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A walk round Manchester’s urban realm

By Phil Griffin
With the Landscape Institute’s annual conference due to take place in Manchester on 22–23 June (see more details on pages 64 and 65), it is timely to look at developments in the city’s public spaces.
On the last Sunday of July 2016, a group of six visitors from Australia met at John Ryland’s Library on Deansgate in Manchester, with sketchbooks, pencils and inks to hand. They were early arrivals for the 7th International Urban Sketchers’ Symposium that convened in the city the following Wednesday. One of the sketchers, a 75-year-old man from Melbourne, had never left his country before. From the high Victorian neo-Gothic library they turned right into the 21st century glass canyons of the commercial retail and leisure district that owner Allied London had named Spinningfields. Minutes later they were marched back out by a security guard who told them that they couldn’t sketch in this area rattling with chain restaurants and themed bars, without written permission. The sketchers – there were 500 of them by the middle of the week – had arrived from all over the world – from Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Cape Town and Cape Cod – crowding the pavements with stools and boards, lingering with watercolours outside tiled Victorian pubs. They sketched the heck out of Manchester. Only once were they told that they needed permission. Planning, designing and maintaining public spaces in cities are responsible tasks for trained professionals. Keeping a grip on the public space is a challenge to us all.

Manchester city centre was a mess in 2016, though the sketchers didn’t seem to mind. The latest extension to the tram system, called the 2nd City Crossing, churned up streets around the Town Hall. It opened at the end of February this year. The biggest impact has been on St Peter’s Square, a 20,000m2 levelled space incorporating two twin-platform tram stops. 

Latz + Partner won the design competition in 2012. Sonja Hlawna led the project, which involved reordering and/ or removing a number of familiar and fiercely supported elements, not least the city’s Grade II* Cenotaph, the elegiac suite of Portland Stone structures designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1924. Re-siting the Cenotaph required removing the Peace Garden and its two associated sculptures, Messenger of Peace (Barbara Pearson 1986) and Struggle for Peace and Freedom (Philip Jackson 1988). Into the mix went a part-time crèche, built largely for the benefit of Town Hall staff. Sonja fought drawn-out campaigns over Peace and the kindergarten.

Meanwhile, two new commercial buildings, by architects Glen Howells and SimpsonHaugh, now form the southern edge of the square, whilst the refurbished Central Library and Town Hall Extension contain it to the north. Tram-lines bifurcate either side of the relocated St Peter’s Cross, elevated on a taller plinth and given greater prominence and visibility than before. Road traffic has been removed from the square, and purple flowering Paulownias are about to hit their third surprising spring. Doubtless Latz + Partner and Arup, the engineers, needed all the client support they could get, but fair play to MCC for commissioning on such an optimistic scale whilst dragging along the bottom of a muddy recession. The volume of Mancunian moans and gripes, which could even have filled a space as big as this, is drowned by a tide of civic appreciation. We like our tram, have adjusted to the baffling new road layouts, and soon forgot the turmoil. 

Four Metro stops east of St Peter’s Square, on the line to Ashton, is New Islington. The 12-hectare Millennium Village Initiative allegedly had a £250m budget. English Partnerships, along with MCC through its New East Manchester initiative, which involved the 2002 Commonwealth Games, amassed the pot. The lead developer was Urban Splash, to a masterplan by Will Alsop. Grant Associates was the public-realm consultant. Funding for this scheme, to replace a failed 1970s council estate with new-cut canal arms, a marina and sustainable water park and 1500 dwellings, was secured in 2002. The financial crash of 2008 scuppered the whole ambitious flotilla.

Grant Associates laid out Old Mill Street and Cotton Field, the marina and Water Park. The design standards, materials and vision of these elements were at levels not seen in the city since the Victorians. Tall, swooping CorTen steel streetlights form a guard of honour above the carriageways on Old Mill Street. Aquatic plants from the local canal system are the motifs of cast bronze roundels that form the planters for trees. In Cotton Field Park and New Islington Marina is a winding three metre wide boardwalk, with rising islands like stone fortresses, tall Scots pines, a beach and an island orchard. Little is maintained; much is trashed. Two of the expensively created canal arms are landfilled now, to make ground for more mundane but necessary housing. The current developer is Manchester Life, joint venture between MCC and Abu Dhabi United Group, owners of Manchester City FC, whose stadium is a short stroll along the Ashton Canal. I’m not a party to what Andrew Grant thinks of this outcome.

Cross the Rochdale canal by the newish perforated plate-steel footbridge (competition winning entry by Gollifer Langston Architects, with Michael Hadi Associates as engineer) onto Redhill Street and Ancoats Urban Village. Development here largely (though not entirely) missed out on the pre-’08 boom, but is now looking like one of the winners. Ancoats is ground zero in Cottonopolis, and its wasted mills and gridded streets finally win the attention and investment they deserve. Public realm has a way to go yet, but signs are good around Hallé St Peter’s, the brick and stone Italianate church, complete with handsome campanile, now home to Hallé choirs and rehearsal rooms.

Next to St Peter’s is Cutting Room Square. Its design is a simple dropped space, overlooked by five vertical light boxes framed in patinated copper, displaying enlarged details of photographs of the Royal Mill cutting rooms in the dilapidated state they were found in the late 1980s. The photographs and the installation are by artist Dan Dubowitz who, as Ancoats’ artist in residence, created a number of interventions called Ancoats Peeps in 2010.

