The city that has featured so often here faced a new challenge this week, and this is how they respond…
It might be a consequence of rightly preserving so many of the older city centre buildings, or perhaps it’s because having tempted the BBC to decentralise much of its output to the city Manchester wants to emulate London, but whatever the reason the city is growing upwards.
The Beetham Tower’s 47 storeys currently dominate the skyline, and for me provide a useful guide to my distance from the office in Deansgate where I often work. It’s visible from 10 different counties on a clear day, but it’s days of dominance are numbered.
Like the silhouette of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the Manchester skyline seems to be as much about tower cranes as actual buildings.
No 1 Spinningfields was planned to be a close second to the Beetham Tower when originally designed, but the 140m version was rejected by the City planners. (Beetham is 157m to the roof, but an extension to the facade which doubles as a lighting conductor reaches nearly 12m further). Nevertheless at 92m the redesigned version is easy to spot.
All the same the Beetham Tower’s will be overshadowed in just three years from now. Work began earlier this year on a development at the nearby Owen Street which will deliver a cluster of four towers of which the tallest at 200m will dwarf the Beetham. It will be the 5th tallest in the UK.
Hardly surprising then that local alternative rockers Elbow should take inspiration from the ubiquitous lattices of steel that accompany all of this construction and deliver a song called The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.
Come on, tower crane driver
Oh so far to fall
I hadn’t considered it much before but I was surprised that we still rely on human beings to climb their way up to a small cabin that is hundreds of feet in the air and spend the entirety of their day (which might be up to 12 hours) there including all of their breaks before carefully descending again to ground level.
Surely in these days of driverless cars and flying drones we could remotely control these spindly giants, yet every example I saw had a cab at the top, where a man and his toilet bottle spend the day. A toilet break would involve a great loss of productivity on site if the operation had to stop and wait for the time taken to descent and ascent once more, but it seems to me like another good reason to automate the process. The reliance of the entire site on the cranes though does mean that Guy Garvey and his bandmates got it wrong. With constant communication by radio and hand signals from those down below, there is little chance of loneliness.
I don’t suppose The Claustrophobia of the Tower Crane Driver would have had quite the same pathos.
Of the two churches I visited in Manchester, it seemed right to begin with St Ann’s as archaeological evidence suggests that the first church to be built in Manchester was erected near that site though it was destroyed by vikings in the 10th Century.
That said my second church can also point to Anglo-Saxon origins as a carved stone from that period is embedded into the present building’s fabric. I refer to the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, or as it is now known, Manchester Cathedral. The present structure began as a parish church in the early 13th century, but in 1421 Baron Thomas de la Warre was granted permission by his king and the pope to establish a collegiate church here, and so began a remodelling into the current building. The use of the same red sandstone as St Ann’s produced the same issues of erosion and with wartime bomb damage contributing to the need for restoration, the building has a more youthful look and might be mistaken for a Victorian gothic revival. It is Grade I listed.
On this occasion then I’ll turn my back on the stonework, but not on the architecture for the most impressive structural details are in wood.
The roof beams are perhaps the first to catch your eye on entering the building, or perhaps the paired cherubs of the font cover, but these are soon forgotten when you reach the chancel area and see the choir stalls. Is exquisite too strong and adjective? Centuries of wear from cleric and choristers passing hands over the carvings have softened some of the lines, but once out of reach of human contact the structures are detailed and intricate and look as sharp as when they were installed installed in the Tudor period.
A recent exchange on British quiz show Pointless had two suggestions for the meaning of the word misericord, the first was that it was an organ-like musical instrument, the second that it was a medieval knife. Neither was fully correct, though there was dagger called a misericorde. The correct answer is that it is a protrusion on the underside of a folding seat which gives support to someone standing, for example through a lengthy set of prayers. The term means giver of mercy – hence the dagger. The thirty examples in Manchester are considered to be amongst the best in Europe, though several weren’t visible on the day as many seats were folded down so I didn’t see the example which apparently shows the earliest example of backgammon being played in the UK.
Something else that was hidden on this occasion was the choir screen for a new organ is being installed, meaning that the perpendicular gothic lines were overlaid with vertical scaffolding that camouflaged and obscured them.
