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Civic pride (2 of 2)

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In his design for Manchester Town Hall, Alfred Waterhouse incorporated new technology in a grand, modern-Gothic masterpiece

The building had three hot-water boilers located in a sub-basement room, from which, as Waterhouse put it, hot water pipes 'traverse the main rooms and corridors in channels below the floors - everywhere on the window side - coils being placed in all convenient and desirable positions'. On the inner side of the corridors, there are corresponding channels, covered with grilles like those over the coils, which Waterhouse created to carry gas pipes and other services.

Fresh air was introduced into the building via perforations under window sills and through ducts leading to the bases of the circular staircases, where it could be warmed and threfore rise through the building.

Waterhouse explains how the great hall was ventilated: 'Into the central ventilation shafts the vitiated air of the public hall is conducted through the space above the ceiling, from which there are connecting channels.' These lead to the ornamental 'ventilating towers' (which help give the town hall its memorable Gothic profile).

The actual openings through which the vitiated air left the hall - including decorative grilles cut into exposed structure and starshaped opening cut roof panels above the windows - reveal how elegantly Waterhouse integrated structure, utility and ornament.

The building was illuminated by gas lights and, as gas fumes were noxious to both people and objects, the challenge was to restrict their spread and get them out of the building as quickly as possible; hence the need for the extensive methods of ventilation discussed previously, with most extract grilles being placed near the top of the largest lights.

Other problems associated with gas were the design of appropriate lamp holders - Waterhouse fell back on the tradition of the chandelier sconce - and the integration of gas supply pipes into the architecture and scheme of decoration. Although Waterhouse was happy at the exposure, and honest expression, of certain structural elements - such as the iron girders supporting the treads of the service stairs - he clearly tried to conceal the essential, but visually disruptive, service runs.

A final instance of Waterhouse's awareness of the potential offered by new technology is the fact that the building was furnished with a hydraulic lift running from the basement to attic level - a very rare, modern convenience indeed in England in the early 1870s.

Acoustics proved satisfactory with the only unfortunate exception being the one room in which they were of crucial importance - the council chamber. From a very early date large areas of curtains were introduced to improve conditions.

The 1860s and 1870s marked the last decades when traditional construction still dominated the British building world: for example, the use of steel instead of wrought or cast iron for structural work did not take place on any scale until the 1880s. Consequently, the structure of the town hall is generally fairly traditional, although it does reflect advanced thinking on such topics as fire-proof construction. Waterhouse employed the Dennett system, as G G Scott did for his Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras 9.It consisted of shallow brick or concrete arches spanning between small-section wrought iron girders over which lime or ash concrete was laid to form the substructure of a tile, marble or even a timber-boarded floor.

But generally the construction is traditional, with load-bearing brick walls cased with stone. Particularly interesting, though, is the trouble which Waterhouse took in selecting and blending different types of stone, inside and out. The most obvious fact about the exterior stonework is that it is all of one - arguably rather monotonous - light brown colour. This may seem a curious abandonment of the mid-Victorian passion for structural polychromy: the idea that colour in building should be the honest expression of different materials rather than surface finishes in paint or colour-washed stucco.

As Waterhouse saw it, the problem was not to create a naturally multicoloured exterior but 'to find a stone proof against the evil influences of this peculiar climate of Manchester'. He eventually chose Spinkwell, a coal measure stone from near Bradford which, he reported to the RIBA in 1877, was not perfect in its weathering qualities 'though as a whole the work stands remarkably well [being] very free from lamination'.

The method of bonding the stone into the brickwork is expressed very directly.

Every horizontal joint in the stonework coincides with a course of bricks with shallow courses of stone alternating with deeper courses, with the shallow courses bonding further into the brick wall than the deeper courses - a mechanical look which earlier Gothic Revivalists such as A W N Pugin would have deplored.

Internally, by contrast, an astonishing mixture of types of stone gives colour, variety and texture. White rock was used for walling in the corridors, staircases, great hall and council chamber; Bath and blue Forest of Dean stones for the ribs of the vaulting in the ground and first floor corridors behind the Albert Square frontage. In addition, granites of various colours were used for columns and shafts in the corridors and in the three principal staircases. The reason for the use of darker, shinier, granite in this location is in the tradition of medieval Gothic architecture, as Waterhouse explains:

'The intricacy of the groining and the many detached shafts give to this part of the building a light and shade which it would have been difficult otherwise to obtain.'

The timber work in the building is generally ornamental, with one dramatic exception - the roof of the great hall. Here Waterhouse indulged in some powerful, apparently medieval-style structural heavy carpentry. But all is not what it seems. The roof looks like a type of hammer beam with arch-braced principal rafters rising off a hammer beam projecting from the wall plate while smaller arched rafters descend from the hammer beam to corbels below.

Rather daringly, the individual trusses not only lack tie-beams but also collars.

In fact, the exposed arched rafters are decorative, secondary rafters carried by principal ones which are concealed. And what is stopping these theatrical trusses from spreading? Waterhouse has a nice, engineered solution. He introduced metal tie bars at the level of the wall plate and, to make absolutely sure all was structurally sound, he connected the centre of the tie bar to the apex of the truss by means of what he called a 'king bolt'. This extravagant display of iron is not strictly unprecedented in a great Gothic timber roof, but it is certainly unusual.

