21.12 We built this city: How Manchester presented itself to ARCLIB on Tuesday 15th March 2016

Our busy day took in a range of different buildings starting with the £48 million refurbishment of Manchester’s neoclassical Central Library opened in 1934 by King George V.  Our guide was Darren Rawcliffe, Service Development Officer. Closed in 2010 for four years the library was a shadow of its former glory with asbestos in its impressive dome and the corridors dark and uninviting.  But now the library is bright and airy with lots more floor space for the people of Manchester. A beautiful new central staircase shows off the revamped interior. The stacks are automated, with safety cut-outs if anyone gets trapped! The refurbished silent reading rooms are a joy: the stunning new ‘marble’ columns restore the rooms to their classical elegance…except that they are hollow! The Henry Watson Music Library is close by and allows the playing of instruments to encourage younger library users through the doors.  They even have a drum kit.  Is this really a library??

Manchester's Central Library  Henry Watson Music Library

Several small archives and local history collections are now based in the building such as the North West Film Archive and there is also a small business centre. The Library Theatre has moved along with the hallowed Cornerhouse cinema in Oxford Road to the new ‘Home’ arts venue on First Street but the library basement still holds the Rare Books collection.  However the changes on the ground floor are the most spectacular with a new café, a very active (and noisy) educational area and lots of interactive screens. There is also a large interactive ‘bookcase’. Touch the suitcase on the ‘shelf’ and it opens up with topics to choose from. Make your selection and the suitcase turns into a visual history lesson. Very Harry Potter! Manchester Central Library has been redesigned for the 21st century incorporating community with scholarly and leisure activities. There seems to be something for everyone and, as a result, is full of activity and people.

We then sped across Manchester, towards last year’s multi-award winner for architectural design.  Runner-up for the Stirling Prize and winner of the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year, the Whitworth Art Gallery and Museum was begun in 1889 and incorporates several different periods of building style.  It is now part of the University of Manchester. Although the extension is modern the stunning wooden Scandinavian galleries of the 1960s have been retained and the Edwardian beams of the Grand Hall have been revealed once more.  Nature figures largely in this project as the building merges into its surroundings. The fencing hiding the Whitworth has been removed so it is part of the park again.  There is a sense of reaching out to the local community; success can be measured by the number of schoolchildren observed (and heard) while we were being shown around by Nicola Walker, Head of Collections Care and Access.  There are floor to ceiling windows in the new restaurant (named ‘café in the trees’) and large windows in galleries form vistas onto the park akin to exhibition landscapes. There is also a new external space with ‘Gallery in the Park’.  However the Whitworth is not just an art gallery and museum.

Manchester Central Library's display areaThere is now a performance space and a stunning refurbished arched area for temporary displays. The Grand Hall is now available for event hire.  In fact the entire gallery building is available for hire. What a great place for a wedding!

The special collections are available on request but you need to know what you are looking for.  Database searching is available but no physical browsing which is a shame.  However that is the future for public buildings with space for community activities viewed as more important.  Access and education for all so that a new café visitor may become curious and develop an interest in finding out more when they are there.  It also goes without saying that these projects are costly (Whitworth cost £15 million and the interior space has doubled in size) so there needs to be a way of recouping expenditure and generating income to support sustainability.  It is hoped that Manchester Central Library and the Whitworth are future-proofing themselves for many decades to come.

The afternoon concentrated on MMU projects.  The University Library – Sir Kenneth Green (All Saints) houses its special collections here and we were introduced to Simon Green, Manchester Society of Architects and curator of ‘We built this city’.  This superb exhibition celebrated 150 years of the Manchester Society of Architects and charted the beginning of architecture as a profession; looking at the influence of the Manchester Society on the city and architectural design.

Design by Alfred WaterhouseHighlights included the works in Manchester by Alfred Waterhouse who was linked with the Victorian Gothic Revival Movement (Natural History Museum, South Kensington).  Other works from the MMU Special Collections included a nine-foot long etching of Trajan’s Column by Piranesi (1774) and four of Owen Jones’ Plans, sections and details of the Alhambra, 1842.

Onwards and upwards to our final destination.  The towering Benzie Building is the new Manchester School of Art and was the winner of the RIBA Stirling North West National Award Winner 2014.  Mindful of Manchester’s heritage, the interior is designed like a warehouse with open-plan floor designs and large windows to allow natural light to flood into the building.

Benzie Building student workspaceStudents are encouraged to design their own work spaces and collaborative working with other disciplines is in evidence through shared projects and teaching methods. Subjects such as fashion design, illustration and graphic design share spaces and ideas. It’s a new way of looking at things that is leading to new perspectives of academic study in the creative arts.

ARCLIB Spring visit group 2016Our thanks to Elaine Cooke for an interesting and busy day in Manchester which was thoroughly enjoyed by all involved.


By Lizzie Wildgoose, University of Portsmouth



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