If ever you need a clear-cut illustration of the complexity and perils of place-making and regenerating high-profile public spaces, then the saga of Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens is as good a case-study as you will find.
In March last year, Manchester City Council had to respond to a 22,000+ petition generated by the influential local paper, the Manchester Evening News, which demanded that this much-criticised city centre square be rescued to halt its miserable decline and restore it to a space which graces, not disgraces, the city.
Anyone who knows Manchester is aware that Piccadilly Gardens was its heart, and many who can recall the previous Victorian sunken gardens, usually remember them affectionately as a pleasant sanctuary from the traffic and trauma of the streets, a green and colourful oasis of relative calm, with lots of seating for weary workers and shoppers to take a break and watch the world go by. It was formal and traditional, but full of colour, people and life.
In the late 1990s, following the IRA bombing and the push to regenerate the city for the Commonwealth Games 2002, the whole city centre was redesigned and rebuilt. A ’starchitect’, Tadao Ando, was commissioned to help design a Piccadilly Gardens for the 21st Century in collaboration with EDAW Group who oversaw the city centre regeneration.
Ando's Wikipedia entry states ‘Ando’s architectural style is said to create a "haiku" effect, emphasising nothingness and empty space to represent the beauty of simplicity. He favours designing complex (yet beautifully simple) spatial circulation while maintaining the appearance of simplicity… Zen influences vividly show in Ando’s work and became its distinguishing mark.’
So the sunken garden was filled in to create a ‘simple’ accessible space, with ‘inner meaning’ which would symbolise the vibrant modern city that Manchester has become.
The response from Mancunians has not been positive. Its many critics say that, despite the Council’s well-intentioned, well-funded, seemingly adventurous attempts to create a modern exciting space, the result is uninspired, uninteresting, uninviting, unattractive, grey and grim; the paths are not sufficiently wide so areas of lawn became mud patches, the fountains frequently break down, and it was no longer a pleasant place to be. The grass constantly had to be re-turfed and, laughably, fenced off to keep people from treading on the grass designed for them to enjoy. It was not, as some claim, due to the scheme’s success and popularity, but due to the failure of its ill-considered design. A particularly hated feature is the ‘Berlin Wall’ a grey monolithic stretch of blank concrete wall which serves as a visual and noise barrier against the busy roads and bus terminus.
Now what was once lauded as an award-nominated regeneration scheme has gradually revealed itself to be an exemplar of misjudged contemporary urban landscape design. The ‘spatial circulation’ of people was miscalculated with a failure to anticipate basic usage such as footfall, obvious desire lines and predictable human behaviour – and where does ‘simple’ end and boring and meaningless begin? Petitioners claim there is no soul, no sanctuary, no spirit, no vibrant urban life on the site, and there is certainly no garden! Where’s the anticipated ‘Zen inner meaning’? Instead of a masterpiece, critics argue, Manchester was given an expensive set of emperor's new clothes, and the evidence of its recent condition reveals the naked truth that the site design is not fit for purpose.
The term ‘architectural myopia’ has been applied to this disconnect between what architects see and what people need. It is claimed that they have a need to create artistic statements to impress an elite caucus in the architecture community to promote their own celebrity, often ignoring the sense of place and the local human dimension of their brief. The city’s leader still claims it is a masterpiece!
The old gardens certainly had problems, they were not accessible to everyone, the infrastructure was tired and in need of investment and there were problems with rough-sleepers and anti-social behaviour (which are now worse!). However, it had an authentic heritage from the days of 'King Cotton', it housed bomb-shelters during the Blitz, was famously drawn and painted by Lowry and remained a well-loved space, characterising the city up to the end of the 20th Century. It wasn’t paradise or a style classic, but it was Manchester’s own.
Most people agree that restoring anything like the old garden is now physically impossible, but campaigners say the space could still be made special with a bit of effort. The fact that the site has been partially privatised and the city faces huge budget cuts makes the problem more difficult, with a perfect solution difficult to achieve, especially considering the complex range of stakeholders to please. The recent unedifying spectacle of police chasing and arresting many of the on-site drug dealers and the council trying to move-on rough sleepers illustrates how troublesome and negative the human dimension of managing such busy city centre green spaces can be.
The Council’s eventual response to the criticism has been to restore the long-broken fountains at a cost of £400,000, and announce a £10 million improvement scheme to include the demolition of the ‘hated wall’ with a new pavilion and a ‘homeless hub’, £2 million of which is to be spent on the gardens. It unveiled ‘preferred’ plans for the site, having left the onus to provide designs very much on L&G Property Group, the part-owners of the site. The designs, by Urban Edge, include-
“Removing the existing Pavilion building and feature wall and replacing them with two new Pavilion buildings linked by a covered area of new public space for year-round use
Improving lighting and the design of the current Pavilion building and Gardens to deter anti-social behaviour and improve natural surveillance. Greater Manchester Police have been consulted on the design
Creating extra seating throughout the Gardens for public use
Introducing extra ‘soft landscaping’ including new shrubs and plants
Addressing damage to pavements and grass by raising the grassed areas and re-laying pedestrian thoroughfares
Bringing family-themed restaurants and a new coffee outlet to the new Pavilion buildings
Maintaining the pedestrian route from the Metrolink stop and bus station through the Gardens to other parts of the city
Introducing advertising screens at two locations which will be sympathetically integrated into the design to provide the Council with a sustainable annual income which will contribute towards the ongoing maintenance costs of Piccadilly Gardens”
The plans for the pavilion with extra bars and restaurants to replace the wall were met with some derision from petitioners but a ‘like/don’t like’ survey showed 59% liked them. They have been criticised by many as characterless ‘anytown, anywhere’ structures, ‘like large bus shelters’ and ‘like a motorway services, absolutely awful’. One wrote “People don’t want a new building. People want GARDENS. With a fraction of the money spent on that dull, poor, provincial building, they could cover the wall with plants; fix the gardens, the fountain.”
The plans for the open space/garden area do not seem to provide for any real change or landscape/ horticultural improvements apart from planting a few random trees and some minimal ornamental planting on the margins. Some of the lawned areas will be raised, which should reduce wear, but the designers appear to have missed the opportunity to provide some extensive stylish contemporary planting, although no real detailed planting plans are yet available. It has been designed more as a thoroughfare than a distinguished city square destination. Detailed designs go to the Planning Department this spring. There is currently much ground work and soil-moving activity already taking place on site behind Heras fencing, to what purpose is uncertain from the design shown for consultation. However, the plan for the pavilion specify a green Sedum roof, which is a real positive.
It seems that however hard they try, and despite the very best intentions, those involved in the scheme are afflicted with difficulties in every direction, and finding perfect solutions for the site is a mission impossible. Perhaps with the limited resources available and with so much investment having already taken place, this may be as good as it gets for Manchester’s dynamic hub. Is this a further case of architectural myopia, and a failure to connect with Mancunians, or will the changes be enough to bring civilisation, comfort, life, warmth and friendliness back to the site?
Manchester is a world-class city and vibrant regional centre, with a distinguished history of influential ideas, brilliant ingenuity and great industrial design. It’s the city that gave the world canals, railways, atomic theory, computers, graphene, great music, and, indeed, some of the earliest public parks. It has a strong tradition of caring for its parks and green spaces well. The proud Mancunian campaigners believe the city deserves better than ‘anytown, anywhere’ architecture. This important civic space needs something really special to do it justice, to welcome visitors and to keep the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ region a contender on the world stage.
Can we be sure that Manchester City Council’s and L&G’s plans will fill the void at the city’s heart with a design that truly represents the soul of this great city? Watch this green space!
Author :- Bernard Sheridan
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