Modern Manchester must keep its charm
THERE may be a greater concentration of great old architecture in the centre of Manchester than can be found today in the equivalent square mile of the City or the West End of London: not only masterpieces by Charles Barry, Charles Cockerell, Alfred Waterhouse and Edwin Lutyens, but numerous fine buildings by local architects.
Many of these have now been put to good use or at least given new life. Banking halls have been adapted as bars and restaurants and warehouses converted into flats. There is, of course, some offensive contemporary architecture. A prominent example with a flashy surface, a pointlessly angular plan and exhibitionist cantilevering, has arisen on Deansgate, beside the John Rylands Library. The library, with its massive ashlar walls and dense shoots of late-gothic ornament, all executed in dark Cheshire sandstone—designed by Basil Champneys—is perhaps the most distinguished of all the city’s Victorian buildings.
Great changes to the building have taken place in recent years. The University of Manchester, which took responsibility for this great gift to the citizens of the city in 1972, has certainly succeeded in making them feel welcome. We enter through an elegant extension of 2007 by AustinSmith:lord, which also serves as bookshop and cafe. It conducts us to a Gothic corridor, where, were it not for the central heating, we might feel that we had suddenly entered the world of The Eve of St Agnes.
Twenty-five years ago, you would hardly have dared to bring a child into this solemn seat of learning. Today, you almost feel it’s wrong to enter without one. In an exhibition recently opened there, we meet some curious objects, the first being a pretty reticule found in the grounds of Newstead Abbey. We’re given a snatch of Byron’s poetry, asked what we use now in place of a reticule and encouraged to ponder why people collect relics, souvenirs and memorabilia.
We meet more objects, including Walt Whitman’s sweaty hatband and Elizabeth Gaskell’s quills, before reaching the great vaulted nave, with its effigies in stone and stained glass, where we may peep into its side chapels, some of which are occupied by living scholars with laptops. Is this the memorial Rylands aspired to create?
In some subtler respects, the building itself has suffered. The original metal light fittings, like the radiator covers and door furniture, are of exceptional quality. However, they’re hard to admire and, generally, looking up is painful, because the lightbulbs now used are far stronger than those that would have been available when this building opened. There must be a department of the university that could help here.
Athena also regrets that the original entrance, with its thrilling vistas and soaring vault, is no longer used. Perhaps it could be opened for ceremonial occasions or, at the very least, for an annual poetry prize offered to undergraduates or even schoolchildren?
The library is the most distinguished of all the city’s Victorian buildings