The cream of Manchester: will we fudge our best chance to recreate a city centre?

Architects on shortlist must rise to opportunity of a lifetime, writes Jonathan Glancey
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The team of architects and planners chosen next month from a shortlist of five announced by Michael Heseltine yesterday to rebuild the centre of Manchester four months on from the IRA bomb that injured 220 people and caused immense damage to commercial and retail are being offered the chance of a lifetime: nothing less than managing the biggest city- centre regeneration project in Britain since the Lutfwaffe opened the way for major redevelopment in the Forties.

A look at the plans and models for the project, which go on show at Manchester City Hall this weekend, shows that none of the shortlisted plans offers the glamour, excitement or drama Mancunians might expect and deserve. At its peak in the late nineteenth century, Manchester was one of the country's most distinctive cities, a place of grand warehouses and grandiloquent civic buildings by some of Britain's finest architects. In recent years it has become one of the liveliest cities, famous for its nightlife and cafes and bars.

Here, however, there is no Manchester of the twenty-first century. Instead, all five shortlisted entrants to Manchester's International Urban Design Competition offer a plethora of urban-design cliches that we have come to expect in the Nineties: tree-lined boulevards, new city squares, flats and houses, a winter garden, a remodelled Arndale Centre, city walks, a new bus-station, pollution-free forms of urban transport, a waterside piazza on the Salford Quays and every idea that has popped up in urban design theory and practice over the past 10 or 15 years.

Each team is at pains to stress how green Manchester will become if it wins. Each posits the idea of wooing the professional middle classes back into the city centre. Each is a vision, more or less and in a variety of styles, of Richard Rogers's cafe society (where decaffinated cappuccino replaces pints of Boddingtons) and, possibly the better for it.

The ingredients are more or less right, yet none of the five hopefuls is entirely convincing. This is largely, perhaps, because the task of redesigning a major city centre is not something that can be undertaken lightly or too speedily. The five contenders began work in mid-July; they had to hurry, but, like London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666, the city is in a hurry to get down to brass tacks. The City of London was able to rebuild relatively quickly after the recent IRA bomb blast because it was effectively doing no more, and no less, than replacing like with like, one slick Seventies office block for a slick Nineties office block.

The plans and models of the five rival schemes will be on show at Manchester City Hall, in Albert Square. However, they are largely incomprehensible to anyone without training in architecture or town planning. But there is little doubt the winning team will abandon its first hasty thoughts and begin again from scratch.

What it needs to do is to win and then negotiate sufficient time to think the rebuilding through carefully and, if possible, to add the missing magic ingredient. Call it inspiration, call it imagination, but so far it is lacking.

With luck, and a lot of thought, this will result in a scheme that will create a city centre that will rival the best modern Europe has to offer.

The five teams shortlisted are Halliday Meecham Architects with Richard Reid Associates, EDAW (Urban Design and Economic Development, Simpson Associates, Benoy and Alan Baxter), Building Design Partnership with Donaldsons, Manchester First (too many consultants to mention, but a wealth of local talent, from architects to traffic engineers), and another large team of experts led by the architects and planners Llewelyn Davies.

The full cost of rebuilding is not yet known. As the 3,300lb bomb that exploded on 15 July destroyed 49,000 square metres of prime retail space and another 57,000 square metres of city-centre offices, and as the plans for the future are ambitious, the price will be high. Funding is expected to come from the Millennium Commission, the EU, English Partnerships, the Lord Mayor's Emergency Appeal Fund and local business.

A task force was set up immediately in response to the bombing, bringing the public and private sector together to manage the reconstruction.

The competition was the initiative of Mr Heseltine, who has long campaigned for re-energised city centres. The results deserve to match the energy and faith that have gone into the project so far. It might, however, have been a good idea if Manchester had decided to announce the winner of the competition on any other day than 5 November.

Leading article, page 15