Manchester Airport evokes great memories for me, not so much the flying away to a far off land, rather it makes me remember the air-fix models you could buy from duty free and of the plane spotters gathered together on the roof of the airport with their radios that tuned in to air traffic control. My dad wasn’t quite a plane spotter but we did have those models around the house and he did take me to loiter behind people who had those radios. I’m sure he would have liked a radio of his own someday but this stealth listening had two selling points, it was effortless and it was free.
In the summertime, as a child, the airport was our most popular haunt. We’d wander around the great lounge marvelling at those huge Venetian glass chandeliers that hung so majestically amidst the shops in the departure lounge.
The chandeliers weigh almost 2 tons each and were designed by royal architect Stefan Buzas, originally the chandeliers included pieces of coloured glass but during a cleanup to remove tobacco stains it was decided that the the design would be modernised by the removal of the coloured shards.
The chandeliers were removed from the airport entirely in 2003, one is housed at St Helens World of Glass (here), a second is at MOSI but remains in storage to this day having never been displayed, and a third was purportedly used as part of Helen Maurer’s Light Landing piece at Tatton Biennial. Number four’s location is a mystery.
Once my dad and I had browsed the travel gadgets on sale and leafed through the albums in the music shop we’d head over to the runway. And it’s the runway that’s the reason for my visit today - to explore the old air traffic control tower with photographer Andrew Brooks.
The new control tower, built to replace this one, was built in just nine days and opened last summer on the airport’s 75th anniversary, it was nominated for the Building of the Year by Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, but lost out to Number One Riverside in Rochdale.
Here in the original control tower there’s a palpable feeling of abandonment - some electronic displays are still lit up as if the last person to leave did so in a hurry,
82 Portland Street - what a delight that nameless totem pole of windows is. I asked the building’s oldest resident, Colin of Colin Jellicoe Gallery, if he had a nickname for it, “work” he shrugged. So henceforth it shall be known as the Portland Street Erection.
image by Skyliner
Either side of number 82 are former weavers’ cottages that would become The Circus Tavern (perhaps the smallest pub in Britain) and The Grey Horse Inn which take their names from the doomed voyage of an equestrian circus which sank on the journey from Manchester to America. Originally the enquiry office of Great Eastern Railways, the dimensions of this unique building are glaringly out of place amongst those, its neighbours. Tall and slender amongst a row of dwarves; why does it stick out like that? I like to think that the building is a kind of beacon - a symbol of hope, space and light amongst those depressed, light-deprived workspaces that flank it.
For a long time I assumed it to be the oldest building in the row and the cottages built around it, but in fact it’s a later addition and so the way it stands out from the rest of the row was planned. Perhaps it was it part of a larger plan that was never realised, something more sympathetic that would have been built up around it, but it’s impossible to say.
Portland Street, 1904. Great Eastern Railway signs visible on number 82. Image care of Manchester Libraries. Ref. m04857
Built in 1883 by J.M. Porter, Porter was 20 years old at the time and still learning his trade as an architect and surveyor with Messrs Farrer and Co. I thought it a little peculiar that an apprentice should have the building credited to him rather than in the name of his employer and I was curious to see Farrrer’s back catalogue so I looked them up and therein lies the mystery. Seemingly Farrer and Co did not exist.
I traced a Farrer and Co in London, a law firm with quite an impressive and far-reaching history and ties with Charles Dickens, who I knew had ties with Manchester, but my fleeting moment of hope was dashed when they emailed to say they have no records of ever having run business from Manchester nor any connection to Porter.
image by Russell Hart Photography
For the most part the building was occupied by Great Eastern Railway, and the bricked sides of the building still show the outline of the old signage. After that it was occupied by a sportswear and textile store until, rather wonderfully, the site came totally full circle and became occupied by the current tenants - a hairdressers and an art gallery: the exact same trades that occupied number 82 before the current building was even erected.
A few weeks before I started my investigations a man from The Antiques Roadshow had visited Portland Street and mentioned to the occupants that it was likely the building dated back to the 1850s. I dismissed this date at first, but could he be right? If so then that would certainly mean the architect was someone else, but what does that mean for J M Porter and his mysterious employers?
In 1886 Porter moved back to his home in Wales and remained there, his company archives are held by Denbighshire County Council who can’t find any mention of 82 Portland Street.
Whilst researching the site I’ve called in to question the date, the architect, and even the firm where the architect purportedly learned his trade. Nothing adds up about this place, whole companies associated with it are seemingly non-existent and there’s not only gaps in the archives but chasms.
And that frustration, that’s the reason its a favourite building of mine. What I love, as my Columbo box set will verify, is a good old mystery and this one is a real head scratcher. Number 82 is wooing me with its slow reveal, a Portland Street enigma.