As well as different stones, terracotta wall covering in the corridors, floor tiles and other natural and man-made materials of fixed colour, Waterhouse used paint to create strongly coloured interiors of neomedieval quality. Most of the original paint schemes have been long lost, but in recent years some small areas have been revealed in the first floor committee rooms overlooking Lloyd Street and in the south bridge. These show that Waterhouse favoured stencilled friezes, a strong palette of 'medieval' colours for mouldings (vermillion, gold, dark green and black, ) and red-painted mock ashlar walling - all much in the manner of William Burges.

It is in the great hall that the original decorative ideal is still best appreciated. Colours survive on the roof timbers and - more importantly - it is here that Waterhouse managed to integrate art of a high standard into his architecture, with 12 wall paintings by Ford Madox Brown to illustrate the activities, industries and history of Manchester.

Waterhouse designed much furniture for the town hall, in a manner ranging from the fancifully Gothic to a spareness almost free of historicism. Sadly, very little now survives within the building, the best pieces being in a couple of the largest committee rooms and in the reception rooms overlooking Albert Square. Best of all is a dresser in the banqueting room - a powerful Gothic composition that corresponds closely to a Waterhouse drawing, which shows a Gothic 'sideboard' incorporating a 'heating coil' Through the 'simplicity' of his plan, Waterhouse separated the various uses within the building: for instance, offices of such departments as water, gas and health were located in ground, first and upper-storey rooms looking on to Princess Street and in ground and upper-storey rooms looking on to Lloyd Street, while the police occupied the ground floor level in the centre of the building below the great hall. This allowed them to be reached with equal speed from all the main public entrances to the building.

One of the important - and most visible - aspects of the building's function was to act as a location for civic receptions and celebrations hosted by the mayor, who was also provided with a dwelling amid the second floor rooms facing onto Albert Square.

Waterhouse took care to separate the route of entry for the mayor - be it in his public or private capacity - from the public, guests or councillors using the building. The mayor had his own private entrance adjoining the public entrance on Princess Street, its importance marked by the secondary tower (used for ventilation pipes) that rises above it.

The main focus of all celebrations was the series of first floor rooms facing on to Albert Square and the centrally placed great hall - as Waterhouse put it in his RIBA paper, 'a suite of entertaining rooms 300ft in length'.

Achieved by the simple expedient of aligning doors, this grand enfilade of parade rooms was a device entirely in the Baroque tradition and - as with much of the building - shows that Waterhouse was unafraid to mix various historic traditions and styles for the effects he desired.

Waterhouse's description of the building reveals how carefully he considered the location of different functions in relationship to the city at large. He placed the main committee rooms at first floor level looking onto the relatively quiet Lloyd Street, while 'the Treasurer's offices look onto Albert Square, and are so placed as to be adjacent to the entrances nearest the centre of the town, so that persons receiving cheques from other departments could pass the Treasurer's offices on their way out of the building'. A small detail of organisation perhaps, but it was the identification and solution of many such small problems which won Waterhouse the commission.

The town hall was formally opened on 13 September 1877, when the radical Quaker and MP for Manchester, John Bright, was the first of many to acknowledge that Waterhouse had created 'a municipal palace'. But this had been achieved at a massive expense, for the building cost nearly four times its original budget: £522,000 on construction; £359,000 on site acquisition, fees and furniture; and £71,000 on the police court, making a total of £952,000.

But the town hall has proved to be a building worth every penny - not least because it still functions much as envisaged more than 130 years later, an achievement which is a tribute to Waterhouse's vision of future use and to the flexibility of his plan.

Perhaps more unexpected, Waterhouse's strategy for servicing the building is still relevant. Some of his heating coils survive and are in use, while pipes and cables still run in the ducts he provided in the floors of the corridors and around the perimeter of the building. But, most rewarding, people still enjoy working in the building - its sensible plan and magnificent decoration continue to satisfy and delight successive generations of employees and visitors.

Manchester Town Hall is a building with many lessons for architects, especially in the integration of services within structure and ornament, and the creative possibilities of working with history. Significantly, this didactic quality was recognised as early as 1877, for after Waterhouse had delivered his paper at the RIBA, the then president Charles Barry observed that a study of the Town Hall 'will yield as much profit. . . as the study of buildings of antiquity'.


1Alfred Waterhouse 1830-1905: Biography of a Practice by Colin Cunningham and Prudence Waterhouse, p54 2 Letter in archive of Manchester City Library, quoted in Cunningham and Waterhouse, p54 3 Letter in archive of Manchester City Library, quoted in Cunningham and Waterhouse p54 4 RIBA Transactions,1876-77.First Series, Volume 27, pp117-136 5 RIBA Drawings Collection, WAT [80] 1,2,4,5,6 6 Cunningham and Waterhouse, p 56 7 'A Classic of the Age'by JHGArcher, a chapter in Art and Architecture in Victorian Manchester (1985), edited by JHGArcher 8 Cunningham and Waterhouse, p59 9 Dennett's Fire Proof Construction, patented by Robert Dennett & Co of Nottingham is described in Building News , vol 13,31.8.1866, pp 582-628 10 RIBA Drawings Collection, WAT [80] 204 11 RIBA Transactions,1876-77, First Series, Volume 27, p134 And thanks to Warren Marshall, conservation officer for Manchester City Council

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