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Library Walk Manchester: A history and appreciation with photographs by Aidan O'Rourke

Library Walk is one of Manchester's best loved corners, a curved passageway built in the 1930s linking St Peters Square and Mount Street, near Albert Square. It runs between the Central Library and the Town Hall Extension, both designed and built in the 1930s by architect E Vincent Harris. Read on to find out more

Library Walk 6 November 2009
Library walk vertical composite panorama with four figures. 6 November 2009

Library Walk is a pedestrian passageway in Manchester city centre, linking Saint Peter's Square to the east with Mount Street, near Albert Square to the west. Following the curving centreline of Library Walk I would estimate it to be to be around 120 yards* long.

Its unique curved shape is formed by the interlocking profiles of two of Manchester's most magnificent civic buildings: The Central Library to the south and the Town Hall Extension to the north. The Central Library was constructed in the early 1930s and opened in 1934. The Town Hall Extension was constructed in the mid-1930s and opened in 1938. Both buildings were designed by the architect E Vincent Harris.

Library Walk only came into existence on completion of the Town Hall Extension in 1937 and is so is a relatively new addition to Manchester city centre.

Due to its curving path, and the ravine-like effect of the two tall 20th century buildings on either side, with their complementary styles of architecture, it must be one of the most interesting passageways in any British city.

The unique character of Library Walk

From many perspectives its character is unique: Due to its curving profile, it's not possible to see from one end of Library Walk to the other. Only when you are half way along can you look around and see Mount Street behind you and St Peters Square straight ahead, or vice versa

Due to the movement of the sun, the appearance of Library Walk alters throughout the day. It is situated on the northern side of the Central Library and so not much direct daylight falls on it. The changing pattern of shadows and light reflected off the sides of buildings, or from windows, has a big effect on the character of Library Walk. The colour of the stonework varies according to whether the weather conditions are wet or dry.

Library Walk 6 November 2009
Exterior wall of the Central Library above Library Walk, 2009

Another unique aspect of Library Walk is its sound profile. Footsteps echo off the exterior walls, and the hum of traffic as well as the 'toot toot' of Metrolink trams is echoed along the passageway from one end to the other.

Library Walk is familiar to thousands of people in Manchester city centre who for decades have been walking back and forth along its curving path at all times of the day and also at night in all seaons and weather conditions.

Library Walk has been portrayed in paintings by many artists and in many photographs, including quite a few of mine.

To photograph Library Walk is not easy, as it has a strongly vertical profile, which can only be captured in one frame by using a wide angle lens. For the tall photo on this page, I took several images and merged them in Photoshop.

I'm not sure if Library Walk has been portrayed in any novels, television programmes or film.

A welcome respite from city life

It's one of the few corners of Manchester where you can gain respite from many of the often annoying aspects of contemporary British city life, such as traffic congestion, privatised buses, SUVs and stretch limos, double yellow lines, advertisement hoardings and much more.

It's one of the best loved and most enduring features of Manchester city centre and unchanging corner of a 1930s civic vision of Manchester that remained largely unbuilt.

It's ironic then that there are reported to be proposals for Library Walk to be covered with a glass canopy, along the lines of the atrium in the British Museum in London. This would allow the area to be used for functions and other indoor activities. I'm not sure if these proposals are to go ahead.

Central Library roof and south facade of Town Hall Extension
Central Library roof and south facade of the Town Hall extension

To put a glass canopy on the top of Library Walk would fundamentally change its character in a manner that was never intended by those who designed and built it in the 1930s. It would ruin the exterior of both buildings and reduce its accessibility to people walking through the city centre. It would take away its essential character and cause yet another unnecessary break with the past.

It's not surprising however that a proposal like this has come about. Manchester has a record of controversial, clumsy and expensive attempts to improve the city that have had mostly the opposite effect, for instance, the Market St obelisk (removed 1997), the B of the Bang sculpture (taken down 2008), the Hulme Crescents (demolished 1990s) and the post-2000 Piccadilly Gardens (still there).

I hope that during and after the renovation of the Central Library and the remodelling of the area around St Peters Square, our Library Walk will remain exactly the same Library Walk that it always has been.

More about E Vincent Harris on Wikipedia.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2010-04-11

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