoiled by the totally unnecessary glass link.

Poster BoyAugust 30th 2013.

"Having rediscovered the Rates Hall for Manchester why would anybody want to mess with it" a.k.a. institutional vandalism...

AnonymousAugust 30th 2013.

Jonathan what is coat of arms nearest the St Peters Sq entrance? its not Manchester - is it Lancashire?

1 Response: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldAugust 31st 2013.

It is Lancashire's. I've added a sentence in the article above and also a picture. Thanks for nudging my elbow about this.

ShuttySeptember 1st 2013.

Slight aside note, but as the library next door will soon be one, I would welcome a 'compare and contrast' article, with the refurbished Central Libraries in Manchester: old splendour reinvigoured- and Birmingham's impressive contemporary new library. Not as a city bashing exercise as I think both city's have impressive additions.

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