There’s a rather peculiar green metal arch above a window at the rear of the building, it looks like it might be a frame for a sign or a streetlight but why there on the back street? - image by Skyliner
The anonymous murals of Spring Gardens post office.
These murals that sit above the counters of Spring Gardens post office have always stood out to me as something quite lovely. They brazenly straddle the internal windows and allow me to eye them up and down until my number is called; try to photograph one of them and you’re as good as out on your ear - they’re very much the architects’ peep show. They leave me sated that even during the most mundane chores I can still get my fill of art.
Countless times I’ve taken a tour group through the post office to a chorus of "I’ve never noticed them before".
How do a series of huge brutal reliefs that squat just a few feet above the counter go unnoticed time and time again, but most intriguing of all is who made them?
I became a little obsessed with crediting these reliefs to an artist and found myself for much of last year lost in the archives, reeling from a multitude of dead ends and uncertainties. I have a theory, and a solid one at that, but I’m still looking for that definite answer, that "yes, you’re right, this is what happened".
So begins our whodunnit…
The staff at the post office don’t know very much about the murals, but what they do know is that they were a gift from Manchester University when the building opened 4th August 1969.
I’m certain that they’re wrong.
A post office has stood in Spring Gardens since 1623, and this current building promises to fulfil its postal requirements for “the coming 60 years” (until 2029). Designed by Cruikshank and Seward, Spring Gardens was the largest post office in the north when it opened and heralded the arrival of new mechanised sorting offices in the area at a total cost across all sites of £5m. In January of 1969 the lead architect, Lee Monks, fell from the 6th floor during an inspection of the building and was killed.
In anticipation of the opening of the post office there were multiple articles in both regional and national press, several pages were dedicated to the new site and yet the murals, though given cursory mention, are never credited to an institution, a student, or an artist. As if the extensive press coverage wasn’t enough the Piccadilly Hotel created a commemorative omelette called the ‘GPO Surprise’. That’s right, a commemorative omelette.
Surely if news was so lacking that a post office gets a four page spread (yes, really) somewhere in there they’d thank the university and name the students responsible. This seals the deal for me, they’re not a gift.
During this time public art was becoming more prevalent and Percent For Art schemes were common practice across much of the world (Bolton has a scheme to this day) and although there was no UK wide initiative the seed was planted and many buildings incorporated some form of public art into their plans. Sadly, although lots of buildings of this era are often artistically decorated it’s the art that’s first to go when the building begins to look a little dated. It’s because of this fact that the murals intrigue me further; it’s quite the feat that they have survived the extensive renovation especially when they are both anonymous in origin and really, quite crudely mounted.
Thinking back now I recall my initial interest in the murals was driven by the possibility that they could be the work of
Back in 2012 I acted as a guest curator for Northern Spirit and their Wondrous Place project. Over the course of a week I wrote about Manchester Hippodrome, Sunlight House and the Picc-Vic underground transport system that never materialised, and tied these visions and memories together by imagining them all occurring at one time, under the fictional remit of architect Joseph Sunlight as head of the city (now Cottonopolis) planning department. I’ve republished these articles, as one, below.
Cottonopolis: A Skyline Reimagined
Sunlight House, image thanks to Stephen Richards
My family are predominantly from Liverpool, and so it’s safe to assume I’m the black sheep of the family in my adoration of Manchester. I love it because I feel like I’ve made it my own. It’s a city where it’s very easy to do that and to carve yourself a place where you slot in and feel at home regardless of your roots. It’s also a challenging city to love because you have to work at it. There’s nothing immediate about it, it’s small yet spread out, it’s unremarkable in many ways, and you certainly don’t get that breath-taking moment of flinging open your hotel window and gazing down on an urban paradise – its not an easy city for a visitor to love.
Manchester was my blank canvas when I first came here and it remained that way for several years, just a corner of the canvas was filled in and it was rudimentary and pencil drawn. Then I realised that I hadn’t approached the city like I do all other cities; as a tourist – always asking questions about its history, its art, exploring the streets and getting lost in its dead-ends. I did this and my canvas became florid in its detail. I still explore like this everyday because there’s no reason, in any city, for that curiosity to ever wane.
I’ve adopted Manchester as a home and so it saddens me when a building I love is at threat, with that in mind I’ve looked at what Manchester could have been had these threats never reared their heads. What we’ve lost and what we almost had.
Over the years there has always been a kind of marvellous futuristic machinery at work behind the scenes of some of the major buildings. In the late 19th century Manchester Hydraulics Systems supplied this brand new source of power to the air conditioning of John Rylands Library (in itself a ground breaking concept at the time), the safety curtains of the Opera House, the organ of the Cathedral, and the clock of the Town Hall.
The Palace Hotel, image by Skyliner.
The Palace Hotel on Oxford Road used this hydraulic power in a fashion not dissimilar to something you’d expect to see in the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. They installed a series of tubes in what was then the Refuge Assurance Building, and inside of leather-bound capsules they would seal notes before dropping them into the suction system and transporting them to another part of the building.
