Monday, 26 September 2016

Comments for the Public Consultation on the proposed St. Michael's development Manchester

I write with comments on the proposed St. Michael's development further to those made at the consultation event in the Manchester Reform Synagogue on 13 September 2016.

1. Overdevelopment
The presentation indicated a series of lower alternative arrangements had been considered, although the preferred solution was by far the tallest and therefore would have the greatest negative impact on the surrounding cityscape, the form and scale of which maintains a high degree of physical integrity as a pre-eminent example of a Victorian city. Too much accommodation is proposed to be squeezed on to the site in an arbitrary fashion which will harm neighbouring buildings and the working life of their occupants.

2. Privatised Public Space
Much is made in the presentation of the new 'public' spaces. Their inclusion is a cause of the exaggerated height of the towers, and neither will they be 'public' in a traditional sense. The Lower Square will destroy the current street line of Southmill Street to create a forecourt into the complex which, as the drawings indicate, will then be littered with a series of screens and cabins to modify the inevitably miserable environment of a space 'designed' to sit on the north side of a 21 storey black tower. It was suggested at the consultation that it will be privately managed. The Upper Square is essentially a drinking and dining terrace raised above the level of Bootle Street but separated by an ill-defined service zone. The strained connection between the two spaces via staircases is an indication of the inappropriateness of the initial 'towers + plazas' planning moves on this site.

3. Street Fontages
Bootle Street and Jackson's Row are quintessential back streets, but streets none the less, with a mixture of historic frontages and back entrances. The height of the proposed towers at 31 and 21 storeys will seriously harm these streets as they will require service zones accessible from the street for the offices, hotel, apartments and restaurants proposed, creating hostile canyons which will kill activities at ground level that help deter antisocial behaviour. Southmill Street is a major connecting street between Albert Square and Manchester Central with the dignified stone front of the former Police Station forming part of a sequence of 'palazzo' type facades angled to create an interesting townscape effect which leads the pedestrian on in either direction. There is a particular violence to the vandalism with which this broader urban sequence is destroyed by a sheer, windowless, black wall and what appears to be a flimsy glazed screen masking the 'space left over after planning' of the Lower Square.

4. Synagogue
The quietly dignified presence of the current Synagogue on Jackson's Row is ill served by the proposal to locate the new Synagogue in the service zone of the new towers, its entrance from Jackson's Row adjacent to the service entrance for the hotel tower and the principal space for worship concealed somewhere beneath the drinking and dining terrace of the Upper Square. Remodelling the Southmill Street frontage of the Police station could provide a new home for the Synagogue, preserving its townscape value and freeing up areas in the middle of the site for commercial development.

5. Sir Ralph Abercromby
Historic pubs in British cities are often of middling architectural value, but they provide a good resource of social memory in a city such as Manchester and the present building should not be demolished, but incorporated into the new project for townscape reasons alone, forming as it does with The Nag's Head and The Rising Sun part of the fine grain of the Victorian city. Its historical association with Peterloo makes it a significant surviving landmark in Manchester's political past and therefore of great heritage value.

6. Permeability
In early PR presentations of this project much was made of the site as being the 'missing link' between Albert Square and Spinningfields and therefore one expected connectivity for the general public to be improved by the development. On close examination of the proposal it is clear that the existing connecting streets, Bootle Street and Jackson's Row, will become more hostile to pedestrians because of the servicing needs of the over tall buildings, and that the diagonal route is effectively a commercialised dead end which fails to open the site up to anyone who is not a diner or drinker in the restaurants and bars, potential public amenity therefore being sacrificed to profit.

7. Overshadowing
As mentioned earlier the Lower Square will be overshadowed by the 21 storey tower on its south side while the gap between the towers, aligned conveniently to receive the prevailing wind, will also have negative environmental consequences. Neighbouring buildings on the other side of Jackson's Row and further north will lose direct sunlight and therefore be harmed by the gratuitous height of the towers.

8. Colour
The public consultation illustrated alternative colour choices, but with an assured touch the design team chose the worst. The black colour currently proposed might have related contextually to an industrial city covered in soot but that is an image now decades out of date. This colour choice emphasises the imposing bulk of the buildings and, from my experience of working in a similarly black clad tower, will reduce light levels in the closeby neighbouring buildings by robbing them of reflected light as well direct sunlight. This colour choice cannot be justified on any sensible grounds.

