Sunday, 19 February 2012

Having Lutyens for lunch  (OR 'This piece of cod that passeth all understanding')

Manchester seems to have a severe lack of understanding for its two works by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). Firstly we had the vandals' proposal to remove his Cenotaph (1924) which now has the temerity to find itself in the path of an expanded tram junction.

Secondly we have the re-opening of the banking hall of the former Midland Bank (1929) as a branch of the 'Jamie's Italian' chain. Good as it is to see the building in use again after four years of closure the refurbishment does little to meet the exalted standard set by the greatest British architect of the early twentieth century. Calamitous decisions in planning and decor illustrate the sadly reduced aspirations of the city, and its inability to tolerate the few fragments of sublime architecture which are in its care.

The interior designers are clearly embarrassed by Lutyens's generous abundance of space and seem impelled to fill it up with unnecessary obstacles. The most prominent of these is the back bar unit which is too tall and placed too far forward across the centralised space, thereby destroying its symmetry and obscuring the view of the vaulted ceiling from the entrance area. If the bar had been placed between the two corner entrances (and BOTH of them maintained as entrances) the back bar unit would have conveniently decorated the essentially blank wall beneath the three great arched windows with their framed view of Edward Salomons's Reform Club (1871) across King Street.

Compounding this error of positioning there is the provision of lighting fixtures. I counted SEVEN different types from my perch, which was itself a pretty indifferent piece of furniture. The metallic framing over the bar, with its curious carriage lamps is so laughably poor a contribution to this prestigious interior one can only assume it must have come very cheap.

The main dining area (concealed behind that ill-proportioned back bar unit) just appears prosaic and character-free, a generic space wastefully concocted from a really special one. Diners will have to hope that the naff displays of oven gloves are not the start of even more cheerfully inauthentic branded clutter in more oddly placed furniture.

Verdict? I don't care who the chef is, this dish is being sent back to the kitchen!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Urban Degeneration

Swift has been the response from government and city fathers to the damage caused by looting and riot in Manchester on the night of 9 August. zero tolerance, retribution, firm staterments of intent have been deployed to outline a strategy of 'business as usual'. But what business? Planning policies that marginalise the status of the war dead and represent the administration of the law as just another lifestyle option in the bureaucratic-commercial complex. This is the debased state of the civic landscape in Manchester after nearly a quarter of a century of trickledown urbanism.

I refer, of course, to my perennial hobbyhorse of the pitiful quality of public space in the city. I remarked in my book 'Urban Ethic: Design in the Contemporary City' on the predictably poor examples of contemporary public space which Manchester had produced in the decade after the 1996 IRA bomb. A further five years on, after countless more CABE design review sessions, and a gravy train of expensively remunerated consultants can we discern that the situation has improved? Economic slump has probably slackened the pace, and austerity measures have trimmed the consultancy budgets but terrible judgements in taste and dubious values continue to produce cynically compromised projects.

The proposal for St. Peter's Square, Manchester, has been discussed elsewhere but the question might seriously be asked that if Charlie Gilmour deserves 16 months in prison for desecrating the Whitehall Cenotaph what would be an appropriate term be for those planners and traffic engineers who are unable to cope with the inconvenient position of the Manchester Cenotaph and propose chucking it aside in their own transport tantrum?

At the other end of what was once a great civic route Crown Square has been looted of all dignity. Surrounded by taller and vulgarly aggressive neighbours, chav-ery erected into a form of city-building, the sombre dignity of L.C. Howitt's Crown Court is now confronted by a weirdly rustic haven 'The Oasthouse'. This bizarre intrusion into the public space - yet another pub in a city drowning in licensed premises - makes a permanent feature of last Christmas's temporary 'ski lodge'. Every scrap of available space in the city has to be turned into a source of income and be available to the highest corporate bidder. Respect for the law? Get another round in - and make mine a large one!