Sunlight House on Quay Street is perhaps something of a silent star in amongst all of these landmarks and ground-breakers. It’s a grand building on an otherwise bland street, it’s not a building whose name is instantly recognised nor is the purpose of it clear to the everyday passer-by, but it’s this building that’s inspired me to look at Manchester as it could have been.
Although I mostly like to write about Manchester and more recently, Liverpool, there are a few places I’ve seen on my travels that are perfect Skyliner fodder - notably some theme parks that have fallen into disrepair after being abandoned.
The first is in Sweden, located behind an arts house that many years ago was a borstal. The house itself is a sight to behold, in the middle of nowhere just beyond an old chapel of sorts carved into the rock face and surrounded by a lake and forests, inside the enormous house are countless bedrooms some of which were once cells, an old bakery in the basement, some exhibition spaces for the artists that now occupy it, and a cluster of neighbouring cottages along a dirt track on the approach.
The area of Sweden, Tanum, was the first municipality to require urine-separation toilets which combats the global shortage of phosphorus. That requirement isn’t one that the borstal pay much mind to given that there’s not even running water here.
Not far from the house you can find the largest Greby in the region - an iron age graveyard, and an UNESCO word heritage site covering 18km at Tanumshede; a site full of bronze age rock carvings. Whilst staying at the borstal I met a lady who was staying there as part of her promise to her husband to visit all the UNESCO sites in the world, something they had planned to achieve together but her husband died suddenly only a few weeks before.
The old borstal
exhibition space in the basement
An old cell
The room for the naughtiest boys in the borstal
An old bakery in the basement, in complete darkness.
The borstal at night
Behind the house however is Sommarland, an abandoned theme park.The park was a wonderful and haunting thing to find in the woods behind the house.
Sommarland was closed in 2004, I first visited the water park in 2010 and as exciting as it was negotiating the rotten climbing frames and water slides it was the houses surrounding the park that I was most drawn to.
It’s hard to place City Tower, formerly Sunley Tower, in the brutalist pigeonhole these days. It’s a white beacon of modernism guiding you across China Town, a siren of the 60s beckoning you towards it from its podium behind the classical architecture of King Street. It’s the third tallest building in the city, and remains the highest commercial office space.
And set within its facade is a concrete tribute to the scientific achievements of the city, because look closely - those gable walls are a giant circuit board.
Completed in 1964 it was originally named Sunley
My latest article for the wonderful Now Then - the layout and naming convention of streets. Featuring a housing estate in Chorlton and a series of American grid-style streets in Trafford Park…
There’s a long-vacated wine shop in Chorlton, the exterior of which is flanked by two huge bay windows and the blue frames are that kind of salt-eroded, windswept pastel found only on British waterfronts and in polaroids. Traversing the suburban landscape that surrounds the wine shop the houses begin to take on the same seaside form, it’s subtle and difficult to pinpoint the exact similarities but they’re definitely there and that’s when you notice the street signs: Fairhaven, St Annes, Lytham, Cleveleys, and it’s quite serendipitous but there’s long winding road that wraps around this estate and it goes by the name of Sandy Lane - a tarmac beach. Were these houses designed to mirror the architecture of our seaside resorts or have the streets, like dogs that resemble their owners, taken on the characteristics of the towns they’re named after?
Le Corbusier famously outlined his plans for a new Paris in his manifesto The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. The streets that had grown from the paths of least resistance, those traced by meandering pack-donkeys during medieval times, were not efficient for modern man. To Le Corbusier the city was a mechanism and neither character nor exploration were necessary components of his well-oiled machine. The streets in his vision were laid out in meticulous order, exact geometry that suited and served the way of man, and not the way of the donkey. Manchester, like much of the UK, is part man and a whole lot of donkey. But not entirely. Some of the order found within the grid layout of new transatlantic cities, their blocks and their numerical naming convention, made it to Manchester.
The water tower of the Westinghouse factory, Trafford Village. Image care of Metropolitan Vickers
In 1886 American owned Westinghouse Electrical Company built besides the Bridgewater Canal on what had been meadows up until the completion of the Manchester Ship Canal. Westinghouse pulled out all the stops to have his enormous factory built in record time along with a model village for his workers. He based his Trafford Park Village on the regimented blocks of America and provided four avenues and twelve streets of housing, small businesses and community centres. Today the streets have been altered somewhat but this grid layout still exists to some degree
The art galleries of a city are larger in number than you first perceive if you look not only to the official institutions but to the galleries that are formed in the corridors of hotels and the stairwells of office blocks.
One particularly exhaustive collection in the city is that of The Midland Hotel’s Wyverne Restaurant. Here in the Wyverne (every Midland hotel has a Wyverne restaurant) is the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge.