Les Dawson used to joke that Mancunians meant it when they said that visitors were 'welcome to Manchester'. The city conjured up images of depressed Coronation Street-style de-industrialisation. Then along came the Hacienda, Urban Splash, Brit Pop, the Trafford Centre and the Lowry, and Manchester gradually struggled back onto the modern map.
The latest arrival is the Imperial War Museum - North, by Studio Libeskind, which is halfway through construction.
On the south bank of the Manchester Ship Canal, the site is linked to the Lowry gallery by a new pedestrian bridge, and is seen as a fundamental part of the area's redevelopment strategy. On the ominous black hoardings that surround the site reads the description: 'The Imperial War Museum will bring the Imperial War Museum's collection of films, photographs, art, books, documents, sound recordings, exhibits and firearms to the 15.5 million people living within two hours of this site.'
Why this exclusion zone? Perhaps it is meant to give the personal experience of exclusion; the alienation of war.Rather disappointingly, it simply means that in its strategic plans the Imperial War Museum has assessed that the generic visitor will be prepared to travel two hours - and no more - by car to reach a museum attraction. On this geographic assessment, the business projection is for 300,000 visitors a year, making it one of the north of England's biggest tourist attractions.
The client is aware of the dangers of inflated visitor projections, but since this scheme is not grant funded - having been turned down for National Lottery cash - it has every reason for prudence in its projections.
Due to open in time for the Commonwealth Games in the city in 2002, the building structure will be completed at the end of 2001 and the fit-out of exhibits will take a further four months. It has all been a remarkably fast-track programme for such a complicated design.
Outline planning permission was granted in October 1997 and full planning approval (with conditions) was gained in April 1999. By then, the tender package was practically complete, including draft specification, sufficient to tender for procurement. Sir Robert McAlpine won the tender and liaised with the design team on finalising drawings for the second stage tender in December 1999.Nearly all packages were tendered, with very detailed drawings, so that the museum could proceed to start on site with almost total cost certainty. Work started on site on 5 January this year.
Based in Berlin, Studio Libeskind admits that it was initially concerned about its effectiveness on site from such a distance, and appointed Leach Rhodes Walker as implementation architect.With the benefit of local knowledge, its role has been to liaise with local authorities, statutory bodies, prepare the specification and to be the day-to-day site presence.However, having worked on the scheme from inception, Studio Libeskind's architect, Martin Ostermann, is keen to maintain maximum involvement.
Trained at the Bartlett School, University College London and at the Architecture Association, his impeccable English is more than a match for the cut and thrust of the fortnightly site meetings.
Ostermann admits that the incompatibility of computer systems among the design team has meant that the fax machine is in constant use. Studio Libeskind has set up a closed project website for interactive discussions and to talk through digital images of site matters. Given the expense of travelling from Berlin, this has been a vital tool.
The concept of the building is well documented. Representing the three elements earth, wind and water; three distinct shapes clash with each other to create a paradoxically angular and curvaceous building. Each of the shards have been generated from carefully scaled geometries of the globe. Daniel Libeskind says: 'The Imperial War Museum - North design is fundamentally based on the contemporary world shattered into fragments and reassembled as an emblem of conflict.'
Ostermann goes further: 'We wanted to call it the Conflict Museum since conflicts, rather than wars, are always with us. Even though we, as architects, can do nothing about the nature of conflict, the processes embodied in this building can help us learn about resolution.'
This is a very exciting building with many novel features. It is the first time that Studio Libeskind has designed using aluminium cladding, the first time it has used render and the first time it has designed exposed steelwork (so it will finally be possible to see the way that their complex geometric forms stand up).
The ground floor houses the commercial areas, bookshop, cafeteria and lobbies, as well as the massive service areas. The full-height plant rooms feed services through the slab via giant concrete plugs - literally 20:1 scale versions of domestic plugs - which stop up 1m wide holes.
