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A few months ago I had a strange and very vivid dream. I dreamt that the whole of Manchester city centre had been demolished. I stood at the top of Mosley Street and looked around at an almost unrecognisable scene.  All the familiar buildings had been reduced to piles of rubble.  Piccadilly Plaza was a small mountain of broken concrete and twisted steel rods.  The buildings overlooking Piccadilly Gardens had been pounded into mounds of stone, brick and glass.  All the major landmarks, including the town hall, Portland Tower, the warehouses of Chinatown, the former Lewis's, now Primark, and Debenhams had been torn down.

Only the street layout indicated that this was Manchester. An eerie silence hung over the scene. I tried to recapture in my mind's eye the Manchester that had been. I bitterly regretted that I hadn't taken more photographs.

It wasn't the Blitz or nuclear annihilation that had carried out the devastation, but the over-enthusiastic redevelopment policy of an imaginary city council, who had evidently decided to start again from scratch.  I was wondering if they were satisfied with the destruction they had wrought, and how the new Manchester they had planned for us was going to look, when I woke up, relieved to discover it was all a dream - or was it?

My subconscious mind was probably reacting to what has been going on in Manchester for some time now - widespread redevelopment and construction, with the removal of countless older and even some newer buildings.

The vision has overtones of wartime destruction, and how people must have felt 60 years ago. It's interesting to note that Manchester Corporation's 1945 Plan for Manchester envisaged the clearance of all but a handful of landmark buildings, the rest to be replaced by a grand vision of 1940's style civic uniformity.

It's well known that the Plan suggested that present town hall might be removed as part of a scheme for a newer and bigger town hall. It was only a suggestion, but it still seems shocking today.

As a person interested in architecture, I'm fascinated by demolition.  One of the first demolition jobs I remember was the old fleapit cinema on Castle Street Edgeley. I was amazed at the sight of the building with its exterior walls ripped away, seats hanging in mid-air, flock wallpaper and proscenium arch exposed to the daylight.  When I got home I recreated the demolition with my Lego bricks, and finally took a gleeful joy in smashing everything to pieces, making my father look up from his racing results and smile.

Demolition is considered to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the prestigious and almost god-like profession of architect. And yet it is an important part of the cycle of urban renewal. 

RIBA President George Ferguson, whom I met at a Civic Society event in November, has proposed that there should be an 'X-list' of buildings, mostly from the sixties, that ought to be demolished. People have been encouraged to 'name and shame' the buildings they would like to see the back of. Suggestions included Piccadilly Plaza and the Arndale Centre but also Urbis and the Trafford Centre.

On a more serious note, buildings that have clearly served their time need to be taken down. Like dead trees in a forest, the removal of outdated and unusable structures is an essential part of re-making the city.

The problem is, who is to decide which buildings are outdated and unusable?

In traditional Oriental cultures, the substance of buildings had no special significance.  Temples, pagodas and other structures - mostly made of wood - were taken down and replaced every few decades or so. Only in recent times has the Western idea of preservation taken hold.

In Manchester in the 19th century there was little regard for things ancient.  The Victorians destroyed most of the remaining medieval buildings in Manchester.  The Roman Fort had already been plundered for building materials and the site was later covered by railway viaducts and industrial sheds.

The trend for appreciating and saving old buildings is only a recent phenomenon - I place the watershed around 1975.  Some, perhaps wrinklier people, would like everything old to be preserved. Others, perhaps of a more youthful persuasion, would be happy to see it swept away. But in my opinion it's a question of finding the right balance between the two.

For me, buildings are more than just bricks and mortar. They are a kind of memory bank, a record of the values and aspirations of the people who built them, a mnemonic for our own lives.  How often do we look at a familiar building and think and remember people and events which took place in and around it?

Once a building is demolished, another piece of the mosaic of the city is chipped out. The city quickly adapts to its absence, all trace of it is erased and often you'd never know it had been there. Mostly the only definitive proof of the existence and appearance of a demolished building is a photograph. Buildings, like people, have no power once they have gone and can easily be forgotten.

