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Manchester makeover

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The Buildings of England: Manchester By Clare Hartwell. Penguin, 2001. 370 pp. £9.99 Recent volumes of the Buildings of England have been getting bigger; almost no one has pockets that would hold them. Long-term friends of the series may welcome the new mountains of detail, but outsiders probably find the books more intimidating.

Now the enterprise moves in another direction entirely: Clare Hartwell's Manchester is the first of a projected series of guides to individual British cities, in which Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield will follow.

Part of the impetus came from how thoroughly those parts of the old Pevsners had dated, but with the arrival of Lottery funding the project has taken on larger dimensions than just plugging gaps.While previous paperback 'specials' like Elizabeth Williamson's Docklands (1998) adhered to the typography and format of the main series, Manchester boasts a completely new design, with only the slightest traces of the familiar Pevsner layout.

The new design is tasteful and relatively sober, and much lighter in typography and spacing than the old. Most striking is the use of colour throughout, in headings, maps and a host of integrated illustrations. It is a different world from the old one which kept words and images apart, the latter sequestered into a little album to be pondered on their own.

The new book is more lavish in what it chooses to illustrate; in the original volumes each image had been carefully considered and showed something remarkable. None of this stringency survives. There is hardly a spread without a picture and most of them have two. How indulgent it seems! But the principles for inclusion remain, after all, more the same than different. These are not atmosphere-shots, but informative views of individual buildings. Maybe when the number of pictures soars to 200 or more, it is inevitable that some will seem humdrum and amateur. Proportions of picture to text look right as you flip through, but some views are too small to show much.

Maps are particularly pleasing to the eye in the new restful colours and function as dividers between sections of the text.

Major civic institutions, starting with the cathedral, are accorded generous amounts of space. The writer's enthusiasm for the decorations in the town hall is catching, even if one does not concur in seeing Waterhouse as a Japoniste and precursor of Mackintosh.

This volume is most interesting when it strays from architectural history pure and simple - for instance, in treatments of the civic institutions in which Manchester has been so rich, starting with Chetham's School and Library, a medieval survival matched nowhere else in England. The tale of how private fortunes were re-embodied in public facilities is an important strand of Manchester's peculiar history, and includes the Rylands Library and some notable Victorian churches.

Cotton mills, which made Manchester known all over the world but went almost without mention in Pevsner's treatment of the city in 1969, are now given their due. So also are other institutions which one could almost say are spin-offs or derivatives of the mills - the women's night shelter, men's hostel, ragged schools and model lodging houses. I wished here that Hartwell's view was more comprehensive, seeing these outgrowths of industrialisation as profoundly connected.

Her account of the Co-op buildings is good and full, but there is nothing about the Co-operative movement. This would have been a good place for one of her 'topic boxes', which are scattered through the text - concessions to short modern attention spans but deployed here to better effect than is usual.

Another box could also have been devoted to the Manchester novels she tantalisingly mentions, naming only Mrs Gaskell.

I particularly like some of the author's excursions into technical processes, such as Mackintosh's waterproof fabric (illustrated with an enigmatic painting of barrage balloons), or mechanised spinning, but there are plenty of more strictly architectural surprises - Calatrava's, Ando's and Libeskind's contributions to the fabric of the city, among others.

The city is not without adventurous new building, which includes the new concert hall, the Royal Exchange Theatre (here the account is particularly piecemeal, which matches the building's character but still leaves one unsatisfied), and diverse works by the local practice Hodder Associates, of which it would be good to have an overview.

Perhaps, though, the function of such a guide is not to provide overviews but to stimulate interest in freshly revealed aspects of the built world; this it does continually.

'Pevsner' has become more user-friendly without losing the old incisiveness, and at £9.99 it is a remarkable bargain.

Robert Harbison is a professor at the University of North London

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