Luckily I’d found myself with a moment or two to spare earlier this year when en route to catch a train at Manchester Victoria. I hadn’t had time to fully explore, but I did have enough to see this…
Aside from the details of the many wonderful buildings in Manchester I find myself looking at street names and musing on their origins, for this can also tell you much about the history of a place. Running off the part of Deansgate where I’m often based when working there are two streets called Camp Street and Artillery Street for example. Back in the 18th Century this area consisted of open fields and during the last Jacobite rebellion Bonnie Prince Charlie stationed his guns here. Until discovering this I had no idea that he’d spent time in the city! Running perpendicular to the two streets is another, named after on of the city’s famous sons. Lower Byrom Street (and the nearby Byrom Street) commemorate John Byrom, a poet, possible spy, and inventor of a type of shorthand who lived here during the same period. His most famous work is perhaps the hymn Christians Awake, which was always one of my favourites to blast out at Christmas.
At the other end of Deansgate can be found two churches, and in the 18th Century it was customary for Byrom and other Mancunians to workshop at both, attending morning prayers at one and evensong at the other. The first of these that I’ll write about is St Ann’s which was consecrated in 1712.
When originally constructed the church stood in a cornfield, but that cornfield has now become an open square populated by banks and designer boutiques. All the same, it’s location added to its appeal, or rather it did when I first encountered the building, but on returning with my camera a week later the Manchester Christmas markets had taken root, restricting the angles available to me and ruining the ambience.
The church has an unusual patchwork appearance arising from the stone used in the original construction. The local red sandstone proved so soft that the three centuries of subsequent weathering have taken their toll. Much of the original masonry has since been replaced and using different quarries on different occasions. Nevertheless it has a fine Georgian appearance hence its Grade I listing.
The interior by contrast felt like a disappointment, though this was offset in a couple of ways. The first an art exhibition; portraits of refugee women combining painting and photography techniques. Sadly the church website provided no details of the artist responsible. The second treat for the eye were the windows; technically painted, rather than stained glass, but striking all the same. Oddly many were not designed for the church, which initially had plain glass, but during a 19th century refurbishment new windows were installed, including a number reclaimed from other churches. Chief among them is a single window by William Peckitt, a leading craftsman of the Georgian era.
The church was named after its patron Lady Ann Bland, a member of the Mosely family, Lords of the Manchester Manor. The Mosely name is also reflected in a Manchester street name, showing the respect that the family garnered over generations. That respect was largely destroyed in the 1930’s. Oswald Mosley was a supporter of Hitler and Mussolini and founded the British Union of Fascists. Many cities in the world have renamed themselves or their thoroughfares to erase an embarrassing history; Manchester have chosen the preserve the memory of those who came before Oswald.
The late 80’s and early 90’s saw Manchester’s creative star in ascendancy, most noticeably on the music scene where Factory Records, The Hacienda, The Smiths, New Order, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and more were part of an explosive mix. Oasis. The Verve. Happy Mondays. Even Take That drew it’s members from satellite towns.
Those days may have passed though, as this Guardian article shows, there is still much to celebrate here but what gives a city a thriving culture? Can it be manufactured (perhaps by being awarded the “City of Culture” label), is it a by-product of social changes such as those in Liverpool in the 50’s and 60’s, or can the city itself be a source of inspiration? I’ve certainly found Manchester to be the latter in my recent visits here, so perhaps others have too.
The city has long valued and celebrated culture, and aside from the architectural gems I’ve described in other posts, the Bridgewater Hall is both home to the city’s Hallé Orchestra and the primary venue for the BBC Philharmonic though of course as the successor to the Free Trade Hall, it hosts concerts in many musical genres.
At over a mile in length, Deansgate is Manchester’s longest road, running from the cathedral (which will feature in a future posting) at one end to the Beetham Tower and Great Northern Warehouse at the other. In between the extremes is another structure that I feel both embodies and encourages the spirit of the city, and I don’t refer to the exhortation that adorns the former Band of Hope building also on Deansgate.
Instead I refer to the red sandstone block which defiantly resists the encroaching steel and glass of the Spinningfields development. The crenellated roofline of the gatehouse façade suggests a castle, but the rest is more reminiscent of a church. The building is neither, though it could be argued that it fulfils a both a defensive and evangelistic role.
It’s a library.
An impressive library with some equally impressive collections. In its defensive role it preserves some priceless documents which include a Gutenberg Bible, early print works from William Caxton, and arguably the oldest papyrus fragment of the New Testament in the world. Its evangelistic role is within the fabric of the building which screams to all the world the importance of the written word. This is the John Rylands Library, named after a local philanthropic businessman and which opened on 1st January 1900. Even the date is a statement of intent that this should play a key role in the future of the city, and as one of the first public buildings with electric lighting it married the traditions of its gothic design with the height of modernism.
This is a cathedral of knowledge, with statuary and stained glass which celebrate intellectuals rather than saints. Here you will find Plato, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Socrates and more in a soaring “nave” whose lighting brought to mind the great candlelit hall of Hogwarts.
