Manchester prepares for fall of its 'Berlin Wall'

Tadao Ando’s modernist work in Piccadilly Gardens has divided opinion since 2002

To some it is a modernist masterpiece for which “any other city in the world would give their right arm”. To others, it is a concrete carbuncle that should never have been installed on what was once Manchester’s lushest square.

Work was set to begin on Monday to demolish the Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s only UK work after sceptics won the battle over what has been called the Mancunian Berlin Wall.

Built in Piccadilly Gardens as part of plans to revamp Manchester after the 1996 IRA bomb attack on the city, Ando’s concrete monolith immediately divided opinion.

Rather like the Mary Wollstonecraft statue in London, the structure offended the mainstream aesthetic. For every architecture student who worshipped the clean lines of Japanese minimalism, there were many members of the public who complained the structure was an eyesore that provided too much camouflage for drug dealers lurking in its shadows.

Most recently it has served as a canvas for protests against the government’s treatment of the north of England during the Covid pandemic, having been graffitied with the gnomic phrase: “The north is not a petri dish.”

In 2014, the Manchester Evening News launched a campaign to get rid of the wall, after three-quarters of its readers said they hated it. Older Mancunians reminisced about the square’s previous life as the flower-filled “sunken gardens”, which themselves degenerated into a haven for drug users.

The structure was also blamed for Piccadilly Gardens being descirbed by TripAdvisor as one of Manchester’s worst tourist attractions.

That year, the council announced plans to disguise it with greenery, saying it would be too expensive to demolish. There were also complications over its ownership, with part of the structure – a pavilion containing a restaurant – being in private hands.

But earlier this year the council announced a change of heart, saying it would in fact knock down the free-standing element of Ando’s work.

Councillor Pat Karney, the city centre spokesperson, was so pleased he said he would be marking the demolition date in his diary.

“This is the news that everybody in Manchester has been waiting for – part of the wall is coming down. I’m going to mark it on my calendar,” he said. “This is only the first part of what will be much bigger plans to make Piccadilly Gardens the vibrant and inviting space at the heart of the city which it should be.”

But anyone hoping to witness the drama of a wrecking ball smashing into the structure – or planning on bringing their own little hammer to chisel off a souvenir – will be disappointed to learn that the demolition will be an incremental, late-night affair.

Preparatory works were set to begin on Monday, with work to dismantle the wall starting only later this week, a council spokesman said. As the structure is right next to the tram line, work will take place between 1am and 5am when the Metrolink is not running. It will take several weeks, as the wall was built on top of various key utilities that will need to be carefully bypassed.

“Ideas for the wider improvement scheme are being developed and will be shared with the public and businesses to gauge their views towards the end of the year,” the council said in a statement.

Eddy Rhead, from the Modernist Society, a group that champions 20th-century architecture, said: “There are fundamental problems with Piccadilly Gardens and they won’t be solved by knocking down the wall.

“It’s very easy to use architecture as a whipping boy for lots of much bigger problems, and it’s very easy for politicians to stand there and blame architecture rather than doing something about those problems.

“Anybody who knows anything about modern architecture knows Tadao Ando is a world-class architect. Any other city in the world would give their right arm for a piece of Ando architecture.”


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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