Tell your own Ancoats Story

Ancoats Tales 2011


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

The Engineer’s Tale – Ancoats’ Pedestrians & Traffic

I had heard of Camlin Lonsdale Landscape Architects but never worked with them before I got a call one day from Robert Camlin.  The now unmistakable Northern Irish voice introduced itself and asked if we would join their team to bid for a project to produce a Public Realm and Heritage Strategy for Ancoats.  Robert knew of our experience on historic buildings and had heard of our work on street design, which challenged the standard Highways Engineering approach.  We had been working for a number of years on an approach to the engineering of streets which would make them safer, improve the environment and counter the dominance of people in vehicles.
I recall the interview for the project in a very narrow meeting-room with a cast iron column rather unfortunately located at one end.  Robert employed his Northern Irish poetic charm, I held up a drawing which showed that the existing one-way vehicle system in Ancoats was actually encouraging higher speeds and greater risks for people on foot.  We won the job and our involvement in Ancoats was about to become permanent as over the following years we changed the public realm for ever and for the better.
We removed the one-way vehicle routes and virtually all of the highways signage.  We had been watching how people drove around Ancoats and it seemed to us that giving some people priority at junctions meant that they drove much faster towards the junction.  We considered reversing the priority but that would simply move the problem to the other direction.  We decided to remove the priority altogether so that all vehicles had to slow down.  After some persuasion we managed to convince the city engineers that this was a lower hazard than the previous approach and a key part of the movement strategy for that area was in place.
We would have streets where people on foot and on bikes were given highest priority; streets where road surfaces rose up to meet footways rather than dropped pavements which were difficult for people on foot, pushing buggies, using wheelchairs etc., and where every time it rained you could virtually guarantee that a puddle would form.  Where streets were too narrow to get good footway widths we made the footway down the centre of the street to give dominance and the best quality surface to those not in vehicles.
Ancoats now has the most civilised approach to street design in Manchester and we are all very proud to be part of it.

The Engineer’s Tale (2)

As an East Londoner working in Manchester it was several months before I was introduced to Ancoats on one of my visits to Manchester. I don’t even recall now the first visit (my memory doesn’t seem to work in, ‘firsts’ but I do remember regularly meeting people in the Edinburgh Castle pub which to me felt as close as you could get to the atmosphere of an East End pub (in a different accent).
It was the early 1990’s and a small group of enthusiasts were investing energy in this extraordinary remnant of the Industrial Revolution, to save it physically for others but importantly to also maintain a continuity to the human stories of Ancoats.  I was working in the city centre on an another extraordinary piece of industrial history, Great Northern Warehouse and its environs. At that stage my involvement was mainly trying to lend what little support I could to the enthusiasts, through my knowledge of reusing existing buildings.
Some months after these initial forays into Ancoats (again I don’t recall the date) I got a phone call from Chris Brown who was running AMEC’s regeneration arm.
“We want you to work with us on the Heart of Ancoats bid we are making.  We also need an Architect.  I am thinking we should get someone like Demetri Porphyrios and do something very Italianate.” said Chris.
“Love to join your team…but what’s the Italian thing?  This is Manchester…”.
I explained to Chris that whilst the Italian history of Ancoats was a critical part of its history this project was about the future of Ancoats.  We should make a built environment that acknowledges the history of a place but also reinforces the place itself, Manchester.  I suggested we get Ted Cullinan Architects on board and let them do their thing.
Chris agreed.  We made a design proposal and won the project with a bravura performance by Ted at the interview.
After several years of trying, the project never actually got to construction stage and the Heart of Ancoats remains undeveloped but it was my first real Ancoats experience in a professional context, albeit one which never reached fruition.

The Engineer’s Tale

The design team and our client, Lyn Fenton, were all very keen that we brought an artist into the team.  We wanted someone who would make sure that we stepped outside of our limiting roles of client, architect, engineer etc and who would challenge our thinking.  I always talk about the artist being the person that asks the questions a ‘normal’ person would ask, as opposed to questions we have a duty to ask in our professional roles.  We also knew that we didn’t want to commission a piece of artwork to be landed somewhere in Ancoats.  Ancoats doesn’t need a landmark, it is a landmark in itself.
The question was how to go about finding the right person to join the team.  We either had to speak to artists we already knew (which may have been limiting) or invite a limited number whose work interested us to come and meet us.  The latter was the approach taken but we still needed a subject for the conversation so we decided we should ask six artists to respond to a particular site in Ancoats as a way of meeting them and exploring their approach.
It was, not surprisingly a very interesting exercise and all of the artists produced ideas that took the discussion into interesting territory.  When we had finished meeting and talking to them all it was clear to the design team members on the interview panel who we wanted.  Dan Dubowitz had managed to engage us with his enthusiasm but importantly we were very sure that we would not only work together but that such a collaboration would produce the special approach which Ancoats deserved.  After a slightly tricky discussion we managed to persuade other (non-design team) panel members that Dan was our man with one clear condition:  he was not to produce the fixed piece of artwork (called Transformer) he had brought along for the interview.
Lyn Fenton was entirely in agreement with this and had the job of telling Dan that we loved him but not his Transformer.  Dan’s face broke into a great knowing smile and we had our Artist team member.
The story of what followed is now embedded in Ancoats in the public realm and other interventions that Dan’s involvement brought about.

