Next Salon Discussion

First Tuesday current affairs discussion - Tuesday 3 September 7:00pm start
PDF Print E-mail
News Reviews from 2012

Proposed enclosure for Library Walk

Conservation: reflecting a fear of the future?

Mark Iddon on plans for the Library Walk, Manchester


Proposals for a glazed walkway to enclose Library Walk in Manchester have been submitted for planning consent by Manchester architects Ian Simpson Associates (of Urbis and Beetham Tower repute). Library Walk is the curved passage way between two Grade II listed buildings - the Central Manchester Reference Library and the Town Hall Extension.


Manchester Confidential, a prominent What’s On and Reviews guide to Manchester, is unimpressed with the plans and encourages its readers to write in and comment on the proposals during the planning consultation period. Manchester Modernist Society also encourages protest suggesting issues for objection, but are these protests as radical as they appear?


The buildings are currently being refurbished and plans already include linking the buildings at basement level. It was later decided to enclose the space with the introduction of barriers at each end. It would still be open to the public during the day, although supervised, and will then be shut from 10.00pm to 6.00am.


Central Library is an impressive rotunda building that makes reference to the Pantheon in Rome and was built between 1930 and 1934. Its foundation stone was laid by the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and it was opened by King George V in 1934. Work for the Town Hall Extension by Architect Vincent Harris started as soon as the Library was complete. Its 200ft. 8 storey South side forming a curve parallel to the Library resulting in a narrow passage way from the Friends Meeting House on Mount Street to the Cenotaph in St. Peter’s Square. It houses the functional aspects, such as rates, planning etc, of Manchester City Council and was opened in 1938 by King George VI. It is connected on its North side by first floor link corridors to the mightily impressive gothic Town Hall, itself built in 1850’s by Alfred Waterhouse at the height of Manchester’s industrial expansion.


Manchester Confidential refers to Library Walk as Manchester’s favourite little Street and makes much of its ‘best loved and distinctive’ status. The article notes that the concept for the new glazed walkway was by ‘global architectural and planning firm’ HOK and that the planning statement commissioned by them played down its attributes and is dismissive of the feelings of the people of Manchester. The Manchester Confidential article does end by asking questions with regard to architectural quality and design suitability and well as what is in the public’s best interest.


Manchester Modernist Society make reference to the Manchester Confidential article, with a link to it, but appears to presume that the proposals should be opposed, and suggests aspects which may appear to be grounds for objection in planning law. It states that the proposals will compromise the integrity of the grade II listed buildings and have a detrimental impact on the conservation area. The sight lines between the Friend’s meeting house and the Cenotaph will be lost and the privatisation of public space is a loss of public domain.


Plans to enclose Library WalkWhen the proposals were initially submitted for planning approval, Manchester architectural critic Phil Griffin suggested that a glazed walkway would be a good thing but his suggestion was based on the British Museum in London, where the walk way is several storeys high. The latest proposal is single storey but presumably the glazing allows views to appreciate the drama of the former walkway.


The questions for me are whether contesting the proposals is a public good for the conservation of these important buildings, and if there is a conservative fear of change and reticence towards progress and development to make a better future environment underlying these concerns.


As a Mancunian and an architect, who has memories of discovering the walkway as a teenager exploring his city, studying in the library reading rooms with its eerie echo effects and seeing many memorable theatre productions at the Library Theatre, I am not joining in the protests against the glazed walkway for the following reasons:

  • Library Walk is distinctive and worthy of note, but I am not convinced by the exaggerated nostalgic musing of its impressiveness that would be lost by a clumsy functional alteration that could occur if care is not taken. I would expect an architect of Simpson’s repute to respond to the existing building with as much respect as the glazed link between the City art Gallery and Atheneum which was undertaken only a few years ago on a site within a few hundred metres.
  • The walkway just isn’t that nice a space as the sun cannot get into the deep canyon space; the wind can be exaggerated in particular conditions; there are no views into windows to engage with; you can’t see to the other side and at times as noted elsewhere, it has on ocassion been used as a public toilet. 

The one aspect that I would object to is the loss of public space and increased security measures into the public domain where I would support greater freedom of movement in the public areas.


It seems to me though that the main concern in both these campaigns is one of conservation for the sake of it and protecting the urban fabric of the past, rather than a genuine desire for greater freedom in the city. Campaigns for the listing of buildings is marching at an unprecedented rate and I would suggest that it is quite a worrying trend that we get so precious about buildings of the recent past, not even 100 years old, at a time when aspirations for new development and building a brave new world fit for 21st century people are at an all time low. This topic is discussed more extensively in Chapter 5, The Historic City, in The Lure Of The City an excellent collection of essays on contemporary urban thinking.


Questions about the nature of development and the aspirations we have for building our future environment which is the topic of the 250 New Towns workshop on Saturday 16th June, part of the North West's contribution to RIBA's Love Architecture Festival. In advance of that we can start asking some questions at the Manchester Salon First Tuesday discussion with the example of Library Walk as starting point to debate what we actually want and expect from our future built environment.


Editor's Note: Should you disagree with the planning proposal, there is an ePetition you could sign at Library Walk Petition.
Join the Salon Email List
Youtube Video of discussion on Energy
RSS Feed for discussions
Manchester Salon Facebook Group
Manchester Salon Facebook Page
Manchester Salon on Twitter