Daring to be different

4 minute read

Richard Leese is a rare man in local government. He not only thinks good architecture and design matter, he also makes fine buildings happen. As the leader of Manchester City Council, he runs a municipality that was once rich in 19th century commercial architecture — buildings with Victorian arches and polychrome brickwork — but became overrun with ugly concrete buildings in a misguided redevelopment effort in the 1960s and ’70s. Now, just in time for the Commonwealth Games, Leese has shown that Manchester could overcome that legacy of drab functionality with the help of the best architects he could find — in Manchester, Britain and indeed the world.

This summer, six years after an Irish Republican Army bomb devastated the city center, Leese’s ideas have turned into stunning reality. Manchester Art Gallery, best known for its superb collection of 19th century works, reopened May 25 after a four-year and some $50 million transformation by Michael Hopkins. Piccadilly Gardens, remodeled by the British landscape design firm EDAW, and including the celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s first British building, opened in June. Also in June came Ian Simpson’s sleek, sandblasted-glass-clad $43.5 million Urbis, which will house a museum dedicated to the history of cities. It inaugurated the new Millennium Quarter, an area that was once Manchester’s medieval heart that long ago stopped beating.

Later this month the Commonwealth Games will begin with an opening ceremony in the $157 million City of Manchester Stadium, with its sweeping curved roof held up by a ring of masts, designed by Arup Associates. All this activity culminates in neighboring Trafford, with Daniel Libeskind’s new Imperial War Museum North. This bold structure, which looks like three pieces of a shattered globe, is the first completed building in Britain designed by Libeskind, whose recent works include Berlin’s widely acclaimed Jewish Museum.

Says Leese, a local politician who became leader of the council only four weeks before the I.R.A. bombing: “It was very clear as we were putting the city center back together that we needed to build the listed [legally protected] buildings of the future. We spent time learning what good design was about. We used architectural competitions a lot — and we paid attention to detail.” Phil Griffin, a local architectural writer, says “Manchester is realizing more and more that it can dare to be different.”

The challenge for Manchester was to come up with a master plan that would integrate the impoverished north with the wealthier south, parts of the city that were split by the massive, six-hectare 1970s Arndale Shopping Centre. The stores are still there, but now they are mitigated by the elegance of the Urbis project and the newly created Cathedral Gardens beside it.

Simpson, who worked with famed architect Norman Foster in London but returned to his home town because “it was possible to have more of an impact in a city the scale of Manchester,” won the Urbis commission in a blind international competition. Already his No. 1 Deansgate, a 60-m-high residential tower, has penthouse flats that sell for more than $1.5 million — record prices for Manchester.

The Piccadilly Gardens project cleaned up another eyesore, transforming a dismal, sunken, traffic-choked island into a pleasant park in the heart of the city. Ando’s curving white concrete pavilion, which will serve as an information center, café and venue for events, screens the gardens from the busy bus and tram station behind them. Overlooking the park is One Piccadilly Gardens, an office complex by London architects Allies and Morrison, that is setting a standard not seen in commercial buildings in Manchester since the 1930s. “If you can find another British city with a range and quality of structures as good as those built in Manchester over the past six years, I’d be staggered,” says Leese. “Indeed, I’d be surprised if you can find another European city to match it.”

Leese is determined that the same standards should apply to the poverty-ridden north and east of Manchester. “As we continue into the other parts of the city,” he says, “we want the same quality of design to be reflected in the places where people live, not just where they work and shop.”

To prove the point, the Sterling Prize-winning architect Will Alsop is already at work on a master plan for the run-down Cardroom district in north Manchester.

After decades in London’s shadow, Manchester is growing in confidence — a confidence expressed, as it was in the city’s glory days, by demanding the best of its citizens, its leaders — and its architects.

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