Jonathan Schofield on how a walk in the city centre improved during the lockdowns
To get to know a city centre your have to walk it. Cycling is good too but walking it gains you the deep knowledge. During 2021 a walk round Manchester city centre including Salford over the river got better. Public spaces cascaded in and here are eight of them. Eight and half really.
The new public realm adds to the city centre, these spaces are well-designed and attractive.
Six of the eight and a half are POPS, privately-owned public spaces, a hot potato for urbanists. A lot of people on the left of politics dislike the very notion of them. We discussed this at length in 2018 in our article titled Public v Private: the War over Manchester's squares and parks.
A key quote came from Dr Morag Rose, a Mancunian academic at Liverpool University, who said: "POPs may be perfectly lovely places but we must be clear they are not the same as a truly communal facility. We need to be mindful not just of erasure of space through building but of invisible barriers too. This can be an unwelcoming atmosphere, the sense you have to look a certain way or need to spend money or the absence of street furniture."
Rose made an interesting point but the six new POPS in this list are open to all, have street furniture and you don't have to spend money. More to the point they were until recently surface car parks such as those at New Bailey, Deansgate Square and New Manchester Square, or they were walled off or wasteland. There was no public access as such. They are now open, to be enjoyed, lawfully, by everyone. They add to the city centre not detract from it, and they are well-designed.
There are a couple of caveats. These squares, especially the ones with lots of planting, will need good legacy funding so they don't deteriorate and become eyesores. Attention to detail will have to be the name of the game. At the same time the use of pale paving with so many of them is concerning given the level of staining, especially around bins, in the city.
Anyway, here come our eight and half new public spaces, starting with the bigger ones.
Circle Square: the ski jump gardens
This is one of the larger new public spaces part of the huge Circle Square development by Bruntwood on the former BBC Oxford Road site. The design comes from prolific Altrincham-based landscape practice Planit-IE and is reminiscent of an aircraft carrier, or maybe a skateboard park. The most striking feature is the 'ski-jump' at either end which resembles that upturn at the end of the deck of an aircraft carrier. This is a clever idea giving topography and drama to a flat site. The terracing on the ski jumps allows people to sit down with a bit of elevation. A view, however small, is always better when taking a breather. You can imagine live events at Circle Square in this space. The design is deceptively simple with hard surface and turf and all the better for that, with trees down the western and eastern side. There's a garden element to that eastern part as well. Sitting on the southern ski-jump and looking north I had a strange fancy that the tallest of the buildings, Affinity Living, resembled the Rockefeller Center in New York. I may need help.
The Square at Deansgate Square: the riparian walk
We wrote about this new public space in June 2021 and it is a fine asset at the southern end of the city centre. Under the beetling towers of Deansgate Square (easily the tallest cluster outside The Smoke) and curving alongside the River Medlock is a supremely confident and very handsome piece of public realm. It's a useful one too, connecting Old Deansgate with First Street and Home arts centre. The river adds music as it burbles on the northern side of the site and there's a wider square area which will be populated by food and drink businesses as 2022 progresses. There's plenty of seating in stone and timber and small amount of judicious planting. The site is made more entertaining by its fluctuating levels. There's a high-quality history wall explaining the site to add to the interest. The designers are Manchester-based TPM Landscape for Renaker Build and they've done fine work here.
Lincoln Square: a fitting square for a great man
Manchester talked to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s during the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln talked back and both wanted rid of the stain of Stateside slavery. To mark the dialogue the city was subsequently presented with a bronze of Lincoln which resided at Platt Fields Park until brought into the city centre in the eighties. He was placed in a freshly minted square that quickly became as stodgy as old cabbage. Opening shortly in 2022 the redesigned square, again from Planit-IE, will deliver a suitable space for Lincoln. By seamlessly linking the northern and southern sides in a carpet of paving the square appears immediately far bigger and cleaner and clearer, decluttered so to speak. That same paving sweeps down from Albert Square to Deansgate along the route of Brazennose Street. The bold forms of the seating and the simplicity of the planting help in the design.
Meanwhile the new office block, Brazennose House by Jon Matthews Architects, does the right thing by St Mary's RC church (the "Hidden Gem") by doing a switchback. This allows a full view of the church for the first time since it was rebuilt in 1848. The church might not be so hidden anymore but that's a good thing.
Abe, by the way, used to face north, but he's been swivelled a quarter turn in the re-invented square so he now faces west to America.
