Site Unseen: Ours is even bigger than Bradford's: Manchester Town Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The modern town hall is a place that can safely be ignored. Since the emasculation of local government, not many people know, or care, who does what in the council's name. A Lady Porter or Derek Hatton may momentarily grab the headlines, but the important decisions are now taken by faceless bureaucrats in London.

The Victorians would have been horrified. Much of their energy and vigour arose from a determination not to be dominated by London. What Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds thinks today, London will surely think tomorrow.

The most potent symbols of this self-confidence were the imposing town halls erected all over the country. Go to Bolton, Halifax, Stockport, Rochdale, Middlesbrough, Birmingham or Manchester and often the most impressive building is the town hall, still standing proud and erect. No one pushes us around and gets away with it.

Local pride insisted that each town hall be better, or at least different, from those of neighbouring rivals. Leeds' town hall, for instance, was designed to be just a little bit bigger than Bradford's. Liverpool's town hall was an imposing Classical building, which meant that Manchester's had to be constructed in the Gothic style.

And what style] Designed by a young architect called Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1877, it was a no-expenses- spared showpiece of all that Manchester had to offer Britain and the world.

Outside, a riot of towers and pinnacles; inside, a visual extravaganza that bewitches the eye with traceried windows, leaded glass, a profusion of courtyards and a magnificent spiral staircase.

But Waterhouse was careful not to let this opulence get out of control or fail to emphasise that Manchester's wealth was built on solid graft. Inside the Great Hall, for instance, 12 murals colourfully celebrate the importance of labour through the ages.

On the floors, delicate mosaics contain patterns of hardworking bees and the cotton plants that fuelled the textile industry. Busts of stern- faced local worthies remind the visitor of the importance of being industrious - we are, after all, inside 'King Cotton's Palace'.

But the town hall was not just a morality lesson in marble, brick and stone -it also functioned as a working building. Waterhouse, making ingenious use of an awkward, wedge-shaped site, incorporated a series of corridors that run right around the interior of the building, ensuring that no room is shut away or inaccessible.

In the committee rooms and the council chamber, important questions were once debated and decided. This is no longer the case. But the town hall stands as a tribute to local and civic pride - a building from the past, certainly, but perhaps also a pointer towards a decent future.

The town hall is in Albert Square, Manchester. There are free tours on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.