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In the shadow of Urbis Manchester based actress Alberta Agyeman on the pillow lawns of Cathedral Gardens. Photo by Len Grant.

Palaces for the people: the regenerative power of culture

A century ago, Manchester put one over on Liverpool by bringing the sea to the city: the Manchester Ship Canal allowed cargo ships to steam out of the Mersey along a watery highway to Cottonopolis. Or at least to a huge inland port at Salford, a mile or so from Manchester’s grand town hall.

Thirty years ago, the docks were dying. In time, the port became a derelict wilderness, its stinking waters bubbling with pollution.

Two years ago, in the opening months of the new millennium, a huge glass and aluminium building with theatres, galleries and restaurants opened on Pier 8 at the heart of the former docks. It cost about £100m and was named in honour of L.S. Lowry, the Salford artist whose prints hang over many a British suburban fireplace.

Year one saw The Lowry almost overwhelmed by 1.2 million visitors who came to wonder at its orange carpets and purple walls.

Critics have been divided over its architectural significance but the public has flocked in: year one saw The Lowry almost overwhelmed by 1.2 million visitors who came to wonder at its orange carpets and purple walls.

At the western end of the canal, Liverpool’s decline matched Salford’s. The glory days of the city, one of the world’s great maritime centres in the 19th Century, faded as shipping moved away from the Atlantic trade to containerised shuffles from east coast ports to the continent. Liverpool’s Albert Dock, a great square of warehouses on the city’s magnificent waterfront, fell empty; ships no longer brought anything to store in them. But the dock took on a new life. Now it houses shops, restaurants, a popular maritime museum and a branch of the Tate Gallery which displays the occasional Lowry but usually confronts visitors with something more radical.

Two cities, two versions of regeneration through culture, a word that in this context embraces sport, shopping, tourism and heritage as well as high art. Trade and manufacturing, which made the Northwest rich during and after the Industrial Revolution, have nose-dived. But culture, so the argument goes from Sydney to Bilbao, can bring in investment, jobs and tourists.

The process continues: Liverpool is planning a prestigious new building on the waterfront for a museum of the city and is thinking about letting Everton Football Club build a new stadium just up the river at King’s Dock. The city has also just reopened the Walker Art Gallery after a £4.3m renovation and is one of the frontrunners to be European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Back at the other end of the canal, in the borough of Trafford on the edge of what was, in its day, the world’s biggest industrial estate, a new building, jagged in design and clad in shimmering aluminium, faces The Lowry across the water.

This is the £30m northern branch of the Imperial War Museum and it opened in July to a design by Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It is his first British building; he has designed an extension to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum but they haven’t got round to building it yet. Entry to the museum is free and they are expecting 300,000 visitors a year. The building has already attracted international interest.

Visitors can, at this point, hop on a tram (itself a tool of economic regeneration) and ride in style from here for a cultural tour of the centre of Manchester, which was blasted apart by an IRA bomb in 1996.

They can stroll off to The Bridgewater Hall, the city’s 2,400-seat concert venue and home to three regional orchestras. It runs without subsidy, manages to make a profit and may have persuaded a few captains of commerce that Manchester is both civilised and worthy of investment.

Or they could walk north, past Manchester Art Gallery which reopened in May after a £35m extension and refurbishment scheme, and on towards the cathedral to discover a blue, glass ski-slope of a building called Urbis. It cost £30m, opened in June and houses an interactive experience of life in the world’s cities in the 21st century. Close by, the city’s old corn exchange houses swish designer shops, and a former newspaper publishing complex is home to bars, shops and cinemas.

These projects, through a mix of public and private investment, have brought new life (and much new money) to a formerly dead end of the city centre.