9. Wider negative impact
The site sits at the heart of the civic realm, with some of its most important buildings the Friends Meeting House, Free Trade Hall, the ensemble of Albert Square, Manchester Town Hall and its Extension, and the Central Library all aesthetically compromised by this proposal. The two fingered salute these towers present will be visible from further afield and will harm the skyline of the city in distant views as well as in the close street views the design team appear to be too embarrassed to present.

10. Conclusion
In summary the current proposal is a poorly thought through one which should be totally reconsidered prior to any planning application being submitted. Advice from bodies such as Historic England, The Victorian Society and Save Britain's Heritage should be addressed in addition to the petitions and many comments which oppose the present scheme. This important site, the buildings that are on it and those that surround it deserve much better treatment.

Eamonn Canniffe
Manchester School of Architecture

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Own Goal: the negative impact of the proposed St. Michael's development in Manchester

The proposal, called St. Michael's, revealed in July 2016 for the redevelopment of a large block, mainly occupied by the redundant Bootle Street Police Station and the Manchester Reform Synagogue will have a serious negative impact on a number of historic properties in the vicinity of Albert Square, Deansgate and Peter Street in Manchester. What is at present a largely continuous perimeter block bounded by Jackson's Row, Southmill Street and Bootle Street in an elongated rectangle is set to have its form inverted by the introduction of a diagonal route between two black clad towers of 31 and 21 storeys respectively placed in a staggered arrangement on the site. The groundscape is advertised as new public space for the city, although it is effectively a partially covered commercial mall which negotiates a significant change of level, called in the enthusiastic local press 'Manchester's Spanish Steps'. The enthusiasm is at least in part due to the leaders of the project being former Manchester United footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, this being one of a series of development projects which have brought the influence of the city's football wealth to bear on its urban form. In the long term this project poses a threat to the heritage amenity of the civic core, both because of the size of the two towers, but also the erosion of the street network's primary importance in this area of the city.

In the current proposal, revealed ahead of a planning application in September, the north eastern corner of the block at the junction of Jackson's Row and Southmill Street is left open to create a commercially active plaza intended to connect to Albert Square and Manchester Town Hall. However this new plaza is itself bounded on its southern edge by the shorter of the two over scaled towers, and therefore might be expected to be in shadow for much of the day and most of the year. A low pavilion attempts to provide some remnant of definition to the northern side of the plaza but appears to be only needed to mask the port cochere entrance to the larger tower. Given the need for drop off there and the inevitable delays, the street, Jackson's Row, which currently has a small amount of open space associated with the Synagogue, is likely to be reduced to a service zone, dominated and overshadowed as it will be by the lower storeys of the taller tower. The diagonal route, semi enclosed at its lower end before it connects to the plaza, is clearly intended to create a slice of mid-block townscape but will be essentially retail in character at the cost of severely compromising the life of the existing streets and their buildings, especially the historic Sir Ralph Abercromby pub which dates back to the industrial era and is currently proposed for demolition.

Similar urban strategies have been followed before on sites close by in Manchester in projects which are now deemed to be unsuccessful, such as the creation of the open corner plaza at the junction of Deansgate and Peter Street as part of the Great Northern development in the 1990s. Yet no lessons have been learned regarding the general reluctance of the public to animate these alien interventions of largely hard landscape. Instead Mancunians cling to the street network with which they are familiar. As the size of buildings increases due to commercial pressure the morphological integrity and therefore the coherence and comprehensibility of the city's pattern will continue to come into question. Ill-considered proposals such as St.Michael's are essentially anti-urban malls, which ignore the potential to animate the existing street network through creating active frontages to the public realm, and instead kill street activity through vacuous design gestures such as the blank black corner of the smaller tower which crash lands on the corner of Bootle and Southmill Streets. The Free Trade Hall, the Friends Meeting House and especially the civic plaza of Albert Square and Manchester Town Hall will all be compromised unless this proposal is vigorously opposed in the coming months.

