Manchester in Urbis: Reflections on city life

Manchester's ambitious Urbis is the world's first urban-experience museum. But, asks Jay Merrick, have the commercial pressures in its construction compromised its creative potential?
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The architectural dogfight between Manchester and Newcastle – "I'll see your latest icon, and raise you another two" – will tilt Manchester's way this summer with the opening of three new lottery-funded projects. Two are by major architects, yet it's the third whose image will remain longest in the mind and become postage-stamp-worthy.

The architectural dogfight between Manchester and Newcastle – "I'll see your latest icon, and raise you another two" – will tilt Manchester's way this summer with the opening of three new lottery-funded projects. Two are by major architects, yet it's the third whose image will remain longest in the mind and become postage-stamp-worthy.

That, though, is not the crucial issue. In an image-strewn world, even great buildings can be reduced to flecks of visual confetti, a bit of interesting grit in the corner of memory's eye. That third building is called Urbis. It's largely underwritten by £23m from the Millennium Fund, and is, of course, the first of its kind in the world – an interactive city-experience museum.

The pre-experience of Urbis, via the fund's PR matter, is – again, of course – pretty deadly. "The excitement of Urbis begins with the first sighting of the stunning landmark building, designed by Ian Simpson Architects. Urbis rises out of its island space to soar 35m over the new city-centre green space, Cathedral Gardens, located in the city's new Millennium Quarter.

"Befitting a building dedicated to creating new perspectives on urban life, Urbis is clad entirely in glass, which reflects the surrounding city and provides passers-by with tantalising visions of visitors inside. The Urbis experience begins when visitors buy a ticket for the Glass Elevator, a one-minute sky-glide that transports visitors to the fourth floor..."

And so on. Another lottery-funded mega-project, more adrenalising hype based on the promise of suitably protean thrills; no threat, apparently, to the requirements of short attention-spans. Modern urban regeneration – and Urbis is a key element of Manchester's Millennium Quarter scheme – is a complex challenge and perhaps even so mysterious as to be occult. Enthusiasm is vital to any renewal programme, but this familiar segue of regeneration into hyperbole suggests that even the most brilliant architectural interventions have more to do with wings and prayers than with verifiable science.

Urbis is certainly a striking architectural statement. When the cleverly skewed cascade of four floors of interactive stuff is operational, it may even be great fun, if not highly instructive. It may even survive the sales discourse that preceded it. But why pretend that it's a goer before it's a goer?

In the meantime, let's be clear. This is a thoughtfully designed building and a slightly risky one. Simpson Associates, based in Manchester and London, went for a green, glass hull-form on a roughly triangular plot. It has, in architectural terms, no connection with anything else around it. Forget context; spike legibility. Urbis may be a museum – couldn't they think of a better word? – but it is also a symbol. It stands, just weeks away from completion, about 100m from the epicentre of the cataclysmic Exchange Square IRA bomb blast of 1996. And in this respect, the architects got it right: Urbis had to be the kind of architectural affront that would front up the past; it had to look glisteningly neonatal.

Looking up at Urbis' sharp end – shades of Daniel Burnham's Flatiron building in New York – is therefore a pretty odd experience. Because it bears no aesthetic relationship with the streetscapes around it, the eye flicks back and forth rather fatuously. Other buildings are reflected in the glass, but so what? In the end – and the end comes within seconds – one realises that Urbis can only be itself, by itself. It is an architectural solipsism.

But should we flinch at something so decisively self-centred? We should not, and for two reasons. The first – its eruptive newness – has been covered. But even if anything goes, the results can still be disgraceful. Urbis is not that, because Simpson Associates have morphed its mass very cunningly.

It may, momentarily, look like a one-take glass thingy, but the moment passes; one quickly realises, walking around it, that the scaling and movement of the elevations in relation to the overall plan-form treat the site – half a square, in effect – with some consideration. One senses that a great deal of thought went into the shaping of Urbis, and into the subtle de-massing of the elevations by means of slot-effects and banding in the glazing. If not quite Son of Foster's Willis Faber building in Ipswich, then first cousin once removed.

And inside? Predictably, the building's wedgy plan and stepped elevations have made its sharp end rather difficult to resolve. The fifth and sixth floors, with progressively smaller floor-plates housing a restaurant surmounted by a rather titchy "penthouse" sponsored by Bollinger, seem distinctly compressed.

This is forgivable: Urbis must suck in 200,000 visitors a year to meet its running and development costs. The money taken on food and drink is unavoidably part of that equation. What does it matter if Posh and Becks are a little squished while sipping gin-and-Dubonnet in the Hopperesque neon glare of the Metro Print Works sign that is opposite?

But Simpson Associates may have missed a trick in another, much more important, matter. The twisting cascade of the exhibition levels – imagine four treads of a gigantic, gently spiralling staircase – is certainly a creative and spatially satisfying way to deliver the necessary floor area in a thin-runs-to-fat ground plan. Getting to the top by funicular is a fine idea, too. But why ruin the drama by making visitors move down through the levels using an essentially poky steel staircase? Why on earth couldn't they have cascaded from one to another on stairs that led, thrillingly, from one floor edge to another? Regardless of exhibition requirements, there must have been a way to do this. The decision to restrict views out over Manchester was also a mistake.

Maybe it won't matter. Maybe the hype will prove utterly true. Maybe visitors will experience "the shock of entering the city for the first time", and become immersed "in peoples' real lives" in other global cities: hearing and seeing the bustle of Singapore, the gridlock of São Paulo and the sights of Bombay and St Petersburg in People Pods. And meeting "a notorious Parisian graffiti artist who treats his city as a canvas, and a Tokyo teacher by day who is a bar hostess by night". There is more to Urbis than these Calvino-meets-Ballard highlights, though one fears hubristic meltdown in the management's earnest insistence on its "intellectual content".

Apart from the Manchester history segment of its exhibition, the point about Urbis is that it has no past. Here is a buck-naked building-cum-urban-experience, in search of an urban experience. And, looking down over Exchange Square from the Bolly bar, it seems almost ruthless to demand that Urbis deliver a provocatively creative experience. For once, what's wrong with wings and prayers?