Friday, 5 October 2012

Publoid Space in the Microcosmopolis: Two new business districts of Manchester and Salford

PUBLOID SPACE IN THE MICROCOSMOPOLIS Two new business districts of Manchester and Salford a paper delivered at the CITIES IN TRANSFORMATION: RESEARCH AND DESIGN Milan June 2012
In the present time the urban situation has experienced dramatic transformations. Over the last two decades as new development encroached on urban centres, once again the public realm features as an identifying characteristic of urban quality, a word which might be applied to the most unlikely open areas of hard landscape and ‘space left over after planning’, as if the name ‘piazza’ was itself a guarantee of sophistication and pleasure.

The morphological character of public space in the contemporary city is one where the individual identity of buildings dominates. The relationship between these buildings is often so attenuated as to make the space between them redundant, either as a functional entity or as a form of intangible matter binding urban forms together. It can therefore be initially observed that quantity of urban space is not an issue for concern, rather the quality of public space available. In contrast to the present situation, the ambiguities of space in traditional cities represented a positive civic value that was implicitly eclectic, because, however the spaces were developed or designed, they paid some deference to the rich tradition of the European public square. The erosion of any overt political aspect to contemporary public spaces is itself a political symptom of the passivity of populations in established democratic societies. In the contemporary British context this is a result both of the abandonment of political expression to the communications media, but also to the typically undemonstrative character of urban form. If, until quite recently, political representation was largely absent, it is in the changing life of urban spaces that the metaphor of the city as theatre has its most profound expression. This phenomenon has deep roots but not always positive effects.

For example, Aldo Rossi recognized the split between intentions and experiences in his discussion of locus and context in relation to the Roman Forum. In The Architecture of the City he wrote

Locus … is not unrelated to context; but context seems strangely bound up with illusion, with illusionism. As such it has nothing to do with the architecture of the city, but rather with the making of a scene, … saddening us like would-be tourists of a vanished world.

It is hardly surprising that this concept of context is espoused and applied by those who pretend to preserve the historical cities by retaining their ancient facades or reconstructing them in such a way as to maintain their silhouettes and colours and other such things; but what do we find after these operations when they are actually realised? An empty, often repugnant stage.

In this paper I wish to explore two implicitly theatrical contemporary spaces, Spinningfields in Manchester and MediaCity:UK in Salford which attempt to create variety of urban form as a means of replicating the historic development of an urban environment. The commodification of culture tends towards the devaluing of space in favour of the self evident attractions of the architectural object, as the skyline of any developing city attests. In parallel with this tendency at the macro scale, in the life of individuals in the developed world the functional necessity of the public forum has been superseded by the availability of virtual communication and information through electronic media, perhaps liberating traditional public spaces to be more overtly rhetorical in the expression of the ethics of a community.

