Sunday, 22 April 2018

Manchester: How buildings think about, or ignore, the space around them

Each time I return to Manchester, I am astonished by its endless rebuilding, in the central areas, without it ever managing to acquire a coherent feel. Every building looks good or bad, in its own right, but no two buildings seem to look as though they belong next to each other.  

For me, the quintessential street is Oxford Road. It contains not one but two universities, a major music school, and who knows what other institutions, and yet it fails in the simple aim of creating a unified aspect. They have had at least 150 years to achieve some kind of townscape, but whereas in the centre there are whole streets of Victorian splendour that fit together, Oxford Road never does. Paradoxically, it is some of the more recent buildings that contribute most to its incoherence (if it is possible to contribute to incoherence – I should perhaps say reduce its coherence).

The purpose of my trip was to see the Whitworth Art Gallery, which is that rare thing, an art gallery open late one evening – the very evening I was in Manchester. The Whitworth is now displaying proudly its latest enlargement, and proud it should certainly be, because from the brief tour I made of it, the new extension has benefitted not so much the art  - I didn’t see too many large-scale opportunities for additional art display, based on the rooms that were open when I visited – but the extension has achieved an integration with the locality, and specifically with the park outside. I hadn’t realised before today that Whitworth’s legacy had provided the funds to create a park as well as an art gallery. In some way, the two belong together, and today, a gloriously hot day, the residents of Manchester were in the park in large numbers. Thanks to the new extension, there is now an art gallery “back garden”, created out of two new wings extending at the back, and there were signs of life in that area, with several people chatting at the back entrance. There is a vast new café extending down the whole of the park side of the extension, and the café looks welcoming; it doesn’t look like you have to enter the art gallery to get to the café, particularly since you can enter through the very informal-looking back entrance. Through those windows, the gallery and the park join together. 

This idea is not entirely original at the Whitworth, although spectacular. It extends the very distinctive glass wall of Bickerdike, extension, dating from 1966 to 1968. 

I thought it was a commonplace that art galleries should not have any large areas of glass providing a visible view outside, perhaps because it detracts from the appreciation of the art, or perhaps because it is not good for conservation. Yet some of the best galleries make use of the surrounding environment and make it visible – Boston, Paris (the Pompidou Centre manages to provide you with views of Parisian landmarks at various intervals as you walk around the gallery), and Downing College, where the deceptive space of the Heong Gallery, just a rectangle, includes one large window from floor to ceiling of the end of the west wall.

Yet the same extension manages to show how not do use windows at the same time as showing how to do it well.  On the north side of the new extension, the Whitworth shows how a window can remove most if not all of the impact of a work of art. 

Epstein’s Genesis is positioned in a tiny alcove with a wall behind it entirely of glass. The view is of an unprepossessing car park and road – even Genesis loses a bit of impact against a stream of traffic. There is enough traffic outside in Oxford Road for the Whitworth to be a pleasant haven, and you don’t want to be reminded of the north and east sides of the building.

Much of the museum was closed (between exhibitions) but there was enough to give an idea of the new space in operation. For me, the loveliest space was the lower ground floor at the back – the back entrance is one floor lower than the front. This means that the space facing the back entrance is almost a cellar, and is treated like one - there are low arches connecting the various “rooms”. This space is very interesting. It has easy chairs, some PCs, and textile art around the walls. At all times the outside is visible. It has a most un-museum-like feel to it, and is all the better for it. 

The items on display (hardly an exhibition) I saw there were Indian textile art both from India and from a local group, ARPA. The mix of exhibits, old and new, was fascinating and the space welcoming. It didn’t feel like a gallery. It felt small-scale and welcoming – quite a contrast to the main entrance, with pairs of classical columns announcing very clearly what the building is supposed to be.

After that exquisite experience, it was back through Oxford Road again, this time noticing some buildings that are just plain bad. 

Despite that, I'll remember the Whitworth for a long time. 

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