Inconvenient city

Manchester Town Hall Extension (left) & Central Library (right)

Manchester Town Hall Extension (left) & Central Library (right)

The city of Manchester now boasts only one public convenience for its population of nearly half a million.

Visitors must follow Queen Mary’s precept, never to miss an opportunity to take the weight from one’s feet or to relieve oneself.

In the basement of a branch of the food-chain Eat, at the corner of Cross Street and King Street, I visited one of the most peculiar gents’ lavatories I’ve ever encountered – one of those hand-driers that burst into action as soon as you walk through the door, mirrors on all four walls (very distracting for a gentleman), no sign of the stairs you came down when you come out, and instead another staircase that disappears into the ceiling.  It’s worth visiting for the sheer drama:

Later, I found the one loo that will remain open, located at the back of the Town Hall Extension, the deft 1938 design of Vincent Harris, the architect who was commissioned to create a building that could stand between Alfred Waterhouse’s great Town Hall of 1877 and his own Central Library of 1934.

The Town Hall is one of the great Gothic buildings of the Victorian period, built in Yorkshire sandstone on an odd trapezoid-shaped site;  Harris’ circular Central Library is grand-slam classical, built in white Portland limestone.  Two more different public buildings could hardly be imagined, and it’s ironic that Vincent Harris landed the job of uniting them with an office building on the site between.

This he did with consummate skill – devising a tall, steeply-gabled building which echoes the Town Hall, but with plain surfaces and regular lines, aligned to the Town Hall and embracing the circumference of the Central Library.  Though not universally accepted when first completed, time has shown that Harris’ group forms a far more inspired and respectful piece of civic planning than most twentieth-century public architecture.

Who would have thought in 1938 that this monument to twentieth-century civic pride would become the only official place in Manchester to “spend a penny” – a landmark of the poverty of local government in the twenty-first century?

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Manchester’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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