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The Beauty Of Absence: Exchange Square Comes Clean

Jonathan Schofield on wide open spaces and the lost and brilliant Hulme Guide to Development

Published on May 3rd 2012.

The Beauty Of Absence: Exchange Square Comes Clean

IT CAME in 2004, it was good, it went, it came back, it was still good, it stayed for years, it was less good.

That's the joy of Manchester's streetscene, its informality, its cheek-by-jowl jockeying of different building styles, its delightful chaos. But we need a break from time to time.

The Wheel of Manchester, the Big Wheel, aka The MEN Wheel, has rolled away.

Maybe it's gone to Chadderton with the journalists. 

Despite the loss to tourism walking into Exchange Square is suddenly a relief, a lightening of the load. We get a lovely broad paved space through which to move.

This is unusual in Manchester.

We are the city centre of the tight perspective, the closed view.

We are a city built by commerce that had little in the way of planning, where a medieval street pattern weaves into random Georgian and Victorian grids that in turn collide hap-hazardly with each other. 

Yet that's the essential joy of Manchester's streetscene, its informality, its cheek-by-jowl jockeying of different building styles, its delightful chaos.

But we need a break from time to time. Manchester's squares should give us chance to catch our breath. At present Exchange Square does this perfectly. 


The Beauty Of Absense 047

Wheeled away

It's strange that as a city we always feel tempted to clutter our open spaces. 

St Ann's Square is good but has that sad, dribbling cotton flower fountain and the intrusion of a electricity substation, Stevenson Square is split into two with confusing road-lanes and another electricity substation.

The revamped St Peter's Square will be filled with tramlines through infrastructure expendiency - a shame but seemingly inevitable.

But the A1 worst clutter culprit is the magnificently scaled Piccadilly Gardens with that useless 'pavilion' holding Caffe Nero, and the equally useless permanent planters on the opposite side. The fountain is a fine idea but compromised by its disruptive perimeter 'ditch' which is a barrier to movement - and could have been designed, as in numerous Continental cities, flush with the ground.

The raised lawns clog Piccadilly even more, you have step up, step down, move around, as you cross the area.

The result is that Piccadilly Gardens has been made into an obstacle course when it's the only main provincial British square capable of real scale. 

The city's forgetting its recent past with this.

Chapters In The Guide
Back in the nineties Hulme was re-developed and one of the great unsung heroes of British post-war planning was written by a team of professionals, residents and amateurs led by architect George Mills, called Rebuilding the City, Guide to Development, Hulme, Manchester.

You can read this excellent document here.

The guide deals with a suburban situation but many of its principles could be applied to city centres. One of its sub-headings is 'Definition of Space'.

With sixties' redevelopments where a street ended and where a street began - the building line - often became blurred.

In a nod to the earlier Garden City movement, sixties' redevelopments were chocker with odd grass verges to roads and odd patches of planting, none of which were actually parks, or gardens. Once maintenance budgets fell these became dumping grounds, dog-walking areas and crime magnets. 

The grassed areas of Piccadilly Gardens are a hang over from those days and ignore the common sense in the the Hulme Guide to Development, especially with the 'definition of space'.

Applying the Hulme principles it would be better if squares were real squares. Albert Square, Stevenson Square, Piccadilly Square (drop the pretense of Gardens), St Ann's Square, St Peter's Square would work better if they were hard-surfaced.

Occasional markets would then be easier to introduce across all the squares rather than just Albert and St Ann's Squares. Markets are good clutter, filling squares with life, colour and energy, bringing in cash, and just as importantly they are temporary.

Meanwhile proper city centre gardens - Sackville, Parsonage, St John's, Cathedral Gardens and much of the Castlefield area - could then maybe have their maintenance budgets enhanced so they are always managed to the highest European standards.

Suddenly the city centre would make more sense. 

Riverwalk 008St John's Gardens, off Deansgate, beautifully maintained at present, and a proper 'gardens'

Chris Bloomfield, manager of Aubaine restaurant on the second floor of Selfridges, said to Confidential this week: "Looking down on Exchange Square now is like looking into a London square."

I stood a moment at the window with him and you could see what he meant.

View from Aubaine to the new Cooperative Headquarters without the Wheel in the wayView from Aubaine to the new Cooperative Headquarters without the Wheel in the way

Hidden underneath the Wheel was a properly urban open space, with the CIS Tower rearing gloriously in the distance, the brand names on the Printworks adding dynamism, the Corn Exchange lending a bit of age and gravitas, and people moving freely, or sitting on the benches enjoying the welcome sunshine.

The Manchester Wheel was of enormous (literally at 190ft) benefit to city tourism and should be brought back in another location. (The ideal site would be at The Quays, where the circle of the Wheel would cut a fine profile against The Imperial War Museum North and The Lowry).

But the Wheel overwhelmed Exchange Square.