Friday, 5 August 2016


I was very pleased to find these comments in Anthony Raynsford's review of the book

'Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape'
edited by John Pendlebury, Erdem Erten and Peter J. Larkham (Routledge, 2014)

to which I contributed the final chapter on Neo-Realism

'Italian politics becomes the overt subject of Eamonn Canniffe's essay, ‘Neo-Realism’, which recapitulates portions of his book, The Politics of the Piazza (Ashgate, 2008). In this essay, Canniffe traces the ‘heroization of the working life and environment’ in representations of the Italian city, from the vernacular urban peripheries of Neo-Realist cinema to the starkly enigmatic typologies of Aldo Rossi's Neo-Rationalism, especially as these examples emerged from a leftist articulation of the city as framework for the unfolding of everyday life. [p. 241] Despite Canniffe's somewhat strained comparison between the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the architecture of Aldo Rossi, the essay delivers an effective analysis of the generally leftist politics behind these movements, providing a useful corrective to the often superficial accounts of Rossi as a post-modernist whilst also situating Italian post-war urbanism within Italy's unique political culture.'

Professor Raynsford teaches at San José State University and his full review appears in THE JOURNAL OF ARCHITECTURE Volume 21 Issue 1 2016 pp148-152

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Drawing as an exploration of urban space

The abstract of a paper which will be presented at the forthcoming conference THE ART OF ARCHITECTURE: HAND DRAWING AND DESIGN to be held at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture 29 September - 1 October 2016

Drawing as an exploration of urban space

This paper will reflect on the drawings produced in preparation for the book 'The Politics of the Piazza: the History and Meaning of the Italian Square' (Ashgate 2008).

The images created fall into three stages which correspond with three types of representation. Drawings of the space in situ, the experience of being in the piazza and the visual enclosure of surrounding buildings were recorded, often from different viewpoints, as an aide-memoire, as much as a document of a time and place. The second type, corresponding to the analytical stage take the form of axonometric projections, reducing the elements of the piazza to a simple form to capture the essential relationships of building and space, solid and void. The third stage was the production of watercolour renderings of the spaces, hybrid compositions which combine details and general drawings to capture the atmosphere of the spaces studied, with colour applied and occasional elements of capriccio.

The drawing methodology, as distinct from the textual and archival methods employed in parallel, allowed a loosely systematic research to be pursued which, while alert to the typical conditions, could encompass the variety of planned and organic spaces which were included in the study. The employment of different methods of visual and spatial analysis, sketching, diagramming and composition allowed the text to be supported with qualitative design material which emphasised the uniqueness of the tradition of Italian urban space, and the consistency of it as a representative expression of societal values.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Imago urbis: Rome’s recurring dream

A presentation made at the GENIUS LOCI: PLACES AND MEANINGS conference held at the University of Porto 20-22 April 2016


The genius loci of a city is a complex phenomenon to describe but within the context of Rome it offers the opportunity to read contemporary life through the lens of the past, and the metaphors it gathers.


The attempt to capture the eternal should not be confused with historicism. The intrusion of modernity, paradoxically represented in Rome by the presence of the Altare della Patria represents a rupture in that continuity in whatever forms it is dressed. As a result, the aspiration to regain the condition of an urban paradise can only be provisional since we have knowledge of its limits, its subjectivity and its likely ruin.


The archaeology of place amplifies meaning. The concept of reburying sites that have been excavated evokes the autonomy of the subterranean city, existing for its own purpose, in its own time and anticipating its discovery. The landscape of the ground diminishes the significance of the present in relation to the past and the future of the city.


The eclecticism of the city’s architectural languages between the ancient and the modern, represents the diversity of its lives. As order and disorder, formal and informal it embodies a balance between the social and the aesthetic which is only resolved in its complementarity. This variety need not be masked as it represents the very essence of urbanity and contrasts clearly with its opposition to nature.


The natural condition threatens to overwhelm architectural and urban order at every turn, offering the prospect of decay as the destiny of the man-made environment. Resisting this process is the fundamental situation that brings architecture into being, its necessary precursor and conclusion, humanity’s organic desire to make sense of the world through place.

The coexistences of these meanings, their erasures and their interpretations in the multiple matrices of Rome present a model through which the familiar but imprecise term genius loci might be illuminated and extended.

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