By Campbell Bishop
It’s been too long since I was last in Manchester’s vibrant city centre – after graduating from Manchester Met last year, I no longer find myself at the heart of the city everyday. The one thing I now notice more than anything else as an ‘outsider’ is the pace and scale of change to the Manchester skyline.
The process of construction and renovation shows no sign of stopping. If the number of tower cranes is anything to go by, then by all accounts, Manchester is on the up in every sense, second only to London in terms of construction projects currently underway.
It is impossible to ignore the tallest tower in the city, part of the Deansgate Square ‘masterplan.’ It has recently surpassed Beetham Tower, which houses the Hilton hotel. Beetham Tower stands at 47 storeys, whereas this gleaming new structure boasts an impressive 64 storeys. I noticed it, on a typically rainy day, from the top of Portland Street, near Piccadilly Gardens. From this angle it now dominates the landscape, a giant, out of proportion with everything else, where previously there was nothing of note on the horizon.
It seems that everywhere around the city centre is being reshaped by new building projects. Of course, Oxford Road is only one area which is undergoing a facelift, with significant alterations and expansions to both university campuses and a fresh wave of student housing, much of it in the form tower blocks given the scarcity of available land. Projects around Oxford Road include a new engineering campus for the University of Manchester and a new humanities building for MMU, as well as a new neighbourhood called Circle Square, surrounded by a cluster of offices, apartments and shops. Plans have also recently been submitted for a 55-storey tower just off Oxford Road. Again, this will house student accommodation, although there have been a number of objections due to the size of the structure – it would be the second tallest building in the city – and its potential impact on local residents.
The plans may yet be altered, but regardless of this, it is clear that Manchester’s overall appearance has already been transformed, and this will only continue as planning applications flood in, the majority approved by the city council. The towers keep getting taller. In a few years, the city may well be unrecognisable. Should this trouble us?
Since the Industrial Revolution, Manchester has been a city of change. It is a living city rather than a conservation zone. However, that shouldn’t serve as cover for outright vandalism. It is the city council’s responsibility to ensure the right balance is maintained, taking into account the views of heritage bodies such as Historic England. To its credit, the council has done this in recent years; the more controversial plans have been either modified or shelved. Money talks, though, and ultimately the allure of investment may prove too great.
Manchester is a bold, seismic city. My recent return reaffirmed this. A few months away and I already miss the feel of the place. As Taylor Swift noted of New York: ‘Like any great love, it keeps you guessing/Like any real love, it’s ever-changing.’ This could just as fittingly have been written of Manchester. It seems to apply perfectly to the flurry of building work now in full swing, the hallmark of a city which is constantly reinventing itself. Indeed, another singer-songwriter, Ryan Adams, has penned an affectionate tribute to our city – his single, ‘Manchester’, is scheduled for release later this year. It is clear that the city of Manchester continues to inspire substantial creativity, its architecture being just one illustration of this.
Like London before it, Manchester is witnessing a rebirth signified by often wacky architectural designs, which are now queuing up to clutter the skyline. Whatever your opinions on modern architecture, you cannot help but be moved in some way by this new, imposing spectacle that is leaving its mark on our city. Manchester is alive with an atmosphere of opportunity. I only live a few miles further North in Bolton, but culturally and economically it feels a lot further behind.
Perhaps Manchester is characterised by its ability to adapt to a changing world, now more than ever. We are lucky to be living through such a significant era. It is likely that future writers and historians will focus much attention on this period in Manchester’s already intriguing story.