Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Art has Left the Building

When Urbis was designed and built, following the 1996 IRA bomb which ripped the heart out of the city, it was as part of a new visioning of that part of the city. Public space was transformed, with that part of the city, ravaged by sixties town planners and soulless shopping centres, opened out again so that the great buildings of Chethams, the Corn Exchange and the Cathedral became integrated back into the heart of the city. Urbis, an ultra-modern design, became a key part of that transformation, refusing the easy lure of heritage, in favour of something that in shape and style could be an architectural icon for Manchester. Alongside the Hilton, the Lowry and Imperial War Museum North, it added a highly recognisable piece of architecture to the city.

The planners and the city leaders who led on this, were rightly lauded for their vision - after that 1996 disaster. Good architecture in a city context is not an easy thing to do, and their are plenty of examples around UK that prove that. Lottery and other funding made this easier, of course, but it is the "vision" that was important. Yet, inside Urbis, there was none of that same vision. A half-baked collection of unconsidered interactive exhibits; a pristine, and soulless corporate vision of a city, less ambitious and engaging than a 3D Ladybird book of the city would have been. Those same visionaries, had no vision for the space, or what it should be. I went round (paid a fiver, as it was in those days), with my friend from Liverpool, and said "this is stupid, it's not about urban life at all, it should be an art gallery..." I'd been to a wonderfully bustling exhibition about Hong Kong city life at the Hayward a year before, and seen how it could and should be done.

Amazingly, over the last few years, Urbis has looked outward, and through a series of temporary exhibitions that reflected and contributed to the urban experience that is everywhere around in Manchester, a vision emerged - one that was not so dissimilar to what I'd seen at the Hayward a bit earlier, the idea of an art gallery as a dynamic, fast-paced experience. The excitement of the iconic building, reflected in a throbbing, exciting interior.

There was no vision at the beginning for what Urbis was all about, other than a piece of a regneration jigsaw, a plastic square on a Mancunian Monopoly board. Job done, the planners moved on, and presumably, the city pretty much forgot about Urbis, and, clearly, let artists and curators get on with the job of making it a key component of Manchester's official city vision, original and modern.

The art has not quite left the building, but is about to. The decision to move the National Football Museum from Preston to Manchester makes sense only in the sense of "numbers" - yes, it will get more people through the door in Manchester than Preston, but see what has been lost? The art, and with it, any vision of Manchester as taking cultural seriously. For though we have our high culture citadels (the Bridgwater, the Lowry, the Royal Exchange, Manchester Art Gallery), and our low culture ones (M.E.N, Eastlands, Old Trafford), neither are really creations of our age. I didn't and don't expect our current bureaucracies to have the power and vision of the Victorians, but I do expect them to create a space where those who might have a vision could make it happen. In retrospect, Urbis's empty interior was something that nobody thought about until the cost of running it, year in, year out, became clear. A museum, worse, a museum of football, is nostalgia run riot. No more chances for Mancunians to laugh at Liverpool's Beatles obsession, when we choose the past ahead of the future. Buildings are often no more than Rachel Whiteread's concrete filled interior spaces imply they are, "holders" without particular meaning. Churches become pubs and old mills become apartment blocks.

For art, it won't make much difference, for the art can still happen outside of the agreed spaces, unofficially, like the now-venerated Tony Wilson once did with Factory Records and the Hacienda. But imagine what might have been. If the city had set up Urbis with a Charter or a vision, to be a new kind of "institute of contemporary arts" for the 21st century. Take your children to that, make it a place for vibrant thought, discussion, and creativity. Let the mediated experience become the unmediated future.

So, in a political climate where the money for both football museum and art gallery comes from a department that manages to mix "culture, media and sport" in a single acronym, I only wonder what's next for the city? We talk about echoing the Victorians, by wanting the Palace to become an Opera House. Well it's only an echo. This too is nostalgia, high brow thought it might be. Then again, Charlotte House opposite the Central Library is now empty, the Odeon remains closed; the BBC building will have to find a new usage. If we're willing to give Urbis away to the most prosaic idea that comes to town, then let's forget about vision. Turn all of these into shopping centres; northern Trocadero's; outposts of Arndales; or, let's make them into a museum is applicable to the age, welcome to the Oxford Road Museum of Reality Television, welcome to the Truman Show.


Mark Elder said...

Interesting that you have the Bridgewater as 'high art'. Given their programme is dominated by 'Music from the great ballets, programmed by Raymond Gubbay', not quite sure what would qualify as 'low' art.
Excise the Halle, and the whole programme is a million times dumber than it was five years ago.

Adrian said...

Interesting. I wouldn't know if the Bridgewater's programme has changed substantially from 5 years ago. The Halle and the BBC Symphony Orchestra still seem to be doing very good work there.

Anonymous said...

Adrian, I get the impression you make a reasonable living on public money from promoting the 'arts'.

The public doesn't want what you want to give them. Urbis was just another example of a taxpayer funded elite using public money to create jobs for itself.

In the current difficult economic climate councils and other public bodies should stop such self-indulgent expenditure.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I wasn't sure whether I should publish your comment as they're anonymous and therefore I can't debate with an anonymous individual.

However, as facts go, as far as I understand it, Manchester City Council has a commitment to Urbis to keep it as a museum (and fund it) as long as the building is in use. This requires staff. Those staff will still be required under its new role as National Football Museum. The money will still be public sector money.

noddi2 said...

It is a building with no clear purpose, and as such it will be targeted for re-purposing.

It feels like a private members club, so why not buy it and charge membership - then you can do as you like.

As to good architecture - that is debateable. As an Architect I feel it is a very uncomfortable fit in its context. Manchester desperately trying to be somewhere else rather than embrace its own fabric.