Back to the Ship Canal, and facing The Lowry a new building has risen, much less distinguished but packed with outlet shops that bring in bargain hunters. Not far away, new homes and apartments are nearing completion. The Lowry has stimulated much of this scurry of new development. Felicity Goodey, a former BBC journalist, hails The Lowry as “the sexiest building in the North” and says it has brought the sunshine back to Salford. On a good day (and don’t believe everything you hear about the amount of rain that falls in the Northwest), visitors can sip their cappuccinos or designer beers in one of its bars and watch that sun set along the length of the ship canal.

Goodey has cause to be euphoric. She chaired the steering group that brought The Lowry into being and sees it and its neighbours (museum, shopping centre and, not far away, Old Trafford, home of Manchester United) as a crucial group of contrasting attractions which have helped bring people and prosperity back to a forlorn area of Greater Manchester.

“The conjunction of The Lowry, Old Trafford and Imperial War Museum North was quite deliberate,” said Goodey. “From the outset of The Lowry project, we recognised that we needed to create a new destination. You need big attractions to fuel the short break tourism market. You have to have a critical mass. So we lobbied furiously to lever in Imperial War Museum North.”

The Lowry, Britain’s landmark millennium project for the arts, was built with the help of £70m of lottery money. Imperial War Museum North missed out on lottery cash; it was funded instead with the help of £12.5m from Peel Holdings, owners of the Ship Canal
and Liverpool Airport and developers of the huge Trafford Park shopping centre. Other money came from Trafford Council, the Northwest Development Agency and Europe. The outlet centre opposite The Lowry and its cinemas are an entirely commercial development; rents gained from it contribute to the upkeep of Salford’s collection of paintings by L.S. Lowry and to The Lowry’s educational outreach work.

The Lowry, says Goodey, has put the heart back into Salford Quays.

The Lowry, says Goodey, has put the heart back into Salford Quays, where, with the help of commercial developers, Salford City Council had managed to erect new homes and office blocks in the teeth of the recession in the 1980s. That project brought in £350m of private sector investment and 4,500 jobs.

The Lowry has brought in a further £300m from the private sector and has, directly and indirectly, created 5,700 extra jobs. “It’s phenomenal,” added Goodey. “And there is as much, if not more, in the pipeline. The story of The Lowry is one of vision and innovation by a northern council. Salford City Council realised that if it was to effect a major transformation of a city long renowned for poverty and deprivation, it had to raise aspirations and change the image, not just for people looking in but, most importantly, for the people of Salford themselves.

“The city told local people that they did not have to put up with no hope, with the second rate, that they could aspire to the best.”

“The city told local people that they did not have to put up with no hope, with the second rate, that they could aspire to the best.”

Salford had looked west to Baltimore and north to Glasgow (European city of culture in 1990) to see the impact of cultural investment and had determined on an arts-based project of some kind for Pier 8.

“The city realised that if it was going to do this, it had to do it properly,” said Goodey. “It wasn’t any good building a little local theatre; they had to think big. The building had to be of international significance and quality. But it also had to be rooted in the local community. That was not an easy thing to pull off but I would argue that we have done it.”

Surveys show that 30 per cent of visitors to The Lowry’s galleries (characterised by their absence of reverent silence) do not consider themselves regular museum or gallery goers. Goodey talks with romantic passion of the local people who drift into The Lowry, of the head of a local school who says it has transformed the aspirations of her children, of the curious bag-carriers who cross the divide from the shopping centre to The Lowry.

Ask her for evidence and she will admit most is anecdotal. It would be nice to know exactly how many residents of the nearby Ordsall estate have ventured to The Lowry, which receives no public revenue funding, to see Madam Butterfly or Swan Lake. But no one can deny the economic impact of the building. Its glass-walled Compass Room up on the roof is available for wedding receptions, which have proved to be a nice little earner.

Thirty years ago, no one would have dreamed of going to a Salford dockside to celebrate a marriage. Or to see an opera.


Main image: In the shadow of Urbis Manchester based actress Alberta Agyeman on the pillow lawns of Cathedral Gardens. Photo by Len Grant.

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