I’m interested in cities. I love to explore them, photograph them and see how they develop. Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong.
In 1999 on my Eyewitness in Manchester website, I wrote an open letter to Manchester City Council, protesting against their plans for Piccadilly Gardens.
20 years later, it’s clear that it was a mistake and some people think it was a disaster.
I think Manchester is far too inward-looking. We need to look to other parts of Europe and the world to compare and to contrast and maybe to get some inspiration.
And so, we are going to visit another city I know well, Leipzig in eastern Germany and we’re going to find out about something that happened in the main square there, that I still find shocking even today.
Are there any parallels between Manchester and Leipzig? Please write in the comments.
For my students and the German-speaking audience, As well as the English version, I’ve also produced a German version of the video. To follow this video in English, just activate the subtitles.
I’ve waited a long time to tell this story, so please help me out by liking the video and subscribing to te AVZINE channel.
MAIN ARTICLE & VIDEO SCRIPT
From the airport, the tram will take you in 50 minutes to Piccadilly Gardens, a once beautiful open space in the centre of the great city of Manchester, which lies 180 miles or 300 km north west of London.
Its origins go back a century or so. The old infirmary was demolished in the 1900s leaving an empty space. The foundations of the hospital were turned into sunken gardens. An art gallery was planned but never built.
Manchester was badly bombed in WW2. Through demolition, the square became even wider.
Actually, it was never referred to as a square, only ‘Gardens’.
Piccadilly Gardens had their heyday in the post-war decades. Everyone came here to relax, have lunch, read the paper or admire the lawns and flowers.
The gardens are overlooked by many interesting buildings, for example, mid-19th century warehouses and a very interesting Indian style facade that used to be Lyons Popular Cafe.
On the other side was the futuristic Piccadilly Plaza completed in 1965, with its tall tower, hotel on stilts and a smaller building, Bernard House, with a very unusual roof.
In 1992 the first part of the Metrolink tram system was built. The tracks encroached onto the gardens a little, but not too much.
Manchester City Council, unfortunately, failed to maintain the gardens or cut the trees and so the area slowly became run down, a place of drinking, drug-taking and criminal activities.
But on sunny days, the gardens still looked good.
Because the area had become run down, so Manchester City Council reasoned, it needed to be completely revamped.
And so in 1999, they announced a new plan. When I opened City Life magazine and saw it, I was shocked.
Sunken gardens would be filled in, a new office block a concrete pavilion and a wall were to be built on the green space.
It immediately reminded me of the Berlin Wall. I joined others and objected. Our objections were overruled and the new gardens were built.
They seemed alien to the surroundings as if someone had unrolled a carpet onto the square, or some giant extra-terrestrial board game. It seemed like a false intrusion.
Manchester City Council said they were sure Mancunians would love their exciting gardens, designed by leading Japanese architect Tadao Andō. I later read that he had never actually visited Manchester. His team did the work.
Other changes took place. Bernard House and the Indian style facade were both torn down and replaced with inferior structures.
The Wall was ugly and blocked sightlines. It looked best at night when you couldn’t see it properly. But at least the fountains were an attraction.
In the summer, the new gardens were well used. But there were problems with the grass and the fountains.
Talking to people, I heard them say: „Why on earth have they built this wall?.“
The Japanese architect Tadao Andō is world-famous. His preferred building material is bare concrete. He has designed museums in Japan, Germany and the USA. His creations probably look better in a dry climate where there is a lot of sun.
An open square in the centre of a northern English city is simply not the best place for his work.
In April 2014 the Manchester Evening News ran an opinion poll. Three-quarters of readers who responded hated it.
Six years and seven months later, in the early hours of Monday 24 November 2020, the freestanding section of the wall came down.
But the concrete pavilion and the office block remain.
The story is not over.
Now let’s fly over to the great city of Leipzig, about 150 kilometres or 90 miles south of Berlin
From the airport, it’s a 30-minute journey by train to the Augustusplatz, an open square in Leipzig city centre.
Its origins go back a few centuries. The old city walls were pulled down, leaving an open area on the east side of the old town.
Many interesting buildings appeared near the square.
In the 19th century, the Opera House, an art gallery and the Mendel fountain were built. The Krochhhaus from the 1920s was one of the first tall buildings in Germany.
The Paulinerkirche was built in 1231. Martin Luther inaugurated the church in 1545, when it became a part of the university., Johann Sebastian Bach was a director of music here.
Leipzig was badly bombed in WW2. Most of the older buildings were destroyed. Fortunately the Paulinerkirche survived virtually intact.
The Soviet Zone became the GDR. Gradually the city was rebuilt according to Communist principles.
A new opera house appeared on the Augustusplatz.
The Paulinerkirche was used for services and concerts, but on the 30th of May 1968, after a decision taken by the Communist-led city and university authorities, the Paulinerkirche was blown up.
It had to make way for new university buildings.
‘Das Ding muss weg’ – ‘That thing must go’, the East German leader Walter Ulbricht is reported to have said.
Many people came to witness the destruction. Protesters were arrested.
There was shock and resignation, echoing events in neighbouring Czechoslovakia that same year, 1968
The university tower was designed by Hermann Henselmann. It was intended to look like a book, and became a symbol of Leipzig.
A new concert hall for the Gewandhaus orchestra was opened in 1988. With its large windows artwork and geometric design, it is reminiscent of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
In 1989, the Monday Demonstrations met on the Augustusplatz. Soon the Wall and the GDR fell, and on 3 Oct 1990 Germany was reunified.
New construction began. The Augustusplatz was remodelled. An underground car park was built and a pond and fountain were added. Not everyone was happy. People said the air vents looked like giant candles.
Regarding the Paulinerkirche, some wanted it to be rebuilt like the Frauenkirche in Dresden, but the university had other plans. Architect Erick van Egeraat created a building that pays homage to the Paulinerkirche but doesn’t try to recreate it.
The interior is impressive. It’s used as the university church and meeting hall.
Controversies continue. Across the Augustusplatz, there were protests in 2015 against plans for the post office building.
The story is not over. In fact, it will never be over. Cities change. Cities are changed for better or for worse by politicians and planners. Let’s hope that, despite all this, the true character of the city can shine through.