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.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


The draft proposal is woefully inadequate in that i) it devotes too much of its text to listing matters which have already come about or are well developed and little to a strategic vision for the city centre as a totality ii) it seems overly concerned with facilitating and promoting large scale developer-led projects which citizens are expected to welcome without hesitation and iii) it makes no mention of any resilience planning which, following recent flooding incidents on the Irwell is nothing short of property speculation induced folly.

The city needs a comprehensive and genuinely visionary plan which deals with the disjunctions between the various districts the draft report discusses largely in isolation from each other. It also needs a strategy which connects the city centre with its suburbs, physically, socially and economically. Developing a city requires a more sustainable basis than the inducing of a commercial property boom based on often fragile investment funds. The dismal quality of the public realm projects the draft strategy praises suggests no awareness of the many global initiatives to create successful urban places, falling back on security as a precondition of access to the public realm, an issue clearly connected to the increase in licensed premises which the strategy also reports uncritically, making no mention of any consequent anti-social issues.

Despite Manchester's continuing ability to generate good publicity, if this strategy is adopted unaltered, the underwhelming experience of new built environment projects will continue to puzzle and disappoint visitors and, more importantly, citizens, reducing aspirations and increasing alienation from the sort of civic values which should be fostered by our elected officials.

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