Soon temporary grandstanding will be imposed for big screen Olympics watchers but if it lives up to its billing this new intrusion will be exactly that, temporary

For the moment Exchange Square has come clean. It'd be good if Piccadilly 'Gardens' could do the same.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

As it was

As it was

Free to moveFree to move

Clear view outClear view out

Hulme Development Guide QuoteHulme Development Guide Quote

And breathe...And breathe...

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

SuzanneMay 3rd 2012.

Thank heavens it's gone. It was such an eyesore.

Daniel JamesMay 3rd 2012.

Its so much better without it, it was so tacky. You can actually now see the square, which is quite well landscaped and attractive. Please do not ever bring it back.

Chris BamfordMay 3rd 2012.

I've been saying for years that the wheel had no place in Exchange Square. It effectively stole an already cramped area of public realm. Sure, the surrounding architecture is hardly world class, but this crap pile of tubular steel with it's intimidating fortress-like street level presence was little more than an eyesore.

If there is a 'need' for an attraction like this there's plenty of space in Piccadilly Gardens - an area that is becoming ever more intimidating for all the wrong reasons.

Andrew ThompsonMay 3rd 2012.

Really glad it’s gone. I've lived in the city centre for five years and the wheel was wheely intrusive. We went on it with some family once to find out why it had been placed where it had. You got some fantastic views of Air conditioning units and general pipework on top of Selfridges and Number one Deansgate which was well worth the £8 each.

I really hope it doesn’t make another "temporary" appearance following the Olympics.

AnonymousMay 3rd 2012.

Really good article that raises many important issues such as the role planning, the importance of open spaces and the dynamic between public and private interests in shaping our city.

Just on the issue of the pavilion, it is actually a pretty intelligent building, providing enclosure and definition to the gardens at a human scale, shielding the gardens from the noise and pollution of the bus station, providing continuous accessible through-route and providing animation with the two cafes. And my personal opinion is that aesthetically it is interesting and attractive building.

In many ways it is a much better building than than the Arndale Centre extension which has privatised Canon Street, consolidates the fortress-like nature of the Arndale and presents a bland, anodyne face to this important public space. The only thing it got right was its scale.

It's the city, duffusMay 3rd 2012.

Trust me, Manchester's phobia of large open public spaces stems from none other than the Peterloo shocker. Big open spaces for crowds of protesters and horseback cavalry? A recipe for desaster...

A modern-day equivalent would be the 2006 World Cup screenings - also quite shocking scenes there:


But then came the riots last summer. They have proven that one no longer requires big open spaces to cause public disorder on a grand scale.

Ergo: We might as well bring back the squares, piazzas et al, for the common enjoyment of the low-level-testosteron clientele like myself.

AnonymousMay 3rd 2012.

Why were the urban design principles established in Hulme not followed through properly in Beswick or any of the other regeneration areas? They seem to have retained only the idea of using perimeter blocks and forgotten the role of buildings and spaces, of appropriate scale, mixed use, identity, heritage, connectivity and detailed design in urban place-making.

Alarmingly they seem to have even forgotten about these principles in Hulme with the MMU proposals for Birley Fields in danger of being watered down, returning Stretford Road back into a suburban dead space rather than the vibrant, mixed use high street that it should be. What better way to demonstrate MMU's committment to the local community by providing commercial units along Stretford Road at a subsidised rate for local businesses and social enterprises?

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMay 3rd 2012.

It should be remembered that Anuj Bidve was shot on a dark, deserted inner city street. MMU take note.

HulmePixMay 4th 2012.

Actually I like the raised grass areas in Piccadilly Gardens, mainly as it's one of the few areas not to get worn out by constant footfall of those making a short cut! Someone should really get their act together about those fountains though. Great when they were installed but sadly going to wrack and ruin now. Half of them spouty things don't work, the lighting is knackered and the watery jets on the other side of the bridge gave up the ghost and died many moons ago. We come up with great ideas and build great things here, but then we tend to neglect them afterwards, like some kids toy at Christmas.....

ktfairyMay 4th 2012.

Well done Anon for pointing out the benefits of the Piccadilly Gardens Pavillion, for though it has an inappropriate name, I agree it is indeed a wonderful thing. I also like the raised areas of grass and quite like the fact you can have a seat aorund 'the ditch' and look at the fountains. It is a shame they are going to rack and ruin though.
The main problem with Piccadilly Gardens is the people, but then again I love to sit there and watch the wierd and frightening pass by.
We need to stop the return of the North Pole bar - it wrecked the grass and presented very unfriendly faces to the people walking up from Victoria Station.
Loving my walk through Exchange Sq without the wheel.

Chris BurkeMay 14th 2012.

Yes it's good to have the space back in Exchange Square but Manchester-Salford needs a wheel! What about siting it somewhere in Greengate?