Kampus: the palm gardens
This is the most enchanting of all the new spaces accessible to the public. To say any public area is an oasis is a cliche beyond a cliche but here it's apt as the planting makes the space resemble an oasis. There's something tropical about the design from Exterior Architecture for developers Capital & Centric and HBD. Those palms and ferns should have David Attenborough hidden amongst them chucking adjectives of green appreciation around like a farmer sowing wheat. The red brick mitigates against that and anchors the gardens in Manchester. It's a happy combination.
The site used to be a canal arm that was filled in after WWII and then became a car park for a Manchester Polytechnic complex. The apartments surrounding the gardens come from three time periods, nineteenth century warehouses, 1960s academic and recent newbuild. The retention of the security lodge on stilts was a stroke of genius, as was surrounding the gardens with food and drink units with Nell's providing excellent ale.
Access is gained four ways with the most atmospheric down cobbled Little David Street soon to host a Great North Pie outlet. The view from the southern end of Kampus Garden with the Neo-Gothic tower of Minshull Street Courts peeping out (top image on this article) is delightful.
The Glade of Light: the contemplative space
After delays the memorial to the 22 victims of the Islamicist attack on the Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017 was opened as 2022 began. Designed by BCA and Smiling Wolf, the Glade of Light provides a gracious, thoughtful and apt public place of contemplation marking such a sombre event. The memorial occupies what used to be the traffic-heavy junction of Victoria Street and Fennel Street under the shadow of Manchester Cathedral. Both have been closed to traffic for a few years now. Victoria Street was then graced with a poor play area. The Glade of Light brings a high-quality space with the names of fallen on the stone circular seating and planting including native species of trees. The plan is for the remaining parts of Victoria Street and the area of rough ground adjacent to Chetham's School of Music and Library to be landscaped to a similar standard.
Embankment West Square: handsome and a useful connection
The first of two new squares in Salford. This one is accessed off Greengate over the footbridge from the Manchester side of the River Irwell at Manchester Cathedral. It occupies three levels and again majors on boldly designed seating with the emphasis on a few trees to provide welcome greenery. There's the Embankment Cafe for a coffee. The design comes from the prolific Planit-IE. The result is we now have a traffic-free walk from Manchester Cathedral, across the river, through City Suites Square, then along to Blackfriars Street. It's the more the merrier from developers of this type of happy connectivity.
New Bailey Square: plants and arches
This is a small but welcome addition, again in Salford. The square lies over the river from Spinningfields in the New Bailey Development by English Cities Fund. The public realm area has good planting, a small lawn and tough-looking timber furniture. It livens up a walk around this new little district and leads to the dramatic pedestrianised walk under a deep railway arch to Gore Street and on to Chapel Street. The railway came through in the 1840s to the design of the Sir John Hawkshaw (we wrote about this in 2013) and it was done to the current fashion. In this incidence ancient Egyptian architecture was all the rage so the iron columns holding up part of the railway line have capitals in the shape of papyrus and lotus leaves. The new work, the lighting scheme and so on, complements the older work. A fine new building the pedestrianised routes passes is by MAKE Architects. This is Three New Bailey and is faced with seemingly interwoven brick panels resembling threads. This is clearly a nod to the region's long-gone pre-eminence in textiles.
New Manchester Square: turning Japanese
This small piece of public realm nestles behind the over-scaled new buildings of New Manchester Square at the junction of Princess and Whitworth streets. There are three ways into the square which on one side sits over the Rochdale Canal across from the New Union pub and G-A-Y bar. The new work offers a short cut from Whitworth Street, through the new square to Brazil Street and Sackville Street. There's some cute planting and a Japanese-inspired series of stepping stones through gravel (is this a nod to survivor Samsi restaurant on Whitworth Street?) As stated, the new buildings by Simpson Haugh architects are way too big for the site, way too big to reference, as intended, the textile warehouse which survive in the area. Still the fact everyone can access the new square-cum-garden is to be welcomed. New Manchester Square is a place to be walked through rather than paused in, at least until the empty commercial units at ground floor can be filled with decent hospitality.
...and the half: Kampus revisited
On Chorlton Street and part of Capital & Centric's excellent Kampus development (see above) with its lovely garden square, is more public realm. This again has strong bones with good paving, big planters, cunningly shaped beds for more greenery and tough but attractive seating. Maintenance will be important here but as with all the public realm on this page the city is better for having it.
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!