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IT'S JULY 2002 AND THE NEW PICCADILLY GARDENS are almost finished, only the office block on the gardens remains to be built.

This part of Manchester has a long history and has seen many changes - It was once a clay pit, and then in the late 18th century, Lord Mosley donated the land for public use. An infirmary stood here until 1908. Proposals for a new library and art gallery on the site never materialised. Piccadilly became a terminus for buses, trams and trolleybuses. Then wartime bombing cleared some buildings from the top end making Piccadilly bigger. The sunken gardens were renovated and in the 50's and 60's Piccadilly enjoyed its happiest and proudest period. In the 70's and 80's decline set in but nothing was done. Even after the arrival of Metrolink in 1992, the Gardens were allowed to deteriorate further.

Then in 1999, Manchester City Council announced a bold new plan: Sell off the Portland St end of the Gardens for an office block and spend the money raised on a makeover job for the remainder. The old Piccadilly was swept away to be replaced with what we see today. In July 2002, the office block under construction on what used to be the Gardens is climbing higher and higher.

So is the new development as the council intended it to be: 'one of the most exciting public spaces in Europe', or will it, after a brief honeymoon period, become Manchester City Council's worst planning disaster to date?

LOOKING DOWN FROM THE TOP OF SUNLEY TOWER, we have a bird's eye view of the eastern Manchester conurbation, which stretches out under a cloudy sky into the neighbouring Boroughs of Oldham on the left and Tameside on the right, with the Pennines rising up beyond. Down below us, a newly created grass space slightly smaller than a football pitch has appeared where the old Piccadilly gardens used to be. An irregular green rectancle is criss-crossed by walkways - curving from left to upper right, and another linking Oldham St on the east side with a curved concrete walled pavilion, bisecting an oval-shaped grey area - these are the walk-through fountains, as yet non-operational.

EWM says: Viewed from above the pavilion is shaped like a smiling mouth with dark teeth, and the paths and oval shape remind us of crop circles. The newly-created green area looks slightly unreal, as if aliens had landed and unrolled a giant, irregularly shaped subbuteo pitch, designed for some weird interplanetary sport. I didn't realise that Mars is taking part in the Commonwealth Games.

SEEN FROM THE TOP OF THE SUNLEY BUILDING we can see the layout of Piccadilly in a way that's not possible from ground level. Market Street is at the upper left, Portland St lower left, Oldham St in the upper centre. The Metrolink tram tracks curve from upper and lower left into the stop lower centre, overlooked by the concrete pavilion, partially in the shadow of Sunley Tower.

Trees have been placed between the Metrolink tracks. The line of the curved concrete rear of the pavilion has been extended by an isolated piece of wall which ends close to the Metrolink tracks. The central lawns extend to the right, criss-crossed by walkways. A transverse walkway running from top to bottom bisects the oval of the walk-through fountains - currently inoperative - at the top, near Oldham St. On the upper right are portakabins for the construction work currently in progress on the Portland St end of the Gardens.

EWM says: The gardens look unnaturally clean and new in comparison to the surrounding surfaces - This is to be expected, as they have only just been opened. The newly developed area, spartan and lacking in ornamentation, contrasts with the complex greys and whites of the city around it.

WE ARE LOOKING FROM THE TOP OF SUNLEY TOWER towards the central part of the Gardens. The green area, shaped like an irregular rectangle, takes up approximately two thirds of the area of the original gardens. The remaining third to the right, once an area of trees and grass, is now a building site. Click and move the mouse over the larger size picture to see a labelled version.

EWM says: This view illustrates clearly how we have lost one third of Piccadilly Gardens to the office development. The council say they created new space at the other end. They did this by removing a house, flower beds and wall dating back to the late 18th century, and extending the green space into what was formerly the esplanade at the top. The land was sold off to pay for the makeover we see below us.

LET'S COMPARE THE COMPLETED PICCADILLY GARDENS DEVELOPMENT to the plan contained in Manchester City Council's publicity materials from 1999. There are many differences. The 'bosque' (6) , or group of trees, which was to have merged with the top end of the lawn is now detached from the gardens. The Metrolink lines were to have been re-routed, but this didn't take place. The oval shaped fountain area (2) has been moved closer to the centre of the lawns which are now smaller. Straight and curved paths have also been added, dividing the lawn into sections. The pavilion (7) looks mostly as planned, though an isolated piece of wall has been added, standing where the bosque should have been. Absent from the finished Gardens are the 'horticultural gardens' planned for either side of the statue of Queen Victoria. Also omitted from the plans, but still there today are the statues of Sir Robert Peel and James Watt (at '10 o'clock' and '2 o'clock' respectively in relation to the oval, where Oldham St is at 12 o'clock). In both the planned and actualy layout, one third of the former gardenshas been given over to a private office development, causing the removal of the Wellington Statue.

EWM says: What happened to the horticultural gardens? They have been reduced to small areas of shrubbery on either side of the Queen Victoria statue. And the decision not to reroute the Metrolink lines is a lost opportunity, causing the new gardens to be even more hemmed in than they might have been. Peel and Watt have been allowed to remain, which is good, though with the loss of Wellington, this historic 19th century ensemble has been lost. Another statue stood inside the Gardens next to Portland St - What has happened to it? Another question: Was there any point in presenting an obviously incomplete plan to the public back in 1999?

