by Matthew Steele
Following the removal of the Peace Gardens and Ian Simpson’s controversial proposals for Library Walk and No 2 St. Peter’s Square, the dismantling of the Garden of Remembrance (1947-49) by Leonard Cecil Howitt, Manchester’s former City Architect, is imminent.
The redevelopment of St. Peter’s Square to accommodate plans for a second city centre crossing of the tram service, approved by Manchester City Council in November 2012, also includes the relocation of the Grade II* listed Cenotaph, designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1924. In its place a new public square by German firm Latz & Partner aims to de-clutter the space, a phrase which echoes earlier discussions regarding the pedestrianisation of Albert Square in the immediate post-war years.
Image source: Latz and Partner. Available online
Contained within the 1945 City of Manchester Plan were proposals to create a processional route between the Town Hall and soon-to-be-built Courts of Justice. Albert Square was to form one of two public domains located at either end, the other being Crown Square. Early discussions regarding the proposals had focussed upon the Prince Albert Memorial. Erected in 1867, the memorial was no longer considered to be structurally sound with sections missing having been removed during the war.
Reflecting a prevalent desire to break free from the image of the old Victorian City, Councillor J.E. Pheasey advocated the removal of the memorial entirely, proposing that a fountain be installed in its place in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. He even speculated that the square could be renamed ‘Elizabeth Square’.
These ideas were picked up in 1957 by Councillor A. Donovan who lobbied to remove the memorial, along with other ‘out of date’ statues, in order to establish a square ‘laid out on modern lines including a garden’; these plans being rejected by Manchester Corporation Highways Committee on the basis of cost. Donovan pledged to pursue the matter at the next meeting of the City Council whereby discussions continued to focus on the ‘thoroughly out of date’ statues. Offering his support, Alderman R. Moss insisted that the ‘present layout of Albert Square did not show much evidence of progressiveness in Manchester. In its present form the square was drab and ugly and wasted, and a garden would provide people with somewhere to sit at lunchtime during fine weather’.
Councillor Douglas Edwards offered a compromise recommending that the Memorial and other various statues could be incorporated into the proposed processional route. Such possibilities gave the City Council an excuse to defer judgement on the removal of the Prince Albert Memorial.
Instead proposals for a permanent bus shelter, first revealed by the Manchester Transport Committee in July 1953, were given the go-ahead. Early reports suggesting that the 140 ft. long shelter would incorporate a roof garden are evidenced in photographs of the completed scheme.
The brief had called for the provision of an enclosed shelter on an island in Albert Square opposite and parallel to the main façade of the Town Hall which could provide queuing space leading to four bus loading points. Separate office accommodation would be provided for a timekeeper.
Erected by contractor, G & J Seddon Ltd., and completed in 1957 at a cost of £7,559, the repeating modules of aluminium columns with armour plate glass infill would provide a blueprint for the future Piccadilly Bus Station.
Following completion of the project, debate continued regarding Albert Square’s value as a civic space; even the newly built bus shelters were targeted for criticism with the use of a public square as a bus station thought by some to be ‘highly questionable’.
Writing in The Guardian, A.C. Sewter commented, “Visually Albert Square is an unsightly clutter. In producing this distressing effect, the statues should not be made to bear the brunt of the blame. The real offenders are the pedestrian railings, the Belisha beacons, the antiparking notices, the parking notices, the parked cars and taxis, the shrubs in tubs, the bus shelters, the multiplicity of roadways and worst of all the public lavatory railings.”
These views were generally supported by Cecil Stewart who advocated closing the road along the front of the Town Hall and creating a paved piazza with the Prince Albert Memorial standing alone as the centre piece. He further suggested that the public lavatories should be closed and the bus shelters moved away from the paved area. These ideas were eventually taken up by the Civic Trust Scheme in 1964 after the City Council had finally voted in favour of the memorial’s retention. Following the announcement the local press reported that the city’s pigeons could rest content as the ‘Pigeon Loft’, the Prince Albert Memorial, had been reprieved.
So what can we learn from these historic debates?
The largely pedestrianised and de-cluttered Albert Square has created a civic space which today sits proudly alongside other more celebrated public squares across Europe. It has become the focal point for football parades, international festivals, and Christmas festivities. And whilst further improvements could be made to encourage daily use of the square as something other than a transitory space, it is nonetheless a public square that the citizens of Manchester can be proud; a space enhanced by the rich architectural heritage of its surroundings.
Undoubtedly, a St. Peter’s Square with Lutyens’ Cenotaph ‘standing alone as the centre piece’ would have been an elegant solution to its redevelopment. However, the Portland stone cross which marks the site of James Wyatt’s St. Peter Church is less portable for this reason.
The real cause for concern is the pending demolition of Century House to make way for Ian Simpson No.2 St. Peter’s Square. Constructed in 1934 to the designs of Antoine William Roques, the building is contemporaneous with Emanuel Vincent Harris’ Central Library, completed in the same year, and the Town Hall Extension completed three years later.
Image photographed by author.
Roques was made a Fellow of The Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927 supported amongst others by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the iconic K6 red telephone box; two examples of which were recently removed from Library Walk, their return unlikely.
Responsible for designing a series of building for the Friends Provident Society including Century House, here Roques engaged Joseph Hermon Cawthra to provide the relief carvings which decorate the building; a commission that would later see Cawthra appointed to provide decorative carvings to the façade of the now Grade II* listed Town Hall Extension.
Not only is there an obvious visual link between Century House and the Town Hall Extension, Cawthra’s carvings represent a historical continuity in the built environment which exposes the decorative gable of the proposed No 2 St Peter’s Square as cheap mimicry; a gesture which will only serve as a reminder of what has been lost should the scheme proceed.
Image source: Architects Journal 16 May 2003. Available online
Therefore, whilst Latz and Partner’s proposals for St. Peter’s Square, viewed through the prism of Albert Square, should be a welcome addition to Manchester’s public spaces, the erosion of the architectural heritage that bounds the space will, unfortunately, do little to contribute to its success.
(Manchester City Council approved the demolition of Century House on Thursday, 25 July 2013 – their full report can be downloaded here)
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 ‘An Albert Square Rest Garden?’, The Manchester Guardian, 21November 1952, p12.
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 Taken from transcribed submission by LC Howitt, 22/06/60, for Civic Amenity Award held at the Greater Manchester County Records Office.
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