Mod­ern Manch­ester must keep its charm

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

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

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