Ancoats is living story book, built up in layers over centuries capturing and fossilising the dreams, greed, ambition, poverty, ingenuity, innovation and raw labour of all the men, women and children who came and continue to come into contact with it. It is only with the benefit of 10 years of involvement that I have the hindsight to realise how fortunate I have been to contribute and be part of the continued evolution of Ancoats. My first meaningful contact with Ancoats was my introduction to the design team charged with delivering the approved redesigned proposals for the streets and squares into reality. There was an immediate and deep rooted rapport and respect amongst the team which synchronised perfectly with the prevailing economic optimism and wider appetite for ambitious change. This team at this time were capable and perhaps more importantly, enabled to deliver positive change. The degree of collaboration, trust and confidence we had in each other was very empowering. While the approved proposals established the key principles of the scheme and much research had already been undertaken, including detailed archaeology studies, land use, movement and access, local resident consultation and other stakeholder input the delivery team needed to think through this massive body of information to determine how it would apply to the specifics of each space and street. We debated and discussed how to interpret and showcase the historic fabric of the variety of streetscapes, with the diverse and individual range of existing buildings and craft a landscape that addressed the practical constraints of existing buried utilities, access for ongoing businesses and accommodate continued unrelated construction activity on a plot by plot basis. It was a dynamic situation and we began by asking the most basic of questions, where do we start, which street, which buildings, which stakeholders. A plethora of independent planning permissions were being developed in parallel with the street delivery roll out programme, end users were thinking about their future operations, how and when they would market their schemes and what conditions their clients or residents could expect to live in during the course of the street design and delivery period. Furthermore the technical approval process was rigorous and understandably cautious. The street design strategy included many innovative ideas and we had to spend a considerable amount of time satisfying ourselves as to the safety and deliverability of the designs. In many cases the designs sat outside of standard practice, which meant that we had to justify our designs from first principles. Simple changes such as building mounted lighting rather than lighting columns meant that we had to secure the building owners permission to do so. There was a learning curve for all those involved and once we constructed the first phase we established a design and approvals pattern that simplified the development and checking of future phases. However all of these discussions were handled in a very ordered, positive and constructive spirit. The design team worked through each point with the intention of extracting as much value, community benefit and joy out of each situation. The collective problem solving provided a huge amount of team confidence and we were assured that should we be prepared to take a calculated risk and develop innovative options we had the support and encouragement of the other team members to address to consequences together what ever those consequences may have been. It is important to note that looking back over the project with the time tested benefit of hindsight there have been no contractual disputes, technical errors or financial claims from any of the stakeholders involved in the project, which is a testament to the skill and care of the wider team. This environment and team spirit was a cultural home coming for Dan Dubowitz. He arrived shortly after phase one was on site and once he sat in on his first design team meeting the team found another gear. The willingness of the team to explore ideas with a positive frame of mind allowed Dan to shovel in more creativity. There were stages and conversations and chance discussions when the team would freestyle around a topic and turn the germ of an idea into a meaningful and deliverable proposal. The chance discovery of a sub terrain passage under Henry Street provides an insight into the team’s approach during this period. With the street design for Henry Street fixed, the contract priced and let and the contractor actually implementing the scheme on the ground we encountered an unscheduled and unforeseen void under the existing road during the course of ordinary construction operations. Once it was found and we satisfied ourselves that it did not present any immediate danger we all worked together to understand what it was and what role it served when in use in an attempt to determine its archaeological and anthropological value. We ran this exercise without compromising the Contractors programme or budget. We soon realised it was one of a number of buried passages that once linked mills and warehouses that were in the same ownership, where the mill complexes had expanded over time stretching across the confines of the existing network of streets. However rather than affect the functionality of the street the mill owners connected the mills with a network of underground passages and elevated walkways. This method of connectivity sealed the buildings during the working shift, containing all activity within a controlled envelope. Dan’s immediate reflex was to preserve the passage and over the following weeks we developed a strategy for retaining the underground walkway and incorporating it into the new streetscape. The resulting presentation of the passage currently set into the street is a fascinating, revealing and playful feature that brings the story of Ancoats’ past into life.
Stephen O’Malley, July 2011