Walled Up Places

They walled up  spaces we began to find in Ancoats were places of the ordinary everyday activities of a working industrial city and suburb; places to eat, move, pee, produce, and they were unexpectedly highly charged and somehow extraordinary by consequence of what had become of them. As people in the area began to hear about these found spaces, their arrival in people’s consciousness seemed to add a new layer to Ancoats. Knowlege of these spaces changed immediately people’s sense of what the area had been and what it could become. Their impact on the psyche of Ancoats owed as much to the stories and myths that began unfolding around each find, as did the experience of witnessing the spaces personally. Additionally we began to recognise that these places seemed connected to one another somehow, they were a series, a set. Each was a discrete site with its own character and story, but collectively they created a network of connections to one another and became more than the sum of their parts. So we agreed on a simple plan, and the Peeps project was born. If these walled up spaces could be experienced from the public realm, ie as you walk through the streets, then we should work together to make something of them.

Artist’s Tale

The Last Walkway

The last remaining walkway in
Ancoats was given planning
consent for demolition in
the summer of 2003. The
mill buildings on either side
were coming under separate
ownership, and the lawyers for
both parties wanted rid of the
liability. The walkway didn’t
qualify for protection from
demolition by the listing process,
but the regeneration group
recognised the value in trying
to keep the structure. However
without a clear function for the
walkway they could not see how
a case could be made to keep it.
Later in 2003 an artwork
proposal was accepted based
on retaining in perpetuity some
of the ‘lost’ spaces in Ancoats,
and it included the overhead
walkway. Just as the scaffolding
was being erected the developer
agreed that the walkway could
be retained.

Artist’s Tale

The Hair on the Back of Your Neck

Some of the walled up sites
found in Ancoats hold a quite
unfathomable atmosphere. Later
we came to understand that
some of the sites were more
interesting and more significant
than others. What distinguished
particular sites above the others
was that something made the
hair on the back of your neck
stand on end, and didn’t fizzle
away either when they were
opened or when they were
sealed up. These particular sites
were more akin to a source than
a container. It is from these sites
that the Peeps emerged.

Artist’s Tale

It all Started with a Phone Call

It all started with a phone call on a Thursday night from Stephen O’Malley the engineer. ‘Dan, the contractors doing the road have uncovered a brick arched tunnel under Henry Street. We’re filling it in on Monday so they can carry on with the road. I thought you’d like to see it. Its walled up at either end, we’re going to break into it in the morning if you want to come and have a look at it. When I arrived I was greeted by the sight of a man with his head in a hole in the pavement. Ten minutes later we were in the basement of the adjacent mill, breaking down a wall to get into the brick arched cavern with a stone flag floor and a plethora of stalactites dripping from the ceiling.

Another 10 minutes and I was negotiating with the contractor if there was not another stretch of road he could be getting on with for a few days. “What do you want to keep an empty space for?” I don’t know yet, but there is something about it. When we broke through into the walled up cavern under the road a dense and pungent smell was released and washed over us. It was a strange moment for all of us. I am sure for each of us it evoked a different experience and memory. For me it was a flashback to a visit to an ancient underground temple, the Necromanteion in Greece, said, by believers, to be the door to Hades. The latter had underground light-sensitive slugs the size of whales so I was not a little nervous as we clambered into the tunnel.

Engineer’s Tale

The Tipping Point

It was only a few months into the project, I was just settling into the studio
and getting my bearings, when I was rudely awoken one dawn by an almighty
crash. As I looked bleary eyed out of the studio window onto Murrays Mill, I saw
sewing tables, then machinery, then boxes that spilt their loads into a plume
of buttons, needles, belts, labels, neck ties, school uniforms as they hurtled
towards the ground. Next it was rolls of fabric, then the trolleys, then the doors,
then the partition walls, and then I picked up my camera and got over there. In
Manchester this is known as ditching; a team of men some characterised by their
unemployability as unskilled labourers, were armed with crowbars and clubs and
were stripping out the building floor by floor. A giant hole was knocked out down
to the floor of each of the eight levels, and the contents of each mill floor was
carted to that end, everything was then hurled out into the courtyard until the
mill was stripped bare, then they moved to the next floor. I introduced myself to
the foreman of this and the other sites where ditching was soon underway, and
armed myself with my camera and grabbed a box of red patent leather belts. I
went into battle, dawn to dusk saving what things I could as I moved along with
my camera and note book, by tying a belt around things otherwise headed for
the skip, trying, often in vain, to stay one floor ahead of the ditchers.
With a sudden jolt the regeneration process had shifted into action.
Ancoats was at its tipping point, it was also turning itself inside out and
stripping itself bare.

Artist's Tale

Clocking Off Peeps

“So, what can you see?”
“I can see an old clocking-in clock.”
“Really, let me see,… oh yeah… do you think that’s really in there?
“No its too old, anyway there’s a business in there now, and it looks
like a photo to me. Let me see again.”
“It not a photo.”
“Yes it is, look there’s no room for it to be there.”
“Well if it’s a photo how can it be telling the right time?”
“It can’t be.”
“It is.”
“That’s just a coincidence. It must be taken at 2.20.”
“It says 2.22 now.”
“Shit. You’re right……”

Passers' by Tale