Jonathan Schofield contemplates ruins and how economics always wins

Ruins fascinate us. 

They are the memento mori of landscape and townscape. For those of a  contemplative nature they make us think about the fragile nature of existence, its temporary and fleeting nature. 

Of course, this is Manchester city centre and commerce abhors an undeveloped vacuum.

Ruins come in various forms and exist for various reasons. 

Sometimes they are left as a reminder of the violence of war, examples can be found in in the bombed out churches from World War II in Liverpool, Coventry and Berlin.

Sometimes they are fake, placed in a landscape for decoration or for the express purpose of making us reflect on the passage of time. Mow Cop Castle from 1734 is a case in point in Staffordshire, the fake Liverpool Castle from 1912 at Rivington is another. 

2024 04 16 Hotspur Mill With Mow Cop
Mow Cop Castle is a fake ruin Image: Confidentials

Most ruins are created through economic forces through decline or change of function. 

These are the abandoned places, the redundant places, and because of that melancholy uselessness, carry added potency and poignancy. A walk at Cheesden Brook between Rochdale and Edenfield delivers a classic example: the old mill wall in juxtaposition with the fast flowing water and the wild moor. The moor and the brook whispering, "you come and go, we stay". 

2024 04 16 Hotspur Press
Cheesden Brook and the broken mill Image: Wikimedia

The empty husk of the Hotspur Press building on Cambridge Street in Manchester city centre, part of the former Medlock Mills from the early nineteenth century, holds enchantment. If it were to be surrounded by other ruined mill buildings it wouldn't be so powerful, but viewed from under the railway viaduct on Jack Rosenthal Way at First Street the contrast of the mouldering, buddleia-festooned old building overshadowed by tall modern towers and framed on one side by an almost farcically prosaic Starbucks is beguiling. 

It's so oddly magical I've often wondered if it could be preserved as it is: an industrial version of those war shattered churches. In the modern city it could remind us of the mighty textile industry that along with engineering and nous created this city. It could act as a memorial to the millions of people in this region who worked within textiles. 

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Hotspur Press from the south Image: Confidentials
2024 04 16 Hotspur Mill Project 9
The blue, er brown, waters of the Medlock lapping at the former mill Image: Confidentials

Of course, this is Manchester city centre and commerce abhors an undeveloped vacuum. Property developer Manner working with Manchester's award-winning Hodder + Partners have therefore come up with a startling solution to preserve the well-loved shell of Hotspur Press but make it work financially. They're transforming the old building into a 4-storey podium for a 36-storey brick clad tower. 

2024 04 19 Hotspur House
Hotspur House proposals Image: Manner
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The proposed tower jutting through the mill from Jack Rosenthal Street Image: Hodder + Partners

This is what the press release says: 'Located on Cambridge Street, the proposed scheme includes a 36-storey PBSA (purpose built student accommodation) development, a new public square and connected public realm improvements for the wider community. Manner will also preserve much of the existing brick exterior, celebrating the heritage of the building.  

'Slight changes have now been made to the scheme design – mainly relating to the internal layout of the building, including a small reduction in the height and width of the tower. 

'Working within this reduced massing, an additional floor of accommodation would be provided – achieved through a more efficient scheme design – with the development now proposed to provide 595 student bedrooms opposed to the previous 578 bedrooms.

'A central part of the scheme is the ground floor commercial space. Following community feedback, this space has been increased. Manner is now searching for independent operators to occupy the space, which is targeted at company’s that fit with the developer’s aspirations for The Hotspur Press and that will offer something different to the neighbourhood.'

Richard James, MD of Manner, says: 

“Since we submitted the planning application in December last year, we have been working with the City Council and local resident groups to further improve our plans. 

“These constructive and positive conversations have helped us to better understand how we can make the best possible contribution to the local neighbourhood and ensure the construction process is carefully managed to minimise local disruption.  

“These discussions have been immensely helpful, and we are pleased to be working with the local community to deliver the regeneration of The Hotspur Press.”

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It's a tall intrusion at Hotspur Image: Hodder+Partners

The proposals look to have excellent public realm from Macgregor Smith that delivers a link between Cambridge Street and the First Street area. It's good that the curved brick extension on Cambridge Street is to be retained as a decorative feature. 

The tower will be controversial for many and while sympathetic in colour will seem to many incongruously scaled given it will be over 100m high, despite the 'small reduction in the height and width'. 

2024 04 16 Hotspur Mill Project 2
Hotspur tower as it might be viewed from the junction of Whitworth Street West and Albion Street Image: Manner

Ruined mills and foresight

When I was researching my book Illusion and Change Manchester I came across a passage which has often put me in mind of the Hotspur Press building.

Turns out John Bright, one of the great British politicians and orators, knew all about the slippery nature of Time. Speaking in Manchester Town Hall at the opening banquet on Thursday 13 September, 1877, he recalled a visit to Scotland in the 1840s.

“(As we walked amongst) the ruins of Tantallon Castle, my friend said, with a look of sadness, “How long will it be before our great warehouses and factories are as complete a ruin as this castle?”

“I have thought of that scores of times since. We must bear in mind that great cities have fallen before Manchester (was) known; that there have been great cities, great mercantile cities, on the shores of the Mediterranean - Phoenecia, Carthage, Genoa, Venice – that have slipped.

“Therefore when we are met tonight in this magnificent hall, enjoying the generous hospitality of the Mayor and his friends, surrounded by this vast industrial and powerful district, let us not for a moment imagine that we stand upon a foundation absolutely sure and absolutely unmovable, and that we are not liable to the dangers which have overthrown and overwhelmed the great municipalities and cities and industries of other countries and of other times.”

In many ways his fears have come to pass. ‘Great warehouses and factories’ lie in ruins across the Greater Manchester conurbation, in his home town of Rochdale, in the city and across the region.

But he would be even more astonished at how so many of the ‘great warehouses and factories’ in the city centre, in particular, have softened, turned domestic and been converted into apartments, or shifted focus and become hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and other businesses. Would it perhaps have amused him to spend the night in a luxury air b'n'b apartment in a former warehouse or factory he once knew and recalled seeing a workforce dancing to the rhythm of belt-driven steam engines rather than a Nespresso machine?

Given his teetotalism, perhaps not all of these newer activities would have pleased Bright and he would, of course, shudder at the region’s decline in manufacturing. Yet, perhaps, he might not be too unhappy to see above him smokeless skies and the rivers coming back to life, and how much brighter and appealing the city centre has become. How it is now much more than a place to simply do business.

Mills and muck in the nineteenth century Image: Confidentials

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