Friday, 30 January 2009

Japanese Pavilion, Piccadilly Gardens

What? The Japanese Pavilion which dominates Piccadilly Gardens. Its most defining feature is a large concrete wall which is sometimes described as the Berlin Wall of Manchester. Anyone stepping off a bus or tram is greeted by the brutal expanse of bland greyness, made even worse by rows of portable urinals.

A pavilion should be a pleasant, relaxing place, though? The word 'pavilion' has connotations of pleasure and recreation, but Piccadilly Gardens isn’t exactly a place in which you want to hang around. The Japanese Pavilion is minimalist, cold and hardly welcoming - unless you’re gladdened by the sight of yet another CafĂ© Nero.

When and who? The council set up an international competition to redesign the gardens as part of the regeneration that followed the IRA bomb. It also coincided with the smartening up of the city that happened in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. The winners were announced in 1998, and Japanese professional boxer turned award-winning architect Tadao Ando was enlisted, completing the building in 2003.
What was wrong with the old Piccadilly Gardens? The garden, which is the largest green open space in central Manchester, was created in 1914 where the basement of the original Manchester Royal Infirmary stood. By the time of the 1996 bomb, though, the sunken Victorian style ornamental gardens were seen as being both out of date and an unsafe no-go area populated by drug dealers. Now, all that remains of the original design are the statues, including the imposing figure of Queen Victoria.

What’s Ando's track record? He's designed churches, art galleries and housing, which often incorporate natural elements such as light into the design – see the Church of Light in Japan or Church on the Water, which is surrounded by an artificial lake. The problem is, given the above average grey element of Manchester's skies, the greyness of the pavilion serves only to emphasise the prevalence of our overcast skies rather than distract from them, and the grubbiness of the wall is in keeping with the shabbiness of the gardens as a whole, with their patchy grass and litter.

So it’s something to make Manchester proud? Let's take a look at another city, Sheffield, and what it's done to regenerate one of its public spaces. Visitors leaving Sheffield's train station walk out into Sheaf Square which, like Piccadilly Gardens, has fountains and a large wall. Sheffield's though, designed by international glass artist Keiko Mukadie, reflects (literally) the city's history.

Cutting Edge is a five metres high, 90 metres long sculpture made of the steel for which the city is famous, and depicts the fashioning of a knife blade as a tribute to the city's reputation for fine cutlery. Finished in 2007, it has lights embedded in it and its mirror finish gleams and excites more than our bland concrete block.

We drew the short straw, then? Yes. The Japanese Pavillion divides people – literally, as it's designed to separate the busy bus and Metrolink terminal from the rest of the space.

Didn’t the council have ambitious plans for the Pavilion? Yes - in September 2007 it announced plans to create a living roof, and work was supposed to start this time last year. The council wanted to make Manchester Britain’s greenest city and attract wildlife to the area. The roof would have attracted birds and butterflies and come alive in summer. But it would only have been seen from offices that overlook the Pavilion anyway.

That’s the main problem, isn’t it - the Pavilion is bit lifeless, especially compared to the hub of activity that goes on around it? The word on the street is that people would like to feel a bit more involved in the space.

But at least people are trying to enliven the place - in April 2006, Manchester International Arts covered it in 25,000 pink, scented flowers as an installation called 'Wall Flowers'.

And not very Manchester (there's a clue in the name)? No. Rachael Elwell of art knitting group ArtYarn says its “bleak” and “uninspiring” appearance is “a complete contradiction to what Manchester claims to achieve artistically”. She suggests a knitted panel covering the wall to bring back memories of “forgotten practises and ways of old living” from Manchester’s textile heritage.

What else do you suggest we do about it? We could have a mural, stick with the fairy lights that are there at Christmas and at least bestow the Pavilion with a little bit of warmth, or even have changing projections on the wall. It could be given to graffiti artists like the street art walls down the road in Stevenson Square, or provide a new home for the Afflecks Palace mosaics.

Morag Rose, founder of the Loiterers Resistance Movement psychogeography collective, came up with the most inventive suggestion: “one week cover it in glittery pink fake fur so stressed commuters could have a stroke or a hug.”

Sally Makison, an interior designer at Maddocks Design Partnership, thinks the tourist information centre should be moved from the town hall to a more central location inside the Pavilion.

As a Victorian city, how about updating a Victorian leisure tradition that's a welcome addition to any park and turning the pavilion into a bandstand? Offer city centre buskers, who provide one of the last remaining shreds of individuality amid the chain stores of Market Street, rotating slots in a rain and wind free environment, and give people a reason to stay in Piccadilly Gardens rather than rushing though it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi The Shrieking Violet! Congratulations for your blog.
I've used this entry for an essay about Non-Places. I'm taking Piccadilly Station, Piccadilly Gardens and The Arndale Centre as actual examples of that concept.
Greetings from Madrid!

PS: It's a pity I can't add your name in the bibliography as electronic material.
In case you can send it to me, it's only necessary to put: Author's Surname, Initial.

Thank you very much!