by Sam Baars, PhD candidate, Institute for Social Change
At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.
If you’re coming to Manchester by train you can enjoy some of the city’s most prominent suspended spaces before you’ve even set a foot down. Arriving into Piccadilly, the view to your left is dominated by the derelict Mayfield Station, empty since 1986 and with no firm proposals for redevelopment, while to your right is a hole in the ground the size of Piccadilly Gardens, occasionally filled with parked cars, which was to be the site of the 58-storey Piccadilly Tower before the recession brought construction work to a halt in 2008. On exiting the station to the north you’re greeted by the meandering S of Gateway House which, currently empty save for its ground floor shops, forms a slightly decrepit entrance to a smart city. To the west, nestled between some of the city’s most expensive hotels, are the broken windows of the Employment Exchange, whose tortuous journey from drawing board to construction was interrupted by the Second World War. The recession, which put paid to the Albany Crown Tower proposed for the site, has granted the Employment Exchange temporary respite from the bulldozers – and afforded this former labour office a glimpse of a recession-stricken Manchester in which unemployment currently stands at 12%. To the south of Piccadilly Station sits London Road Fire Station, a fume-blackened Edwardian gem which has been empty for fifteen years while various proposals for music venues, hotels and a museum have come and gone. Urban explorers 28 Days Later reveal that the building is now home to an impressive collection of stuffed animals.
Arriving by car, it couldn’t be easier to find somewhere central to park. Piccadilly Basin, once a hub of canalside warehouses and home to the headquarters of the Rochdale Canal Company, is, as irony would have it, now home to the parked car – a symbol of the victory of the twentieth century motorway over the Victorian waterway. There is a masterplan for Piccadilly Basin which includes offices, retail, apartments and leisure, along with the flagship Eider House, whose triangular site is currently home to Linda’s Pantry and a van rental depot. But until the masterplan is realised, Piccadilly Basin will continue to be a space for stationary vehicles. One of the few suspended spaces in the city centre not to be transformed into a car park is a meagre patch of grass and goose poo next to Tariff Street, which is a popular spot for barbecues in the summer and will become homes and shops when the masterplan eventually comes to fruition.
A short walk along the Rochdale Canal into Ancoats reveals the single largest suspended space in the city centre. New Islington is at last beginning to take shape, over a decade after funding was secured to transform it into a Millennium Community. While some set pieces such as the Chips building were completed by 2006, the rest of the project stalled as the effects of the financial crash a year later trickled through into the credit and housing markets. The site is still largely a wasteland of debris from the demolished Cardroom Estate, although new houses, a marina, a public park and a school are now in progress. Northwest along the ring road sits the skeleton of Nuovo, which has graced the entrance to Ancoats since 2007 and remains incomplete six years later after its developer filed for bankruptcy.
Turning back towards the city centre, immediately opposite these totems of space suspended by the (in)operation of private finance, is a suspended space of an altogether different nature. Between Dean Street and Port Street is a triangular plot hosting a single house (number 75) surrounded by temporary car parks. This suspended space isn’t a physical incarnation of the vagaries of the market, a la Nuovo and New Islington, but the ghost of a government plan. Sketches drawn up by the City Council in the 1960s and 70s show the proposed new Inner Circle Road blasting its way through this gap en-route to an interchange that would have wiped out much of Ancoats. As with many grand highway-building plans from that era, such as the extension of the M57 along the Hyde Road, even when the roads were never realised they often left behind scars of deterred development along their route.
Further towards the city centre, sandwiched between Port Street, Hilton Street and Newton Street is a small wedge of land occupied by Bradley House, Manchester’s Victorian take on New York’s Flatiron, and the Hatters hostel with its equally stateside metal fire escapes. There is a gap between these two buildings where a pub once stood – the Sir Sidney Smith, which became the Old Windmill and finally the Kensington before it was demolished in the 1970s. One of the smallest suspended spaces on the route, the Kensington gap is a temporary car park and home to a giant blue tit who arrived in 2012.
Outside the Piccadilly area Manchester city centre has many more suspended spaces: Origin, the Faraday Tower, the Tib Street Horn, Smithfield Market and the Ancoats Dispensary to name but a few. The intriguing thing about all of these suspended spaces is their variety. Firstly, they exist for different reasons. Most of these spaces are artifacts of market collapse – planned towers, Millennium Communities and entire swathes of canalside land all hibernating for the protracted economic winter. Some, however, are shadows of a centrally planned future that never left the page. Secondly, suspended spaces appear in different guises. Some are empty voids of bare earth or rubble – Picadilly Tower and much of New Islington, some contain buildings whose useful function has lapsed – Smithfield Market and the Employment Exchange, while others are home to structures that were grounded before they were even completed – Origin, Nuovo. Finally, suspended spaces accommodate a variety of interim uses, both official and unofficial. While car parks are de rigueur, such as at Piccadilly Basin, some are graced with public art – the Tib Street Horn, the Kensington blue tit, and, very occasionally, suspended space can become green space, such as at Tariff Street. Suspended spaces, by their nature as redundant, forgotten realms, have also been appropriated organically – The Kensington is a popular space for band shoots and Saturday night altercations, the London Road Fire Station and Faraday Towers are frequented by urban explorers, and a small patch of Piccadilly Basin is now home to a cluster of allotments.
Suspended spaces are an inevitable component of the cityscape: paradoxically, as pockets of inactivity they are a byproduct of a dynamic, changing urban environment. Stalled transitions between the past and the future, suspended spaces demonstrate what can happen when plans meet a hostile reality, but also how we can, at least on occasion, find innovative interim uses for the resulting land. Some suspended spaces are gems; others are eyesores, but they are a fascinating and important part of our city’s story. Take the tour, discover your own suspended spaces and add them to the map.