It is however important to acknowledge that the worth and appreciation of the historic phenomenon of the public space, and at the same time the treatment of the defined urban space as a mundane form has two possible interpretations. Firstly, there is the widely held suspicion that the type of enclosed public space that the piazza represents has become an outmoded form. Secondly, and directly opposed to the former, there is the position that the lessons such places contain present an exemplary type of public space which demonstrates that variety, flexibility, historical memory and contemporary aspiration, the most everyday events and the most sacred spaces might be layered into each other and create richly inspirational spaces which continue to demonstrate the importance of the physical experience, in terms of the authenticity of the familiar and the directness of sensation. Curiously, these two positions seem equally valid. One can, of course, enjoy the facilites of an existing space without regarding that experience to be replicable in new situations. It is perfectly possible to hold both views simultaneously, a phenomenon I would ascribe to the strangely fascinating power of the public space, its ability to subsume all types of phenomena into a sense of a shared experience.
Historic environments have continued to be preserved and continue to serve their original social functions, but the influence of commercial urbanism of the United States continues to make itself felt in the development of business districts and peripheral areas of the major cities. In this context the elements of public space are often appropriated as a theatrical component of the developer’s armoury in creating a successful segment of the city, yet they are exclusive environments without the diversity which authentic urban situations contain as a matter of course. They repeat the impermeable design solutions which characterised the megastructures of previous decades, while the deliberate creation of a lack of integration between parts of the city through its public spaces is unlikely to be ameliorated substantially by the introduction of exclusive shops as a screen to the inevitable parking decks.
In the British situation the city’s contemporary appearance is increasingly determined by the brand and what it promises. In contrast to such ephemerality it is the quality of endurance which gives traditional public space its ultimate character. It is risky to make generalisations, but the discreet integration of a piazza with its containing city, the length of time spent in the design and construction of the place and the ambiguity with which it accommodates different functions are what differentiate such spaces from the functionally specific, provisionally constructed and attention seeking urbanism of the present day. While that phenomenon has many possible causes, its relationship to the formerly communicative nature of public space is worth emphasising. The qualities of traditional space, in the allowance for spontaneity within the public sphere, represent the most direct means of balancing the negative effects of the mediated world, through personal encounters with all the agreements and disagreements, pleasures and conflicts they bring.
In the current confused state of architectural and civic debate, accusations of discontinuity between intentions and results are commonplace. Nowhere more so than in the twin cities of Manchester and Salford this situation is exemplified in the Spinningfields development in central Manchester, sited around the former Crown Square, a civic area of court and municipal buildings which has been rebranded as a financial and retail centre by the developer Allied London. The new buildings of the area are without any sense of place, and are glumly staid, a small scale vision of the technocratic urban centre fundamentally delineated by Le Corbusier eighty years ago. They stand around the area awkwardly misaligned with each other and unconvincingly heterogenous in their exterior forms, different wrappings around the same sort of functional space. But at least they have a genuine function, unlike the public space of the area, where the same futile decorative mentality attempts to modify the obvious meaninglessness of the ensemble.
Utilitarian messages are commonplace in Manchester architecture, so the lack of coherence could be thought of as a demonstration of the genius loci of the city. The attempt to produce a ‘community’ out of office workers which is offered by Spinningfields represents an especially impoverished form of generic urbanism. Attention lights on the palette of accumulated brands precisely because the physical environment (buildings and spaces) in which they are contained is so banal and devoid of consolation.
The public spaces are particularly redundant, because the spaces have no real use, not the sort of the fluid changes of occupation one would witness in an authentic place. The spaces created as part of the development are so stupendously formless they can only forlornly indicate their eventual occupation by yet more office building. Large patches of lawn suggest future development plots which might give more definition to these late manifestations of s.l.o.a.p.(space left over after planning).

The inevitable arrival of economic stagnation has brought some sense of closure to these recent developments. They have introduced often dramatic change into the Mancunian cityscape, in the wake of the 1996 I.R.A. bomb, but the incompleteness of their resolution and the fragmentary discontinuity their thwarted plans produce is firmly rooted in an urban tradition.
The commercial failure the Spinningfields development is experiencing has induced one extraordinary theatrical reaction. The façade of the Crown Court now has a companion in the construction of a new pub, The Oast House, a work of 'imagineering' which scenographically contrasts with its modern surroundings. Apparently aged brick and dry-stone walling, a rusting corrugated metal roof and a wooden shingle clad tower attempt to evoke an authentic sense of place, but only since October 2011. This, however, is not the type of seasonal and ephemeral structure which the commercial churn requires. Rather it is a semi-permanent solution to overcome the problem of empty, very expensive shops which have failed to provide the promised sense of community in the public space. The level of scenographic skill is quite remarkable and the pub itself, at least, is very busy, but its position in a square originally created as a civic setting for the dignity of the law raises the question of the values public space is now assumed to represent.

