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Manchester Round Table Discussion No1 27 Oct 04

The first Manchester Seminar took place at the Circle Club in Manchester, starting at 5pm on a cold and windy Wednesday 27th of October 2004.

My guests were as follows: Melanie Phillips and Ian Dogherty of the Friends of Victoria Baths. Councillor Paul Shannon (Liberal Democrat) is one of the councillors representing the Rusholme Ward in South Manchester. David Astbury of the Manchester Civic Society.

I didn't plan any specific theme for this the first of my Manchester Seminars. I simply pulled out a selection of recent photographs from my archive to stimulate a discussion.

The very first photo and topic of conversation was the iconic 'Gherkin' building in the City of London. I asked what is iconic, and is there an iconic building in Manchester. David defined iconic as being representative of a city. Blackpool Tower, the Eiffel Tower, the Colisseum in Rome he said were definitely iconic but is there an iconic building in Manchester?

We were of the opinion that the Urbis Centre probably wasn't iconic, because it's not representative of Manchester, although it's very striking and a superb piece of architecture. We discussed the ongoing problems, mainly of cost. Paul underlined the fact that City of Manchester council tax payers were subsidising the ongoing costs of the museum, but mentioned the City Council's argument that Urbis has brought about the regeneration of the surrounding Millennium Quarter, and beyond. We agreed it would be impossible to verify how accurate this was.

The CIS Building, we agreed, is iconic. We discussed the plan announced the day before to cover the service tower with solar panels. David wasn't sure how this would affect the aesthetics of the building, but Melanie thought we should all be supporting green initiatives like this and praised the vision of the Co-operative Group for pushing ahead with the project.

We passed on to problems with other buildings. The Eagle Star office building on Mosley Street was mentioned. Currently it is under demolition. There were mixed views about the Wing Yip Chinese style architectural feature overlooking Oldham Road.

Mel wasn't so keen on the bright yellow in the colour scheme and David referred to the fact that the Civic Society hadn't judged the building favourably in the past. I put forward the view that it shouldn't be judged according to strict architectural principles - it's just a colourful feature on a Chinese supermarket, a pastiche by definition, and an attractive addition to the streetscape.

How do you provide an accurate visualisation of how a building or structure is going to look? This problem was brought up by David, who drew attention to the 'B of the Bang' artwork currently under construction outside the City of Manchester Stadium. He made the point that in all the visualisations it was depicted as brilliant white in colour but in reality the surface is rust-covered. We agreed that pre-visualisation of new developments was a problem and should be improved.

On the digital projector I displayed the visualisation of Piccadilly Plaza by Bruntwood Properties. This iconic structure appeared in 1965 and is one of Manchester's most striking and controversial examples of post-war modernist architecture. The building is to be given a make-over but many would like to have seen it demolished. It had problems from the start, including the retail floor's lack of success, and the dark overhanging sections. A problem common to many modern buildings is legibility: Where is the entrance?

Eagle Star House, the building with the unusually shaped roof, has been removed and replaced. Now Bruntwood Properties wish to renovate and reclad the building. Ian felt sad that it would be given a makeover in this way as it somehow detracted from its original character. I agreed with this, and said I thought it should be restored to its 1965 state, but using modern materials.

The question of demolition was brought up, and David pointed out that it would probably have been too expensive or impossible to demolish the building. Being dynamited on a Sunday like a block of flats in Salford wasn't possible due to its location in the city centre.

The conversation soon passed on to the renovation of the Piccadilly Gardens. We were all in agreement that the office block at the Portland Street end and the concrete walls by Tadao Ando were not successful, to put it mildly. The fountains were a positive feature. Children enjoyed splashing about in them but Mel and Ian remarked that there was nowhere else they could do it, as there is a lack of good quality bathing facilities in Manchester.

I put forward the radical proposal that the concrete pavilion and the No 1 Piccadilly office block should both be demolished. For me it was a matter of principle. They shouldn't have been built in the first place and so they should go, no matter how impractical unlikely that option was in reality. The others said that the concrete pavilion would be easier to remove. Paul mentioned a proposal put forward by the LibDem group to cover the wall in art works celebrating the heritage of Manchester. It had been rejected by the council.

