Saturday, 14 June 2008

Ten Years After

An edited extract from a paper delivered at the City and Culture Conference in Sockholm 1998


'Post-IRA bomb, Manchester city centre is being rapidly redeveloped. As the new skeletal concrete forms grow from the rubble we should draw breath for a moment, remember the city's aspirations and analyse where current developments are leading.

In its recent design guide the City Council promoted a vision of its stewardship of the urban environment. In particular, this document focused on sustainability expressed through a diet of familiar physical criteria which were deemed to have somehow lapsed from designers' collective consciousness. A strategy was proposed which simultaneously adopted traditional patterns of urban design and projected an innovative vision of Manchester's place in the world. Of course, Manchester has long had an international reputation for commercial pragmatism regardless of the social and urban consequences.

19th century visitors from continental Europe were shocked. De Tocqueville and Engels remarked on the disastrous social fallout of the early industrial urban experience. Despite this, the radical industrialised space of the Manchester mill was exported to Berlin by the Prussian court architect Schinkel and transformed into the beginnings of a new urban vernacular of brick, cast iron and terracotta. A century and a half later these processes are reversed and Manchester has to import ideas in an effort to survive as the commercial centre in the region let alone improve its position in the global economy.

This general situation of decline was a disease for which bomb damage was decisive in accelerating radical surgery. Whereas the planned response to decay had been to simulate traditional forms of urban growth in a condensed time scale, even more dramatic possibilities could now be considered. Allied to the commercial threat of out of town retail development, the IRA bomb of 1996 provided the opportunity for the city to reconsider itself in North American terms. The juxtaposition of these proposals with the industrial context, the 19th century architecture and organic urban townscape only adds to the pathos of the simulated city being created.

Many citizens hoped that the much reviled Arndale Centre would need to come down as a result of the bomb. Its then owners, the commercial property company P&O, were reluctant to see any further loss of income and remained determined to maintain the size of their lucrative shopping centre. Marks and Spencers, whose store had taken much of the impact, immediately bought the adjacent plot so that the development of a larger M&S store became the linchpin of any new master plan. Thus commercial interest became the sole determining factor in the redevelopment, a situation that finds few parallels in the tradition of European urban design.

It is surely no coincidence that the design teams responsible for the master plan and some of its urban landscape strategies should be North American. After a hurried design competition involving local architects, the distant perspective from which the design was developed has produced a scheme in which existing buildings are treated as isolated monuments, their particular geometries (themselves the product of incremental growth within an organic street pattern) being now the basis for vague urban relationships masking the main, economic imperative.

What originally offered the chance to demolish the alien-ness of the Arndale Centre now appears to be extending that alien urban form and reducing indigenous urban elements such as the Corn Exchange and St Ann's church to picturesque decoration. Amongst the most bizarre elements of this master plan, however, is the attitude it takes to two surviving fragments of the historic city. In the 1960s two pubs, the Wellington Inn and Sinclair's Oyster Bar, were preserved into the centre of the new commercial development of Shambles Square so that they could contribute an element of townscape to this stark new project.

However, these late medieval fragments had to be jacked up four feet to make way for a basement to service the new megastructure. Suffering only minor bomb damage due to their flexible structures, these two pubs have now been dismantled and removed one hundred metres northwards to a vacant site adjacent to the cathedral. This simulation of a medieval quarter thereby conveniently enhances the potential of the redesigned retail quarter.

This schizophrenic split between aspirations and actuality is epitomised by the design of the major new public space, Exchange Square. Initial designs failed to produce appropriate results but in a second attempt the Californian landscape architect Martha Schwartz was selected. Her design surely signals the final abandonment of any pretence of sustainability: spaces are to be ornamented with the simulation of a riverbed on a site less than 300 metres from the far from romantic River Irwell. Furthermore, Manchester's notoriously damp climate was to be complemented by the provision of shade-giving palm trees, long-term sustainability and maintenance apparently not considered, let alone the significance of this faux Mediterranean plaza for a sceptical and long-suffering population.

In the city centre, a policy which with varied degrees of success had sought to preserve the character of the 19th century city was turned overnight, as a result of the bomb, into a policy of "boom". Aesthetic concern for the city, in the attempt to defend the integrity of historic buildings, has been deemed reactionary. A premium is placed on the novelty of the intervention, in illogical contrast to the sensitive preservation of industrial structures and environments less than a quarter of a mile away. Projects underway threaten to eviscerate the urban structure of the 19th century city and replace it with high-rise buildings in an ill-defined groundscape.

The most dangerous of these are the various projects for the Free Trade Hall. A building that symbolises the 19th century political campaigns for the extension of democracy and free trade, and is one of the finest surviving pieces of architecture from that period, recently only just avoided becoming the pedestal for a 24 storey luxury hotel. Had it succeeded none of the city's architectural heritage would have been safe.'

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