Figure 1 The Oast House, Spinningfields, Manchester

The problematic nature of the public space in Spinningfields is further indicated by the more recent construction of another bar 'The Yacht Club' in Hardman Square. A tensile structure with extensive decking built at some considerable distance from any suitable body of water, the new semi- permanent building helps occupy an unsuccessfully vacant space until the long-awaited economic recovery provides businesses for all the empty office units that surround it. Such 'pop-up' leisure sector related distractions however do little to hide the obvious signs of commercial redundancy and failure.

There is a related but slightly different form of expression of public space at another recent development in the neighbouring city of Salford. MediaCity:UK is a brownfield development by Peel Holdings of derelict land adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal, designed as the new northern headquarters of the BBC and other prominent media companies. The University of Salford also houses its expanding media department there and the Metrolink tram system had a special branch line created to connect this new business outpost to central Manchester and onward train connections to London. The masterplan used the existing successful cultural landmarks of The Lowry (Michael Wilford 2000) and the Imperial War Museum – North (Daniel Libeskind 2002) as foci for the public spaces of the new development. A large paved plaza, called The Stage uses The Lowry as a piece of urban scenography across the water of the dock. From this space a curving street leads round to a new footbridge which connects to the Imperial War Museum. The large public space is relatively uncluttered, and is bounded on its open eastern edge by a stoa-like structure between it and an area of soft landscape and planting.

Figure 2 MediaCity:UK, Salford

If these strategic moves are sensible the same could not be said of the architecture which forms the backdrop to the public space. A series of slabs, clearly intended to appear as distinct from one another rise up from the lower buildings and demonstrate various levels of ingenuity in their cantilevering forms. There is also a small forest of towers, from the banal blocks of a generic hotel to more individually expressed blocks of apartments, offering views over water but often by convoluted means. Office accommodation is more assertively appointed, especially the diagonally patterned ‘Orange’ block which loudly announces the availability of speculative office space with its visual disturbance. Less dramatically the street edge is formed by the usual ubiquitous branded outlets.

Now it would be facile to expect a development which began from a tabula rasa to foster any spontaneous character but no provision has been made for such an occurrence. The planning betrays all the efficiency of a popular television format, a high degree of artificiality requiring a complete suspension of disbelief. The public space presents too exposed an arena in the jolt between open and enclosed, the glass skin proving a very effective barrier between the controlled world of the office space and the only marginally less controlled world outside for those without the requisite security pass.

Both of these developments have a distinct strategic intention for their theatrical function. The events in the public space in Salford will be designed to integrate with the television schedules, providing a virtual audience for this still rather isolated location. At MediaCity:UK the events are part of the mission of the place. In contrast, the event calendar of Spinningfields is designed to induce further commercial development and provide customers for the shops and restaurants. But whereas in central Manchester such a strategy of spectacle for the public realm could gain some value from the changeful ephemerality of the events, at Salford Quays it promises all the deadening jollity of highly planned enforced entertainment.

In summary it is possible to assert that the most successful of urban spaces show the same three characteristics, that they are genuinely open and permeable, that they are relatively unadorned, and that they are clearly defined. To consider the first of these aspects, openness is significant as a guarantee of the public nature of such spaces. This sounds banal, but it has to be contrasted to the twin contemporary phenomena, the privatisation of public space and the simulation of public space in the private sphere, particularly for commercial purposes, the ‘publoid space’ which my two examples demonstrate. The second aspect is their liberality of space. A certain severity and robustness of materials far from deterring activity, ensures that a multiplicity of uses are possible within such a space and that variety encourages a vibrant social occupation which an over prescriptive arrangement might prevent. Lastly the clarity of definition reinforces the specificities of place and identity by distinguishing itself from other parts of the city. This aspect of form contrasts with the social manner of openness to create spaces that engage the visitor with the phenomenological experience of the place itself. That only a simulation of this phenomenon is provided by privatized public space should not need stressing. The life of public spaces grew up organically with the juxtaposition of commercial and civic activities rather than being solely the product of commercial ambition. The mistake many contemporary spaces make is in trying to produce that history immediately, leading to inevitable disappointment in the results.