My photo of the statue of Wellington after removal from his plinth uncovered an interesting historical anecdote. In the 19th century Manchester had a less than comfortable relationship with the Duke of Wellington. Civic leaders had insisted that the statue should not be a military representaation on a horse. The disrespectful removal of Wellington around 2002 was consistent with history. The statue has since been restored and returned to its original location.

We talked at length about the problems of Piccadilly Gardens. We reckoned that the new gardens were probably a short term fix, a desperate attempt to do something with a run down area in time for the Commonwealth Games.

But David posed the question: would we have wished to enter the old gardens after dark? Probably not, but I countered that the old gardens were the way they were due to council neglect. In the 50s and 60s Piccadilly Gardens were wonderful.

Then I flashed an image of another run down location on the screen. It was the pedestrian walkway under the Mancunian Way at Brook Street, currently in a pitiful state with debris, rubbish, broken bottles and worse. David observed that it had been a mistake to force pedestrians underground, and that nowadays the policy is to provide walkways at or above street level.

Paul referred to the new footbridge in Hulme and the blocking off of the old subterranean passageway. I was able to quickly find and display a photo of this location, which illustrated the point.

The debris-strewn walkway near the new Manchester University urgently needs to be cleaned up, I said, and urged city centre councillors to do something about it. Paul took note of this.

Paul referred to a plan which might have seen the removal of the Mancunian Way and its replacement with a cut and cover tunnel, as David remarked was being done in Boston. For a number of reasons, the plan hadn't gone through, and the Mancunian Way will mostly likely stay as it is for decades to come.

We moved on to the university merger, and mentioned the high cost of the new signage and other aspects of the merger.

Our very lively discussion now moved on and into another part of town, namely Salford and the Lowry Hotel. I flashed up a picture of four new buildings on the Salford side of the Irwell: the Lowry Hotel, the Edge Buildings, the Tax offices and the new residential building next to the bridge.

This is a prime example of contemporary architecture, I said, and what do we think of it? There was no unanimity in the response. We were of the opinion that the surrounding layout, including the car park, was less than attractive, more reminiscent of the car park of Fiddlers Ferry Power station than a five star hotel. We felt that many recent developments are too close together, not allowing enough space between buildings. I praised the Edge Buildings for having a recognisable, though probably not quite iconic, design, with their sloping roof, similar to No1 Deansgate. We weren't so sure how to appraise the other buildings. The Lowry Hotel was designed to have its best side overlooking the river. The other side, effectively the 'front' of the building as you enter it from a car, was less attractive.

We all agreed that the city centre was expanding in all directions. That had certainly been illustrated by developments around Manchester's Millennium Quarter. The development was also extending across the River Irwell into Salford, as these four new buildings bore witness to. But Manchester, it was remarked, had very few open spaces, and there was no likelihood it would get any new ones.

Paul switched to developments in Dublin and the problems of peripheral development and building heights. He mentioned the Ulster Bank development near Butt Bridge in Dublin, and how local residents had rejected plans for a much higher structure. I was immediately able to locate and display a photo of the location. The developers had decided instead to go ahead with a less ambitious structure which had already been given planning permission.

Dublin has much more restrictive approach to building heights than most UK cities. Liberty Hall, Paul pointed out, remains the tallest building in Ireland at only 12 storeys. The problem of peripheral development is seen in the railway bridge, which cuts off the view of the 18th century Custom House, which David said drew eye more than the modern building. We observed that one of the problems of development is the length of time it can take to reach completion, often 10 or 20 years. The railway across the river in Dublin could perhaps be rerouted or put in a tunnel, but how long would that take?

Paul asked for a photo of the Millennium Spire on O'Connell St which I was able to find and display in a few seconds.

After our brief visit to Dublin we went back to Manchester, and the question of demolition. A recent demolition project is Pin Mill Brow, at the southern end of Great Ancoats Street. By coincidence I had already included a photo of the location for discussion. This is one of the few surviving groups of buildings from the industrial revolution in this part of town, and now it was gone for good.