Cutting Room Square lacks attention just now, but there is plenty of development scheduled adjacent to it, including an extension to Halle St Peter’s, new housing, and an extension to the square itself. All of which bears good testimony to the treatment and quality of the space and the undeniable achievement of collaboration between designers and artist, under the management of Ancoats Urban Village, the public-private agency established by MCC.

From Cutting Room Square you might walk on to Great Ancoats Street and head north towards NOMA. This is the name given to the former Co-op estate that clusters around the footings of the 1960s CIS tower and the new HQ building, No 1 Angel Square. It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Co‑op in recent times but, as well as the new headquarters building (3DReid architects) and a public-realm master plan by Mecanoo, NOMA boasts Sadler’s Yard (Planit-IE 2015). If you like hidden-away, secluded bits of cities, this is for you. Not many people find Sadler’s Yard, which is named in a historical reference to James Sadler who made balloon ascents from around here in the early 1800s. Balloon Street is close by.

Essentially, the rectangular space fills in Redfern Street, which previously circled a couple of the Co-op buildings, behind the original Co-op Bank, and the 1960s complex of New Century Hall and Tower. The square has a referential materials palette, raised levels to focus on performances and bespoke lighting towers. At one end, the Yard terminates in quite a tall stair. There’s a timber-clad single-storey pub called Pilcrow, hand built by volunteer craftsmen and trainees. It is a shame that it doesn’t more resemble the neighbouring Miesian pavilion of New Century House, looking instead rather like an extruded garden shed. Altogether, this is a welcome addition for hundreds of Co-op office workers, but no single aspect is as pleasing as the generations of fine Co-op buildings that surround it.

Should you have found it, Sadler’s Yard is just a few steps up Corporation Street from Cathedral Gardens, one of three public spaces created in the Simpson Architects – EDAW (now SimpsonHaugh – AECOM) masterplan, following the 1996 IRA bomb. Simpson placed his Urbis building (now the National Museum of Football) at the street edge of a large Blitz gap-site. This opened up the space behind for Cathedral Gardens (BDP Landscape 2002). The undulating green swathe and unreliable cascading water-margin has been popular ever since, largely with teenage Goths, Emos and Moshers. Quite why this should be is difficult to explain, but Simpson always claims his masterplan was intended to help link the north and south of the city. It certainly does that for a large but specialist sector of youth.

In June 2016, the Urbis building hosted a seminar commemorating the 1996 bomb. Ian Simpson was one of the speakers, alongside Jason Prior and James Chapman from the EDAW team and the Task Force, and New York landscape architect Martha Schwartz. Clearly, Prior gained much from his experience of working with Howard Bernstein (now Sir Howard Bernstein, and shortly to retire from his role as CEO of Manchester City Council) and the task force set up to repair the city after the bomb. He has since exported his skills to other parts of the world. The EDAW-led scheme for the renewal of Piccadilly Gardens featured in an exhibition of public spaces in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was a pity, on the day, that Prior seemed oblivious to the public acrimony the scheme has engendered – for its failed water feature, repeated re-seeding, poor performance – across a period when it has, in a number of respects, become the rather higher maintenance space that its success has engendered. In particular, one significant element of the scheme, a curving exposed shuttered concrete wall designed by celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and brokered by James Chapman, is to be demolished, ahead of wholesale refurbishment.

Martha Schwartz, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the performance of her competition-winning design for Exchange Square, a road-fill scheme to redirect traffic from the area of the Corn Exchange and New Cathedral Street. She thinks it is so abused as to be unrecognisable as the scheme originally commissioned. She could barely bear to look at it on the day of the seminar. She had harsh things to say about MCC as her client. Her experience was painful, and reflects some of the issues that landscape architects face now. Their schemes are often adapted without reference, hopelessly underfunded in maintenance and completely redirected by subsequent ownership, private and public. You might, at this stage in your tour, want to divert to another city entirely. Salford is a hundred metres away, just over the new River Irwell footbridge. Walk, drive or cycle west along Chapel Street and see remarkable change. Manchester’s poor neighbour is, at last, cashing in on lower land values north of the Irwell, and the residential sector is booming. Chapel Street itself is being carefully and thoughtfully treated, and the blackened gaps of street-line decay are gradually being filled. Up and round the handsome Crescent, as far as the University, the street is being flossed. University residential halls are woven into Peel Park, the space between the museum and the River Irwell that, when it opened in 1846, kicked off the whole public park thing.

Back to Exchange Square and hop on the tram to MediaCity UK. Here you might find, if you look hard enough, another celebrated garden. Tucked away by the tram stop is the Blue Peter Garden, complete with Petra’s memorial. This was transplanted here, along with two thousand BBC employees, in 2011. The huge and valuable development is by Peel Holdings. The organisation is not keen on photographers with tripods, and without permission, but no sketchers have been evicted so far. The tram stop fits into the wide piazza well. The landscape is nothing great, but the circular walk from here, across the two rather fine footbridges, via Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry arts complex, is exhilarating on a fine day. The skies here are as big as they get, so close to the Manchester metropolis. The city recently voted for a new mayor for the newly constituted Greater Manchester authority. The officers and members in Manchester Town Hall in Albert Square might not be comfortable with it, but as Sir Howard packs to enjoy his retirement after twenty remarkable years as the city’s CEO, Manchester is changing shape. For the second time in a century, it is heading west, along the Ship Canal. Its banks will not be lined with industry this time, but with huge residential development and, hopefully, public realm to the very highest standard, free to access by passing sketchers.

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