The suburban models which dominate the developed world place a value on unoccupied space, determined solely by the distance which can be preserved between one citizen and another. Conversely any public space worthy of the name functions by encouraging proximity, the contamination of one purpose by another, the variable flow of activities during a day. The possibilities that occur from these planned and fortuitous contacts then fertilize these small patches of urban space so that they assume the specific and sophisticated characteristics of place.

Even a corporate site such as Spinningfields is capable of redemption. On July 5 2009 central Manchester was the site of a performance piece Procession by the artist Jeremy Deller which featured a series of surprising tableaux. In particular it had a series of familiar and unfamiliar sections evoking some populist mythic scenarios. The Rose Queens of Manchester’s largely defunct Whit Walks traditions were joined by a robust outing from The Ramblers. The all-singing, all-dancing, mock-baroque of ‘The Adoration of the Chip’ contrasted with a fleet of hearses commemorating closed but legendary nightclubs, from The Hacienda to Rotters. The Big Issue Sellers and Unrepentant Smokers provided the smudge of ‘gritty northern realism’ but the procession concluded with the crowd gleefully following along Deansgate to the sweetly syncopated works of The Buzzcocks and Joy Division.

Figure 3 Jeremy Deller: Procession

Perhaps the performance of Procession did not have the transcendent qualities of a great urban narrative reenactment such as the Panathenaic procession, but it said more about the notions of civic pride and place than the banal receptacles of spectacular consumption which form Manchester and Salford’s recent cosmetically enhanced cityscape. Early in the sequence a truck mocked up as a textile mill complete with a smoking chimney brought the fundamental built environment of the city into the spectators’ consciousness, the ur-form of industrial space drawn as a memorial icon through the placelessness of Spinningfields. The root from which urban theatricality springs is representation, and combined with its political dimension such potent performances reinforce the importance of public spaces as an urban phenomenon, uniting the present day to the origins of the city. In this respect the true value of historic examples perhaps lie in their transformation over time rather than the notion of enduring and fixed form.

While the public spaces of post-regeneration Manchester are profoundly disappointing, there are some slight grounds for optimism in the civic quality of a couple of the new buildings which are emerging during these very difficult economic times. The speculative building boom of the 1996-2008 period has ceased its replication of very poor quality office and residential development, leaving a clearer perspective on the achievement of architectural quality for the stewards of some of the city's more enduring institutions. One example is the new building for Chetham's School of Music by Roger Stephenson, which occupies a roughly triangular plot in central Manchester squeezed between the medieval remnants of the original Chetham's buildings, the facade of Victoria Station and the featureless postmodernism of the Manchester Evening News Arena. The new building asserts an independent urban presence, solidly defensive in character and connected to the school's medieval origins via a footbridge, which evokes a definite identity for this significant civic institution.

Secondly the new headquarters building for the Co-operative will itself be the focus of a major urban regeneration project on land accumulated over half a century by this major financial institution with many subsidiary businesses. In strong contrast to their neighbouring international style modernist headquarters from the 1960s (by G.S. Hay and Sir John Burnet, Tait & Partners) for a long period easily the tallest building in the city, their substantial new institutional home is framed around a glass-roofed atrium at the centre of a rounded triangular block, designed by Michael Hitchmough of 3dReid Architects.

Despite their very different individual architectural characters and contexts these two buildings hold out the promise of a return to urban order. They adopt relatively conservative strategies to their urban situations, filling the historic site perimeter in the case of Chetham's and occupying a quasi-axial relationship with its substantial earlier partner in the case of the Co-operative. During the present economic crisis such contemporary institutional buildings and their attendant spaces will be of enhanced importance in democratic societies, and the values they represent (rather than necessarily the forms with which they are expressed) require analysis, protection and reaffirmation.


ROSSI, A. - The Architecture of the City M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1982

YOUNG, L. – Procession: Jeremy Deller Corner House Publications, Manchester, 2010

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