I made the point that there ought to be a procedure for documenting and recording old buildings for posterity. All too often, they disappeared without warning, with no photographic record. I mentioned the attractive industrial building on Elinsore Rd Old Trafford, which I noticed on a recent trip on the Metrolink, had disappeared without trace. I'd imagined having a penthouse apartment and studio in that building. Even if they couldn't be saved, I felt it should always be the procedure to document buildings before demolition.

I flashed up the photo of the Spinningfields Development on Deansgate, and demolished Northcliffe House side by side with its replacement, the Royal Bank of Scotland building. I made the point that although it would have been difficult to retain Northcliffe house, it was still important to document it for posterity as I've done, rather than just knock it down. I have always found Northcliffe House a very inspiring building.

David referred to the huge number of listed buildings, around a third of a million all over the UK. We simply couldn't afford to renovate all of them. Paul referred to the fact that workers in the Town Hall were overwhelmed with the huge number of planning applications, and referred to a proposal in his ward for a high rise residential development which was eventually rejected by the council. David mentioned the recent phenomenon of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister which now has the power to overturn decisions by local councils, an effect seen in the City of Salford in recent times. We discussed the regeneration of run down residential areas. I showed the photo of Ash St Langworthy painted pink for a Barbie promotion.

We discussed the development Maine Rd site and the demolition of the old stadium. I had pre-selected photos of this too. Paul said a steering committee is looking at the proposals for redevelopment, and that the Council will choose one of six shortlisted developers to construct around 600 homes on the site.

The conversation returned to Urbis and the question of how did Ian Simpson manage to design a building without a predetermined function. When Urbis was being planned, the final use had not yet been determined. We concluded it must have been a flight of fancy, and Melanie mentioned a rumour that the content of the museum had been conceived during a flight to Poland.

As 7pm approached, I decided to ask a fundamental question: 'Is there a problem with modern architecture?' Surely there is, as we are unable to agree on the merits of many modern builidngs, and many new developments turn out to be less than satisfactory. How can we judge new buildings when there are such divergent views? Was there such disagreement in 100 and 150 years ago?

David referred to the CABE criteria used by the Civic Society in judging buildings.

One of the problems we identified with modern buildngs was legibility, specifically the entrance. Many people find it difficult to find the entrance to modern buildings as there is no grand flight of steps or classical portico to signal it. A building with an entrance problem we identified is the Corn Exchange, alias the Triangle, not a modern building but one that has been extensively and repeatedly renovated. Ian felt strongly about this building as he remembered it from the days before the bomb when it had a market with independent traders and a bohemian atmosphere.

Since the Triangle was repaired after the bomb and redeveloped as an upmarket shopping centre, it has gone through a number of alterations, specifically to the main entrance. The most recent change has seen the addition of a sloping ramp, and large stainless steel structures positioned near the exterior in an attempt to draw people into the building.

Unfortunately, people have slipped on the metal ramp, which has now apparently been resurfaced with rubber. Paul referred to the lights embedded in the pavement along the new Corporation St, and drew attention to the sad case of a pedestrian who slipped on a light fitting, fell under a bus and was killed.

And so ended our conversation on current development of Manchester, with a brief excursion to Dublin.

All participants the enjoyed the opportunity for discussion and I can say I learnt many interesting things too. My photos had ended up following the discussion rather than leading it, but I was pleased with the way I could instantly find a picture of just about any building or location that cropped up in the discussion.

I'd like to thank David, Mel, Ian and Paul for attending the very first Manchester Seminar and to the Circle Club for the excellent wine and 'nibbles' and for the use of their conference room. To find out more about the Circle Club, visit their website www.thecircleclub.com.

I look forward to inviting more guests for future Manchester seminars. I am particularly keen to welcome guests I haven't met before, at least not face to face. Next time I'll propose a specific theme, rather than let the conversation go where it will.

If you're interested in being selected to come along to one of the Manchester Seminars as my guest, please contact, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.

Some of pictures I showed have previously appeared on my Eyewitness in Manchester website, part of Manchester Online.

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