It was perhaps appropriate that my visit coincided with an exhibition of medieval texts entitled
Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World!
One of the things that struck me on my recent visit to Dublin was that there are some wonderful old buildings and some impressive modern buildings, but that they often seem to be juxtaposed without any thought as to how they fit together. A street of old brick town houses might be interrupted by a vertical finger of glass and steel for example.
Manchester faces similar challenges, yet to my eye seems able to resolve them.
On the on hand it is a modern city whose skyline is punctuated by tower cranes and the structures they work on. No wonder Elbow, who originate nearby, felt inclined to write a song entitled “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”. Viewed from the morning tram, the city that casts its shadow into the waters of the Ship Canal is perhaps becoming Manc-hattan!
But for all its shiny verticality, it has a heart of stone and brick, a heart that continues to beat when many other cities would have torn down the dirty and old-fashioned, Manchester has nurtured them and found new uses for them.
Train stations become exhibition spaces, warehouses become apartments, Georgian houses become smart offices, and where the old meets new they seem to fit, even when integrating a modern extension onto a 19th century structure.
Probably my favourite part of the city is the area around King Street, formerly the banking district, where it seems that every other building is listed. These include the former Midland Bank building which is now The Gotham Hotel, a stepped white art-deco structure which, if a little taller, would not be out of place in New York, and my favourite of Manchester’s gems, The Reform Club.
The term “Venice of the North” is applied to various cities in Northern Europe such as Amsterdam, Bruges, Stockholm and more. The title is based solely it seems, on the qualifying criteria of having a network of canals. In the UK the term usually refers to Birmingham, which prides itself on having “more canals than Venice”. Not so difficult when you consider that Venice only has three!
Surely Manchester has a greater claim to the UK version of the title having both canals and Venetian inspired architecture. Whilst not alone in adopting this style, The Reform Club building truly embraces it. Viewed from a distance the building impresses with its turrets, oriel windows and polychromatic arches, but get closer and you see it is encrusted with finely detailed carvings of beasts both real and imaginary.
The Reform Club itself was wound up about thirty years ago, which might have spelt the end of this beautiful edifice, but thankfully not. A number of different tenants share the building now, but perhaps none more Mancunian than the clothing emporium created by Liam Gallagher.
For me this conservation area is truly an oasis!
Having written about Manchester’s grand hotel, I thought I’d continue the theme and tackle their Hôtel de Ville (a tenuous link I know).
The French term for a town or city hall seems appropriate when you look a the magnificent Hôtel de Ville in Paris and then compare it to the Town Hall in Manchester. Each is fronted by a large open square that gives the structure greater stature, and each was substantially constructed during the 19th Century.
That Manchester Town Hall should stand out in a city with so many architectural riches says a lot, but this building does so with ease. It is world-class, and though the splendour of the exterior is apparent to all, the interior is also impressive.
In its heyday, Granada Studios contained an exact replica of the House of Commons which was used by both Granada and other companies for shooting a number of political dramas. (Meryl Streep filmed in it when shooting The Iron Lady). Production companies shooting in Manchester then had to consider locations that could double for other parts of the parliament building. Step forward Manchester Town Hall.
Visitors are permitted access only to the ground floor but even with this restriction it’s easy to understand why it makes a popular filming location. Limited to a few minutes before starting work one day I found the main entrance was still closed. Undeterred I followed some council workers through a side door and then began my negotiations with a security guard. A short phone call to get agreement and I was in.
The sculpture hall which is the dominant feature has been transformed into a café, but don’t expect a Starbucks or a Costa installation. This is something altogether more luxurious and sophisticated, albeit with a very masculine air.
One of the things that I like about the city is its patronage of the arts, and clearly this building exemplifies that in its design, its decoration, and in the people who it chooses to lionise. The Sculpture Hall includes political campaigners and leading scientists that have played important roles in Manchester’s development, but also Sir Charles Hallé, the pianist who founded the city’s great orchestra, and Sir John Barbirolli, that orchestra’s most famous conductor.
Though not open to my visit, The Great Hall features a series of murals by the Pre-Raphaelite Ford Madox Brown that tell the story of the city’s development. The Manchester Murals begin with the founding by the Romans and end with John Dalton collecting marsh gases, which lead to his development of atomic theory.
With so much grandeur it’s easy to miss the finer details as I did. One of the recurring motifs found throughout exemplifies the work ethic at the heart of the Manchester story; the industrious bee. There’s certainly workmanship aplenty to be found through these doors.