Saturday, 27 November 2010

Northern Quarter: Britain's Best Neighbourhood?

Afflecks Palace. Image from the Manchester Evening News.

The Academy of Urbanism, a think-tank that aims to "extend urban discourse beyond built environment professionals", has awarded Manchester's Northern Quarter the Great Neighbourhood Award in the 2011 Urbanism Awards. At a ceremony in London the Academy, whose members include architects, planners, engineers, developers and designers, announced the Northern Quarter as the winner from an initial short-list that included Belfast's Cathedral Quarter and Glasgow's Pollokshields. The 450 Academicians who make up the organisation were asked to pick a winner from each category based on the results on an assessment visit to each location last summer. Key to the nomination and assessment method was how improved and enduring that urban environment is.

Speaking about the Awards John Thompson, Chairman of The Academy of Urbanism, said: "The Academy of Urbanism created these awards precisely to recognise places ... which have helped transform local quality of life through good design and planning ... the high standard and broad spread of nominees ... inspires confidence in the widespread community-led regeneration that continues to take place across the UK and Ireland." (The Press Release available here). Speaking to BBC Radio Manchester, Mr Thompson added that the Northern Quarter is "one of the most interesting places in the country."

The award has sparked a debate in the city and the country as a whole as to what exactly constitutes a great neighbourhood. Some critics have cited that the Academy, by its very nature of dealing with Urbanism' excludes certain communities however the response from Mr Thompson to this has been to define Urbanism as the "footprint we collectively leave on the planet." Comments on the Manchester Evening News article responding to the award were mixed but on the whole reaction from Mancunians has been positive

Manchester City Council's Pat Karney, speaking to the BBC, said he was "pleased as there's a real community feel to the place [and] the warmth of the people  that live and work [there] and the cluster of small business has created a very desirable neighbourhood."

Vaughn allen, chief executive of Cityco, Manchester's city centre, also speaking to the BBC was keen to point out how the Northern Quarter "has transformed itself and diversified, creating an eclectic mix of fashion designers, independent shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, creative agencies and private galleries."

However, Dave Haslam, author and DJ (he DJ'd over 450 times at the legendary Hacienda club) was quick to disagree as to him "a neighbourhood' should be a fertile, intriguing, comfortable mix." He went on to add that "it's increasingly become a spill-over from the Printworks in the evening and some of that arty bohemian thing was part of what made the area special is draining away ... the fact is you never see children in the Northern Quarter - or old people. I imagine a perfect neighbourhood to have a school of a nursery, a park, somewhere for old people to sit and watch the world go by, and so on."

What is clear here is that the term neighbourhood is a loaded one, with different meanings to different people depending upon their own personal experiences of the urban space that makes up their own past, present and visionary (future) neighbourhoods. Something which can not be denied has been the ability of the Northern Quarter to regenerate, re brand and reinvent itself without little private capital investment which has come to symbolise city-centre regeneration projects of the last 20 years.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Cornerhouse and Library Theatre to Share New Home

Cornerhouse Entrance (from Cornerhouse Website)

Two of Manchester's leading institutions for the visual arts have announced plans this week to share a purpose built facility in the City Centre. Cornerhouse is a centre for contemporary visual arts and film in Manchester, located on a prominent and busy site at the intersection of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, with Oxford Road Station nestled in behind. The Manchester Library Theatre Company has, over the past 58 years, produced high quality seasons of drama, musical theatre and plays with a growing education programme in the basement of Manchester Central Library.

A new "major cultural facility" will become the home for both Cornerhouse and Library Theatre Company. The City Council hopes that the new £19 million purpose-built facility - boasting five cinemas, 600 sq m of contemporary gallery space, a 500-seat theatre and smaller studio/education spaces - will help "unlock" up to 10,000 jobs in a key regeneration area in Manchester city centre - The First Street development.

Dave Moutrey, the Cornerhouse Chief Exectuive, had this to say on his blog: "Clearly the arts do have real hard economic value and can make a very positive impact on people's lives so it is a credit to Manchester that public and private sectors recognise this and are still prepared to act." Whilst Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, said: "These highly imaginative proposals will be a win-win for Manchester. They support existing jobs and will help attract others to this important gateway site. In the aftermath of the recession and facing unprecedented public sector cuts this is exactly the sort of scheme we need to get people into work, get our economy moving even faster, and show the world that Manchester is still an ambitious city still on the up."

Cornerhouse has drawn up a number of plans for expansion in recent years, most recently there was Arca's black rubber-clad box (2008) and David Chipperfield's reworking of the former Kinemacolour Palace cinema (1998). However, it appears that the constraints of the site and the current building have meant that a move to a new purpose-built facility, with the increased potential to expand its creative programme, is too attractive to turn down.Nothing has yet been announced about the redevelopment of the Cornerhouse's current home but occupying such a key site in the City Centre careful consideration should be given to programme this takes.

The Library Theatre, as part of the ongoing refurbishment work to Manchester Central Library (by Ryder Architecture), was investigating the potential of moving to the Theatre Royal in Peter Street (being worked on by Stephenson Bell) however these has been scrapped on cost grounds.

'Functional model and outline design concept'
by RHWL for developer of the site, Ask (from Architects Journal)

The new site, close to the former Hacienda club on Whitworth Street, could be open by 2014. An international design competition will be launched for the project which already has £16 million of financing ring fenced (as part of the Library Theatre relocation deal) and a further £3 million expected to come from third party contributions and future capital receipts.

Read the full 'Report for Resolution - First Street Cultural Facility' by Manchester City Council here.