Too often, familiar buildings disappear from the cityscape without warning.  It's as if an elderly relative was taken away in the middle of the night and disposed of, without ceremony or memorial.

In the past local authorities employed photographers to go round and record the city prior to demolition and reconstruction. Today most local authorities don't concern themselves with such things . Buildings disappear unphotographed, undocumented and unacknowledged.

We live in an age of amnesia. The Manchester of just a few decades ago is a lost era that only nostalgia buffs and dewy eyed oldies seem to take any interest in or remember.

I remember. I have vivid memories of my pre-teen years. I've also inherited a feel for the earlier 20th century from my father, born 1908, and my mother, born 1917.  But I'm as fascinated by the future now as when I was a child watching Tomorrow's World.

The more buildings that are demolished, the more we forget.  Even when we renovate and repurpose new buildings, we often lose the aura and atmosphere of the original. I've seen many Victorian interiors ruined by home DIY-style renovation jobs. The idea of reconstructing buildings destroyed by war, as has been extensively done in Germany and Central Europe, is regarded here as unfashionable and retrograde.

Manchester is changing, much of it for the better.  But let's pause to remember the buildings that have quietly disappeared, almost without our noticing, buildings that could never have been saved, but were still worth taking note of, at least with a photo or two and a bit of documentation.  And let's also remember the perfectly viable buildings that have been needlessly bulldozed during present and previous waves of redevelopment.

To finish with here's a sample of demolished structures - good, bad, beautiful and ugly, which for various reasons I wasn't able to photograph:

The Victoria Buildings near Manchester Cathedral - demolished in the 1940s following war damage.
The Assizes Court Strangeways, demolished after WW2 damage.
York House on Major St, warehouse from 1911 of revolutionary design, pulled down in 1975 to make way for a shopping centre that was never built.
St Paul's Church, near the junction of Gt Ancoats St and Oldham Road
Longford Hall Stretford
The Lancaster Arcade, near the present site of Urbis
The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway building facing Victoria Station
The former railway bridge over Great Ancoats Street
Hulme, until the clearances of the 1960s
The Hulme Crescents and neighbouring housing developments
'Fort Ardwick' near Hyde Road
The 1960's tower built next to Salford Museum and Art Gallery
The entire district known as 'Hanky Park' in Salford
The original St Mary's Hospital now site of Whitworth West Apartments opposite the Palace Theatre
On the west side of Albert Square, two Victorian buildings, demolished in the 1960s
The Grand Hotel on the corner of Piccadilly and Portland St
The Milne Building on Mosley St on the site of Eagle Star House, now under demolition.
All the buildings which used to occupy the site of the Arndale Centre, most of them never documented.
The old Post Office building on Spring Gardens
The ramshackle Mazels second hand electronics shop, which stood on London Rd opposite the former BT Building
The recently demolished red brick school building on Upper Brook St and Dover St
The former Little Chef at the junction of Upper Brook St and Plymouth Grove
The Waggon and Horses pub Ardwick
The Hospital for Skin Diseases on Quay Street
The Devonshire pub Ardwick
Tommy Ducks pub Lower Mosley Street
Lower Mosley Street Bus Station
Cheetham Hill Baths
Cross Street Unitarian Chapel
The residential buildings on Oldfield Brow Salford, as drawn by LS Lowry
St Michael's Church near St Michael's Flags, now known as Angel Meadow Park
The Grain Elevator in the Manchester Docks
Exchange Station, once site of the longest platform in Europe
Both older and more recent Piccadilly / London Road station buildings
The block of dwellings next to the River Irk on Collyhurst Road
The Rialto cinema Bury Old Road

And the list goes on... If you can think of an interesting building that has disappeared from the city, please contact.   You can view images of many of the above locations at the Manchester Local Studies online image collection. Go to www.images.manchester.gov.uk






 

All photos and articles © Aidan O'Rourke

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