A Change of Heart for Manchester?

Last week a series of coincidences got me thinking about the deeper role of green space in place-making; what gives a city its character and what green spaces say about the community which creates them.

I was recently given some photographs taken by an elderly aunt who is a keen photographer. Amongst the photos, mainly of family interest were some of Manchester city centre shortly before the ‘improvements’ of the early noughties. The ones of Piccadilly Gardens particularly caught my eye.

Gardeners tending the seasonal bedding in the old gardens, 1998

Anyone who knows Manchester is aware that Piccadilly Gardens are the heart of the city, and those who remember the sunken Victorian gardens, 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.

The old gardens in 1998

It was the green heart of Manchester and helped to define the city, in the way that many gardens and squares do in cities throughout the world. 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 Millennium and the Commonwealth Games 2002, the whole city centre was redesigned and rebuilt. A ’starchitect’, Tadao Ando, was commissioned to help design Piccadilly Gardens in collaboration with EDAW Group who oversaw the city’s regeneration.

Ando's Wikipedia entry states

Ando’s architectural style is said to create a "haiku" effect, emphasizing 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 Victorian 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.

Last week I walked through the gardens on my way to the station and wondered what the new ‘gardens’ now say about the city and the Mancunians.

Guess the 'inner meaning'

What was once lauded as an award-nominated regeneration scheme of excellence has gradually revealed itself as a badly-designed attempt at contemporary urban landscape architecture. The ‘spatial circulation’ of people was misjudged with a failure to predict obvious desire lines and human behaviour -and where does ‘simple’ end and boring and meaningless begin?

Easily predictable desire lines

It is uninteresting, uninviting, unattractive, grey and grim; the paths are not sufficiently wide, areas of lawn are mud patches, the fountains frequently break down, and no-one seems to want to stay around to enjoy its few amenities.

The 'Berlin Wall' -a modern masterpiece, or the Emperor's new clothes?

Even Tadao Ando now admits that the dull grey minimalist/neo-brutalist ‘Berlin Wall’, included as a visual barrier and noise buffer, could, and should, be made into a green wall. To any admirer of good contemporary architecture and landscape design it is seriously disappointing that so little care seems to have been taken over the scheme, and so little appreciation and understanding of Manchester was shown.

Welcome to our beautiful city!

There is no soul, no sanctuary, no spirit, no vibrant urban life on the site, and there is certainly no garden! Ryoanji it ain’t! Where’s the Zen, the ‘mono no aware’, the haiku? The only haiku brought to my mind is Issa’s

What a world,

where lotus flowers

are ploughed into a field’

Beautifully designed mud patches!

The term ‘architectural myopia’ has been applied to the disconnect between what architects see and what people need. The desire to create artistic statements to impress an elite caucus in the architecture community and so further promote their own celebrity, ignoring the human dimension. The city’s leaders still claim it is a masterpiece!

The old gardens had their problems, they were not accessible to everyone, the infrastructure was tired and in need of investment and there were problems with rough-sleepers, alcoholics and anti-social behaviour.

Piccadilly Gardens 1954 by L.S. Lowry

However, it had an authentic heritage from the days of 'King Cotton', through the blitz with its bomb-shelters; drawn and painted by Lowry it remained a fine feature representing our city up to the end of the 20th Century. It wasn’t paradise but it was ours.

Coincidentally, the same day I took the photos, the Manchester Evening News ran a story about the gardens, with similar concerns, adding to the accumulation of local dissatisfaction over the years.

Manchester Evening News article

The site now has a crime and drug-dealing problem to add to the rough-sleeper one, but it could still be made special with a bit of effort, and an acceptance that despite the money spent and all the misguided PR, it has failed as a public space. The fact that the site has been partially privatised and that the city is facing huge budget cuts makes the problem more complex and a solution difficult and probably very distant.

If a replacement had been genuinely needed for the Millenium, the city that gave the world canals, railways, atomic theory, computers, graphene, competitive football, great music, and,especially, some of the earliest parks, deserved better than this. Manchester is a world-class city and vibrant regional centre, with a distinguished history of influential ideas, brilliant ingenuity and great industrial design. It has a proud tradition of managing its parks and green spaces well. This important space needed something really special to do it full justice. Instead we were given an expensive set of emperor's new clothes, and the evidence of its current condition provides the naked truth that it is not fit for purpose.

Manchester is now left with void in its heart and a withering soul. I think the city and its brilliant people deserve better!

The Manchester Evening News has started an e-petition to improve the gardens at http://petitions.manchester.gov.uk/petitions.ti/piccadillygardensmen#in_sign_start if you would like to take things further. It has proved incredibly popular with over 14,000 signatures last time I looked

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