It is at least a decade since Manchester's exclusive new apartments took shape behind hoardings lined with warnings on how to avoid drink-fuelled urban violence but the continuing situation at ground level shows no sign of improvement. An apparently non-judgemental state shelled out support for the unloved offspring of one night stands between rampant developers and architects with the metre running, planning authorities observing this messy congress like panting voyeurs. Illiterate to every sense of urban value or decorum the resulting monsters require the most exclusive brands to achieve the most lucrative turnover. Manchester City Council now appears to exist primarily to facilitate the expansion of these corporate brands, and predictably then feigns shock when chaotic individuals mistake this service as a free offer. The misreading of private commerce as the public realm, the downgrading of the collective against the encouragement of individual gratification, preferably paid for on credit, is the degraded cause of our urban malaise.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

James Stirling: Notes from the archive

The work of James Stirling, on exhibition in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain (until 21 August) represents the first major exhibition reassessing his contribution to twentieth century architecture since his unexpected death in 1992. The display of so many small drawings dredges up in my tmind an observation from a personal friend of his 'It's hard to imagine those big hands producing such tiny drawings'. The key motif of the work is a crystalline geometry which persistently returns from the student project for the hexagonal mountain rangers' station to the later arts complexes with their sophisticated multilevel circulation strategies.

The exhibition is disappointingly staged. An efficicent subdivision of the oeuvre into early, middle and late periods is fitted snugly into the three gallery spaces. Material which tends to be rather small in size, (although it being the work of Stirling big in scale) is presented in a deadpan but methodical way with drawings on the walls and models associated with particuar projects isolated in groups on centrally placed tables. The judicious use of Stirling's trademark vivid palette would, perhaps, have added a little impact to the display. Inexplicably, a useful timeline of Stirling's career is marooned on a separate floor with a slideshow of photographs. The attention is so completely focused on Stirling that little context is offered to explain the successes and disappointments of his career, the relative paucity of British projects built after the university series and the greater esteem with which Stirling was held in Europe and the United States.

What gives pause for prolonged reflection is less nostalgia for the imagination of a vanished genius than rather more mundane matters. Major buildings are just not produced in this way any more. A whole plethora of digital systems have replaced Stirling's, his partners and assistants manually produced exploration of space and form, leaving the student of architectural evolution with a much harder task to trace the development of a project through repeated iterations of forms in different juxtapositions. The abiding impression is of the archaeology of the recent past, a slightly puzzling display of fascinating forms which continue to be worthy of exploration.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Death and the monument

(Keen observers should note the irony of the tram name in this photograph)

When I saw two men urinating on The Great Stone, oblivious to it's dedication to 'The Glorious Dead' last October I should have realised the extent of the threat to the city's memorial to its war dead. The news splashed gleefully across yesterday's Manchester Evening News that the city fathers are considering moving the cenotaph in St.Peter's Square to make way for more efficient tramlines follows in a long and tragic line of municipal waste when it comes to their judgements about the public realm. Who can forget such previous  triumphs for the council as the mysteriously vanished Market Street obelisk, the similarly vanished 'B of the Bang' or the continuing calamity which is Piccadilly Gardens?

In the Cenotaph's current arrangement one has a rare ensemble of monument and civic buildings which work to dignify the public realm and to lead citizens through their city. The current siting of the tram stops is a problem, but fails to fundamentally impair the beauty of the relationships between the Lutyens monument and Harris's library, with Library Walk, and with the broader confluence of Oxford Street, Peter Street and Lower Mosley Street. The more sensitive projects displayed for St.Peter's Square last summer recognised the importance of this piece of grand urban composition. The obvious solution is to move the tram stops closer to Princess Street, since there is a large ill-defined territory designated as the Peace Gardens, but hardly shown any respect as such.

Would Liverpool consider moving its memorial from outside St.George's Hall, or Sheffield consider moving its memorial from the beautifully restored City Hall? So why should Manchester even contemplate it? Do it's echoes provide some problem to potential investors in the office scheme to replace Elizabeth House? We should be told, but are unlikely to hear that from the MEN or the city council. At least presently the Cenotaph is spared the indignity of being exiled to Spinningfields, but I might come to regret that suggestion.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Future of Urban Architecture?

The closure of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale gives the opportunity to consider the representation of the urban condition as displayed in a number of pavilions and installations. The cityscape of the future, and its suburban outposts, are predicted to be weirdly accumulated from commercial products and the grimly repeated repetitive architecture one can instantly recognise as the centres and peripheries of Springfield or even Shelbyville. 

They are cartoons, the timid response of the creative mind to the often hectoring diagrams and statistics which featured in the previous Biennale. Perhaps by the time of the the next opening in the Giardini the city will receive some serious representations and designs which deal with the often difficult reality, rather than the bi-polar visions of utopia and dystopia which fill the present void.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

REVIEW: Owen Hatherley - A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Briatin

Firstly let us agree that any product of architectural criticism which avoids the scylla of boosterism and the charybdis of obscurity is a very good thing. Owen Hatherley's much praised book takes a long look at recent British urban architecture in an extended homage to the legacy of J.B. Priestley, Ian Nairn and (briefly) Beryl Bainbridge. He surveys the topography and landmarks in a knowingly futile search for the genius loci of contemporary Britain. This is a romantic quest because industrialisation, post-war planning and service-sector regeneration have surely corroded the very possibility of discovering it.

So what is the book's purpose? Three years into the credit crunch which curtailed the period of rapid construction he discusses it can surely be nothing more than an essay in retrospect if not nostalgia, especially as very little is offered as a positive product of emulation. The Climate Camp, for example,  offers as little in the form of social architecture as Greenham Common did. Environmentalism will only be truly effective when adopted within conventional society, not as a form of exile from it or a trustafarian hobby. Hatherley's abiding preference, however, would appear to be for the firm smack of top-down planning as expressed in the architecture of the pre-Thatcher era. But that ignores the miseries created for many by the failed deck access utopia of Park Hill or the Hulme Crescents. As Sally Stone's testimonyimplicitly asked in a recent Radio 4 programme was any architectural vision worth being mugged for cat food?

Familiar targets provide the opportunity for a bit of knockabout. Make, Urban Splash, and rather perversely BDP get it in the neck, the last however also praised for Liverpool 1. But a curious absentee from Hatherley's account is the figure of Micjhael Heseltine. The great bogey-woman Thatcher (and her immediate heir Major) would surely have left few architectural monuments behind if he had not been her Environment Secretary, proponent of Docklands development, 'Minister for Merseyside' after the Toxteth riots, and following her fall the minister responsible for the largest wave of pit-closures and the initiation of the Millenium Dome. He, surely, established the competitive jungle which was the British cityscape whence the Blair / Brown projects sprang. But then, of course, it is a standard response on the left to reserve most of scorn for the fellow-travellers on your own side.

Ultimately the book is a document of an era and an attitude. It might be part of the story itself rather than an objective account of the period. But then it is too soon to be able to write that history. One has only to consider the posthumous fate of another 13 year period of government, characterised by conformity, deference and a consumer boom. Despite the disillusion which ended their control, between 1951 and 1964 under the Tories many historians would have us believe we enjoyed a golden period of architectural production, beloved of all right-thinking heritagistas. After current events have played out maybe the architecture of Blair and Brown will appear equally utopian.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

CABE useless aircraft carrier or submarine aground ?

The coalition government's withdrawal of funding from the 'ship of doom' CABE - hardly a surprise given the scale of cuts planned - perhaps draws a line under the products of the Rogers report Towards an Urban Renaissance. The intentions of that document were benign but that would have been the case with any report following the Thatcher-Major years.

So it's back to an existential struggle to claw some aspect of beauty from the cacophonous urban realm CABE failed to prevent. But at least we'll be spared the parade of conflicts of interest dressed up as authoritative and impartial advice. Temporarily. In due course the 'big society' will no doubt realise it needs another quango, and then it'll start all over again ...