These are intended to offer greater flexibility for service access to the exhibitions above.
The walls are angled and the stair narrows, rising from the ground floor lobby, leading the visitor out on to the North Pole, as it is called; the point from which the floor curves away. The further away from the pole, the steeper the floor, and although designed within the parameters of Part K and M, there is still a 2m change in levels over the longest section of the floor.
Visitors can also access the exhibition level via the air shard.The more adventurous will be able to take a lift - disconcertingly angled at 4degrees - up to the 30m high viewing gallery from where visitors will be able to see over 30km across the Manchester skyline.
Vivian Bennett of the Imperial War Museum enthuses over the speed and efficiency of the project so far. 'We want to recreate an industrial vocabulary, ' she says, 'partly for economy and partly because of the setting'. Out of the £28.5 million budget, the full contingency sum is still intact and most of it has already been allocated to the fit-out of the exhibitions.
The landscape layout, a joint venture between Studio Libeskind and Charles Jencks, will also be part of the message. A place of quiet contemplation, it will contrast with the intensity of the internal experience. There is a 10-year plan for its design, with input from the local community.
Indeed, Bennett insists that the local community must become central to the project for it to work.
Already she has set up an information centre, where schoolchildren and passers-by can gather officially to see a building site in operation - no more peering through tiny gaps in the hoardings.
The contractor is being encouraged to take people around, to showcase sample panels and even display defective products, so that visitors can understand more about the processes at play.
'Ownership', she says, 'is an essential feature of this part of the regeneration of Manchester.'
Even though this is a truly imaginative building, one of the recurring topics of discussion about the Imperial War Museum - North has been its part in the regeneration of the city. Is this really what museums are for?
Stephen Hetherington, chief executive of the Lowry, just across the canal, said recently that he would refuse to impose value judgments in order to remain part of the fabric of the local community.He considers it arrogant to say: 'We think this is very good for you.' But surely museums must make those value judgements?
Hopefully, on completion, the dramatic Imperial War Museum will not sacrifice content for community values and commercial pragmatism.
The main funders to the museum are:
Peel Holdings - £12,500,000;
European Regional Development Fund - £8,928,000;
English Partnerships/North West Development Agency - £2,697,675; and Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council - £2,837,000.
Funding balance: A fundraising campaign, headed by Kate Adie OBE, will be launched by the museum shortly to secure the outstanding figure of £3 million. Contact the IWM Appeal on 020 7416 5415.
USEABLE AREA 6,500m2
HIGHEST POINT 55m
LENGTH OF BUILDING 134m
ACCOMMODATION 7,000m2 (gross)
SITE AREA 20,000m2
PROJECTION SHARD HEIGHT 55m
PUBLIC VIEWING GALLERY HEIGHT 29m
CAR PARKING 165 car spaces, plus coach drop-off
ROOF HEIGHT 16m
CANAL FRONTAGE 190m
MATERIALS roof aluminium standing seam; walls sto render; hard landscape red asphalt and concrete
CLIENT Imperial War Museum, in partnership with Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, with funding from Peel Holdings, the European Regional Development Fund and English Partnerships
START ON SITE January 2000
COMPLETION Spring 2002
ARCHITECT Studio Libeskind MAIN
CONTRACTOR Sir Robert McAlpine
PROJECT MANAGER Gardiner & Theobald Management Services
IMPLEMENTATION ARCHITECT Leach Rhodes Walker
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Ove Arup
M&E ENGINEER Mott MacDonald
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Turner & Townsend
SUPPLIERS AND SUBCONTRACTORS Gerran Contracts; Kvaerner Cementation; SCC; William Hare; Broderick Structures; Keith Walton Brickwork; Speedwell Roofing and Cladding; Martin Roberts; Lionweld Kennedy; Dew Pitchmastic; Quiligotti Contracts; Nationwide Joinery Contractors; NG Bailey & Company; European Lifts (Southern); Alimak; AJ Wood Projects