Part of the fun of living in the city is thinking about the city.
In Manchester for some years now there has been a series of 4 x 4 evenings in which 4 speakers are given 15 minutes each to opine on a set urban topic. The latest one this week was “Sin City: The Morality Of Urban Growth” in which the star turn was The Guardian’s Architecture Correspondent, Oliver Wainwright who had done some flame fanning by writing a rude article in that paper about the belt of skyscrapers currently being built around the city centre.
Usually each of the speakers gets the same time as all the others. In this case, OW was given forty minutes or so to set out his case. This was that the skyscrapers are ugly, out of place and will do nothing for Manchester’s economy; are mostly investment vehicles for rich foreigners; that of 15000 residential units none are affordable homes (ie let at less than 80% of market value); and that the council should be ashamed of itself for granting them planning permission. He had even managed to get hold of an advertising promotion for the city from one of the investment fairs held in the hot places where rich people tend to congregate. The strapline? “Turn Your Determination Into Envy”. Great stuff.
Consultant Sheila McInerney was given about five minutes to reply. This broke with the 4x 15 minutes format and was unfair given the time allotted to the main speaker.
In her position I would have started by introducing myself as the representative of The Devil. Very courageously however she set to with a basic proposition that “economic growth has delivered every single improvement to humanity”. There was no great conspiracy against Manchester and any successful city was constantly reconfiguring itself; Manchester was never that pretty anyway; urban growth is not the cause of the city’s homelessness and other problems; and that low growth is not the answer. Given the handicap she had I thought she made a pretty good stab at a defence.
The other two speakers didn’t add that much and at the end the chair asked each of the participants for one phrase to sum up what was needed to improve matters. “More power to the public sector” said OW. “More cash” said Sheila. There was simply no common ground between them and as so often these days you were implicitly invited to take sides – which will get us nowhere.
Oddly enough, the comment which seemed to cause most offence was that Manchester is not a pretty city. I’d have thought it’s self-evident. I like the place very much and think it’s a great city but ‘pretty’ – such a demeaning word - is not an adjective I would apply to it.
Visually, there are some very interesting buildings but it’s not really an architectural wonder either. For me the real knockout visuals are the city’s engineered structures. I never fail to feel a jolt coming in on the tram as it whizzes past and under and over the bridges and viaducts which span the city: the bracing and girdling, the bulk and curve – the sheer mass of them. You can almost see stovepipe-hatted Victorian engineers sucking on their clay pipes and stabbing at creased plans with muddy forefingers.
Here’s a shot I took this summer of the Castlefield Basin - which is where the Bridgewater Canal meets the River Medlock. Three 19th century railway viaducts frame the late 20th century Merchants’ Bridge. The modern one says “Look at me!” but the Victorian ones just say “Get outta my way!”. You can see a couple of those controversial tower blocks going up mid-left.
Here is the MSJ and AR again with a double bounce first over the Rochdale canal and then over the adjacent roadway. It’s a 21st century tramway that it carries now rather than the original 19th century railway.
Even the footbridges look built for a race of giants.
It didn’t stop with the Victorians, either. Here is a massive concrete column holding up steel girders to get the tram system across the Mersey to the airport. Pretty? Not really - but pretty impressive, certainly.
Apparently there are another 21 tower blocks planned for the bottom end of the city. Maybe one day they will have the same aura as the bridges but I doubt it. Bridges are infrastructure. They are for everyone.