Building Sights: Architecture in Manchester

They may not be household names, but Edgar Wood and Harry S Fairhurst designed some of Manchester's most innovative and groundbreaking buildings at the turn of the 20th century. Ed Glinert follows their trail

Some architects leave an indelible mark on a cityscape. Think Barcelona, think Gaudi; think London, think Christopher Wren; think Manchester, think Edgar Wood and Harry S Fairhurst.

Who? Wood and Fairhurst may not be instantly recognisable names but they deserve to be among such fine company. Wood was a follower of the Arts and Crafts movement and devout practitioner of Art Nouveau. Fairhurst was a corporate man, a builder of textile warehouses that crowned the city as the cotton and commercial centre of the early 20th century.

North of the city centre is Middleton, a run-down working-class suburb half-way between Manchester and Rochdale where Wood was born in 1860. A mile north of Middleton town centre at 33 Rochdale Road stands Redcroft, the exquisite house Wood built for himself in 1895. Part of a semi-detached pair with Fencegate, it is a remarkable achievement. The façade is asymmetrical, the entrance for one house facing the main road, the entrance to the other at the side. There is a profusion of unusual bays, gables and other romantic effects in unlikely positions, and the white rendered walls evoke a sense of purity.

Head south for Mellalieu Street where, at No 36, Wood boldly used reinforced concrete in the flat-roofed house he built for a local newspaper owner in 1906. At that time few architects were using a material derided as of use only in gardens.

On Long Street is the Methodist church that provided Wood with his biggest commission. Ingeniously planned, the buildings are grouped around a courtyard. The complex is mostly Gothic but the style is applied in a free and bold manner.

When Wood created a school on Middleton's Durnford Street he took his cue from Frank Lloyd Wright. Concerns for the children were paramount in his thinking, including providing sheltered play areas - revolutionary thinking at the time. Most of it has been knocked down.

But plenty of Wood's delights still stand around Middleton, including the bank in Market Place. Beautiful villas can be found on the Archer Park estate and in Alkrington Garden Village. And three small shops on Manchester New Road are enlivened by an outré pattern of white glazed tiles with vertical lines of chevrons not usually found in the foothills of the Pennines.

In Manchester city centre, between Deansgate and the river Irwell, is a tiny green square, Parsonage, around the demolished church of St Mary. Parsonage is ringed by a group of imposing early 20th-century warehouses that are the work of Harry Fairhurst who gave commercial Manchester its finest set of corporate blocks.

Here are the 1908 terracotta National Buildings, once the HQ for the National Boiler and Generator Insurance Company, the handsome classical Arkwright House of 1927, and Blackfriars House, a slender building of Portland stone finished in 1923 for the Bleachers' Association.

On King Street, the thoroughfare that Nikolaus Pevsner called "the king of Manchester" thanks to its elegant and exclusive architecture, Fairhurst created Ship Canal House, a Portland stone-faced HQ for the Ship Canal Company. When Ship Canal House was built in 1924, it was the tallest office block in the country. Look for the figure of Neptune above the colonnade, a clever disguise for the lightning conductor.

Princess Street and Whitworth Street, further south, are two canyons of grand warehouses: India House, Lancaster House, Bridgewater House, Asia House - bold, brazen and bulky in terracotta and stone, and topped off with Baroque embellishments.

Fairhurst's best surviving creation, Lee House on Great Bridgewater Street, came about after a trip Fairhurst and his son made to Chicago in the 1920s. They wanted to create Manchester's first American-style skyscraper, but only eight of the envisaged 17 floors were erected, resulting in that architectural oddity: a low-rise skyscraper.

To finish the tour take a trip two miles south of the city centre to the once exclusive estate of Victoria Park. On Daisy Bank Road stands Wood's extraordinary First Church of Christ Scientist, commissioned in 1902 and now housing offices but hoped by some to become a place of worship again. It has a dramatic prow-like gable, steep slate roof, round turret staircase and towering chimney. Pure expressionism: playful, original, mesmerising. No one has been able to make any permanent use of it since it closed as a church, and so it stands, on a Manchester sidestreet: an awesome tribute to an undervalued talent.

Visit manchesterhistory .net/edgarwood/home .html and cube.org.uk/thecity/archisnaps.asp

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