Recently I was lucky enough to receive a Civic Champion Silver Award from Manchester Shield. Having photographed and written about Manchester for nearly twenty years, it was great to receive some recognition at last.
Manchester Shield are a group of people concerned about what’s happening in the city but, unlike others, they’re not afraid to say what they like and dislike or to ask the general public for their opinions.
You can see the results here. The graphic is divided into best on the left and worst on the right. Let’s start on the right where I can see many projects I’ve been commenting on for years.
At the top of the list under Ultimate Worst is Piccadilly Gardens, with Piccadilly Walls and One Piccadilly named further down. I will never forget the day in 1999 when I first saw the visualisation of a redevelopment plan for Piccadilly Gardens.
To my horror I saw an office building built on a green space, a concrete wall similar to the one in Berlin and a pavilion with a kind of ‘nuclear bunker’ chic. It was a generally misconceived project that was out of keeping with its surroundings.
On my Eyewitness in Manchester site, I wrote an open letter to Manchester City Council – you can see it here. Along with other groups and individuals, I put in an objection. Our objections were overruled, the council pushed ahead with the project and the rest is history. In my opinion, the only solution is to clear the site and start again. Unfortunately that is unlikely to happen.
I wish more people had opened their eyes to what was happening. It appears people today are a little bit more aware, but there is still a long way to go.
Another project I’ve taken an interest in is Pomona. I once suggested this unique stretch of former dockland, surrounded almost completely by water, could be a garden project, part of a linear park linking Salford Quays with the city centre, lined with gardens, artworks, attractions and innovative architecture, inspired maybe by waterside projects in east Asia. Unfortunately we will be getting nothing like this, just more mediocre blocks of flats. Another missed opportunity, another disappointment, another long sigh!
What else is on the list? Oh dear, I must take an even deeper and frustrated sigh, when I think about the zone of mediocrity that is Library Walk. It’s listed under Worst Built Design, Worst Heritage Loss and Tragic Loss of Public Realm. I wrote about Library Walk in an article six years ago, about its unique atmosphere, a corner of Manchester where you could leave the hustle and bustle of the present behind and imagine you’ve strayed back into the inter-war period.
It survived World War II and the planning fiascos of the post war decades. It preserved its exquisite neo-classical character up to the millennium and beyond, only to be ruined as part of the otherwise excellent refitting and repurposing of the Central Library and town hall extension. There was a public inquiry about the blocking of a public right of way. The ruling went in the council’s favour, they opened it and so it remains today.
That’s it, some people might say, the council have won, the campaigners have lost. So be it. Not in my book! The library walk glass structure is an eyesore. It’s unnecessary. It’s an insult to the architecture around it and to the architect E Vincent Harris. To restore the integrity of the buildings, it needs to be removed and I’ll campaign until this happens.
There are other controversial projects on the list which I’ve commented about: the Ordsall Chord, the Hacienda, the Gaskell Campus, Cornerhouse, Circle Square. All in all there are problems with the way that new development is progressing. As in 1999, I wish more people would take an interest in what’s going on around them, get involved, express their opinion and help to shape how the city and surrounding areas are going to change. Don’t just leave it to councillors and developers! Our city is too precious and unique to allow that to happen.
But the news isn’t all bad. Good things are also happening. Let’s take a look at the left side of the results chart now, with a list of projects that have earned the praise of Manchester Shield voters.
London Road Fire Station features prominently, though this project has yet to be completed. From everything I can see, it looks like it’s going to turn out well. The Imperial War Museum is great. The renovation of Victoria Station is impressive. The saving and refurbishment of Ancoats Dispensary is a credit to all those involved. Victoria Baths, which I’ve followed closely since 1998, is praised for Heritage Revival, though its symbolic primary goal, its restoration as a swimming pool, is some time off.
Whitworth Art Gallery is Best Heritage Revival Bronze – for me it should be gold as I love the refurbishment for many reasons. Under Inspired Engagement, the Toast Rack won silver. Anything where the public are invited to contribute is a good thing. For me, the Fire Station is the best example of that.
It was the first ever people’s vote of the best and worst of Manchester. Because it’s a new initiative, a grassroots phenomenon that only started this year, some people in authority might be tempted to ignore the results. But really the views are a microcosm of wider public opinion and hopefully the movement will grow as more and more people get involved.