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMay 18th 2012.

No we don't 'need' a wheel. We need to concentrate on improving our permanent cultural and leisure infrastructure - our museums, galleries, music venues, parks, playgrounds, theatres, catering and hospitality... Not obsess over an ugly, space hogging, derivative piece of tat like that oversized ferris wheel.

AnonymousMay 18th 2012.

in Salford YES... They re impoverished for public 'monuments'

John StinsonMay 25th 2012.

I was walking around Piccadilly Square the other day. I noticed that wood on the benches was damaged or missing. The composite stonework was chipped and dirty. Yet you look at the granite that had been used on some of the Victorian statues in the square (or is the Queen Victoria Monument Edwardian?), most of which are over 100 years old, and the stonework on them has aged gracefully. Composite stonework isn't worth the money.

RevaulxJune 1st 2012.

The only trouble with getting rid of the wheel is that the idiotic "windmills" and the vile stainless steel birds nest on stilts outside the Corn Exchange are once again noticeable.

1 Response: Reply To This...
CobbydalerJune 1st 2012.

The bird's nests are going as part of the rebranding...

Peter CastreeJune 1st 2012.

I'm not surprised that the manager of Selfridges' restaurant was pleased by the newly-revealed prospect across Exchange Square. As part of the post-1996 plan, the city council spent hundreds of thousands of pounds employing a noted American architect to design just such a prospect - all to provide the foundations for a fairground ferris wheel ! This is typical of the foolish obsessions of those who should be doing all they can to enhance Manchester's public realm. World class cities don't spend enormous amounts of money on creating attractive spaces just to turn them into tawdry public entertainment areas and let them fall into ruin. The reason some of the spouts of the fountains in Piccadilly and Cathedral Gardens are not working is that people let their children jump up and down on them, causing damage. Stonework is chipped not because it is composite material but because it is abused by skateboarders and the like. World class cities keep an eye on the way these facilities are used so as to ensure they are respected and protected. What is needed is a permanent presence in these areas to encourage acceptable behaviour. Those of us old enough to remember when Piccadilly really did have gardens can vouch for the fact that the garden keepers were enough of a deterrent to ensure that all was kept in good order. When the restraining presence disappeared, in came the undesirable elements. This is the case with all Manchester's parks and open spaces. What were once the pride and joy of the city are now a neglected shambles. A world class city would make sure that resources are devoted to the upkeep of its public patrimony. No excuses - either we want to be world class or not. At the moment, we have an awfully long way to go in this respect. I would suggest the city fathers take a good look at any continental city and learn some basics. Less attention paid to 'party, party, party' and more focus on civic pride and self respect would go a long way towards improving the situation.

1 Response: Reply To This...
CJSJuly 11th 2012.

Well said Peter. Civic pride lacking and Town Hall best placed to try and instill some of this again by staffing and cleaning and maintenance regime. But design is also to blame. Piccadilly Square should have been designed to be 'bomb proof' given the footfall and to cope with the disrespectful. Lighting etc is difficult to maintain and once the rot starts and it looks uncared for the public stop caring and it attracts more crime and antisocial behaviour.

AnonymousAugust 15th 2012.

Peter should run for city centre councillor! at last, some common sense fuelled by a genuine care for the city he resides in, not some half arsed vanity exercises that aren't properly thought through like most projects here......parks/open spaces are certainly under threat , as these idiots keep on attracting more and more people into this crowded little city making it more and more unbearable. Quite frankly for the sake of "progress", its actually turning many away now..... its becoming dirty smelly and neglected, but the tides are turning and various campaign groups are starting to sprout and speak out loudly thank god!!! if it means all getting together and kicking the incumbents out then so be it! We have had enough wanton destruction poor design, anti social behaviour etc aimed at us by none other than uni blow ins who seem to talk the talk enough to get onto the council ladder but who are not able to walk the walk and deal with problems effectively.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousAugust 15th 2012.

A classic MEN-style ranter with racist undertones. Please go back.

JonSeptember 26th 2012.

Hooray the wheel has gone!

AnonymousSeptember 18th 2013.

I avoid Piccadilly for the same reasons as Jonathan basically all the concrete junk, fountains and kerbs. I would prefer a flat open space that can be used for events, markets, concerts and then easily kept clean and feel a lot safer at night. I like the benches and trees though. The bus station should be closed and use e.g. London Rd instead. I think it would change the feel of the place.

melodySeptember 25th 2013.

Piccadilly gardens then on to market st, i challenge anyone to name a more depressing place in the whole of England, there was a chance to make this a beautiful place whilst removing the awful people that frequent it but the opportunity has long since gone. Coming down from the station visitors must wonder if they have either gone back to the 80's or some foreign land... Ps please don't alert people to St. John's gardens it's the only pleasant place left to enjoy a spot of lunch !

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