Manchester: Pevsner Architectural Guides.

Manchester: Pevsner Architectural Guides. – book review

Nicholas Henshall

Clare Hartwell

Penguin Books x+370pp 9.99 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 14071131 7

MANCHESTER ROSE AND FELL with the cotton trade and in the last two decades has had to reinvent itself. Its regeneration has been swifter, if not more spectacular, than its birth during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1773 and 1831 the city’s population grew from 22,000 to 182,000, as Manchester created the first industrial economy and society in the world. After post-War decline, it made a bid for renewed international status. By 1998 it was the only UK city outside London to be ranked alongside Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and Milan among the top ten cities in which to do business. Manchester’s population also has the highest proportion of students in Europe, who by the 1990s had helped to make the city the continent’s clubbing capital, as well as a mecca for European-style cafe bars and restaurants.

The city’s regeneration has also focused on high-profile building projects. Pevsner’s 1969 volume on South Lancashire is thus outdated — hence this new guide from Clare Hartwell. Incorporating some of his assessments, she has expanded his section on Manchester into a chunky paperback. This represents substantial research. In seven lines Pevsner despatched Princess Street, an intact Victorian survival, while Hartwell devotes four pages to a historical and architectural description of every warehouse on it. She reveals that Manchester’s grandest hotels, apartment blocks and offices are just that — converted Victorian warehouses, complete with pulleys over the back door. As owner of the largest drapery business in the 1850s, James Watts was the greatest of the city’s new mercantile princes. He accordingly constructed his vast commercial warehouse in the style of a Venetian palazzo and others followed.

Hartwell underestimates what the city has learned from its neighbour Salford. While Manchester’s left-wing council declared itself a nuclear-free zone, Salford City council pioneered the partnership of public and private finance that has dominated the subsequent thinking of central and local government. From the mid-1980s the private sector promoted Castlefield, an industrial conservation area and residential development which has helped to repopulate the city centre. It was largely the inspiration of one man, an ex-bookie turned property developer, who bought a canal warehouse for 25,000 [pounds sterling] and converted it to studio flats and offices. Ten years ago central Manchester had less than a thousand inhabitants. now there are 10,000.

There is a downside. To the south of the city lies the largest urban higher-education precinct in Europe, but no one lives there and it is a no-go area after dark. And as Manchester has moved into its post-industrial era, each time a canal, railway or cotton mill has been closed down another swathe of the city turns into an open-air museum. While early symbols of the city’s wealth are prominent in its regeneration, it is crass to create an industrial desert and call it an Urban Heritage Park.

Hartwell is sound on the social impact of architecture. Since Pevsner wrote, a `notoriously defective and dysfunctional’ high-rise housing scheme in the Hulme district of Manchester has come and gone. Consultation on rebuilding established that some tenants wanted terraced housing facing on to the street with back alleys — namely the traditional housing demolished forty years ago. Hartwell predictably skewers the Arndale Centre — a 1970s retail emporium whose bleakly fortified frontage invites passers-by to besiege rather than shop in it. After an IRA bomb nearly demolished it in 1996, an increased proportion of Manchester’s population was reported to be in favour of terrorism.

Inevitably there are a few snags. The photographs are superb but the text fails to refer to them. And some omissions rankle. The 600 [pounds sterling] million Trafford Centre, with its theatrical Classical, Aztec and Oriental allusions, is pure Las Vegas — and a casualty of Hartwell’s stress on the inner city. Yet her deep knowledge and robust judgments are endlessly stimulating. Many areas are treated as well-organised tours, to be undertaken with her pocket-sized guide conveniently to hand. She has sent this Mancunian back to his native city with a new pair of eyes!

Nicholas Henshall is the author of The Myth of Absolutism: Change & Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (Longman, 1992)

COPYRIGHT 2002 History Today Ltd.

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