ON THE PORTLAND STREET END OF PICCADILLY GARDENS, or what used to be gardens, construction work is in progress. In 2003 an office block will stand here, obscuring the view of the 1854 warehouse facades on Portland St. They were designed by Sir Edward Walters, architect of the Free Trade Hall.

EWM says: Manchester City Council have put a private office development on a green space. And let's not forget that this land was donated in the 18th century by Lord Mosley on condition that it should always be retained for to public use. If he is looking down now at this scene, I wonder what he is thinking.

THE STATUE OF QUEEN VICTORIA is seen in zoom view from the top of Sunley Tower. Previously the statue and its base stood in the middle of the esplanade. We can see how the edge of the grass has been aligned with the front edge of the base of the statue. Two long narrow flower beds have been placed in front and to the left and right of the statue. Part of the oval-shaped fountain area is visible in the lower left. The fountains are not yet working. A curved walkway cuts across the grass in the lower right. Buses are parked at stops in front of the Queen Victoria statue. In the new plan, the esplanade has been shifted upwards, making the roadway narrower. Now, there is only one way bus traffic, flowing from left to right.

EWM says: There's something not quite right about the way the edge of the grass has been aligned with the base of the statue. Like a lamp on a table, the base should have space around it. Either it should be enclosed by grass or, as it was previously, it should stand in the middle of the paved area. In the 1999 plan, 'horticultural gardens' were to have been located on either side of the statue. These have been reduced to narrow flower beds.

Let's take the lift down to ground level. Incidentally, the lifts in Sunley Building and Piccadilly Plaza are the original early sixties models with wood interior. When you press the button for the floor, it stays in and pops out when the lift doors open. We take the escalator down to the ground floor and walk out into the hustle and bustle, across the bus station and Metrolink tracks.

WE ARE STANDING ON PICCADILLY looking up from the group of trees between to the north and southbound Metrolink tracks. The previous views were captured from the central window between the two recessed balconies on the 28th floor of the building. Sunley Tower, completed in 1965 will soon be given a contemporary style makeover. At the moment, the tower is mostly original, apart from the telecommunications dishes on the roof. The trees have only been standing here for a couple of months.

EWM says: I know many people dislike the Sunley Building and Plaza - I have mixed feelings, but they are a well-intentioned piece of post-war design, and they give us an indication of how planners would have liked a large part of Manchester city centre to look. Originally what is now Chinatown was to have been flattened and a series of office towers and commercial developents built, stretching down to Oxford Street.

WE ARE LOOKING FROM THE MOSLEY STREET END of the new Gardens through the newly planted trees towards the building site at the Portland St end. It's early evening on the 11th of June 2002 and there are long shadows on the recently laid light coloured paving stones. On the left we can see the facades along the east side of the gardens, including the white building which used to house the BBC. The new office building currently under construction hasn't yet risen above street level, allowing us a final glimpse of Edward Walters' 1854 warehouse on Portland St.

EWM says: The new gardens have a sense of emptiness. All the fittings and features - including the waste paper bin - are in the curvy and minimalist 'New Millennium' style, which is very much out of character with the surrounding buildings.

THE ISOLATED SECTION OF CONCRETE WALL screens the gardens on the left from the tramlines on the right. To the left in the distance is the former Greater Manchester County Council building. On the right we can see the Jarvis Piccadilly Hotel, with Sunley tower to the upper right. A Metrolink tram is moving towards the tram stop.

EWM says: No matter which way you look in the new Piccadilly, you just can't get away from that concrete wall, which here reminds me of the monolith from the film 2001. Like the apes and later the space men in the film, you have the urge to walk up to it, touch it and ask yourself 'How on earth did this get here?'

A METROLINK TRAM coming from Market St, Victoria Station and Bury swings round past the new Piccadilly Gardens and concrete wall into the Metrolink stop. We can clearly see on the roof of the Plaza podium the new structure which has appeared. It is much bigger than the older older one but the angular roof line recalls the design of the older building.

EWM says: The purist in me says that Piccadilly Plaza should have been restored to its 1965 original state, the same as you would do with St Paul's Cathedral. But buildings have always been altered and added to - Manchester Cathedral was extensively rebuilt in the Victorian era - The architects of the new building should be given credit for at least reviving the spirit of the old building, Bernard House, with its angular roof.

THE REAR WALL OF THE PAVILION IS AN EXPANSE of bare concrete, punched with tiny circular holes. This is a signature of Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect who designed the building, and has never visited Manchester. We can just see the top of Debenhams department store (formerly Rylands) and to the left, partially hidden by the trees, the facades at the top of Mosley Street.

EWM says: No matter how much I look at this wall, I just cannot get the Berlin Wall out of my head. I would doubt if this development could ever have been built in Berlin, except possibly as a monument to the victims of communism.

THE REAR OF THE CONCRETE PAVILION is seen here next to the Metrolink tram stop. We can just see Metrolink sign saying 'Piccadilly Gardens'. Buses are visible beyond.

EWM says: The wall is a stark and unrelenting physical feature alongside the Metrolink stop, filling your field of vision with grey. It reminds me of the work of Christo - the Californian artist who temporarily shrouds buildings in large pieces of fabric. Christo's wrapped buildings are a temporary spectacle providing us with a fresh view of things when the shrouds are removed. This however is a permanent fixture - we will just have to live with it, unless, at some time in the future, it is ever removed. It happened with the Market St obelisk, the Hulme Crescents and the Salford University tower. It's happening with the yellow tiles on the Arndale Centre, it may yet happen here. Watch this space.

All photos and articles ©Aidan O'Rourke

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