Some things just aren’t meant to be.
The tumultuous love affair between Manchester City Council and minimalism appears over, and the fallout has plunged architectural purists into a period of urgent introspection. This critical moment is signified not by the construction of a building, but by its unceremonious removal: Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s only structure in the United Kingdom, the Piccadilly Gardens Pavilion in Manchester, is to be demolished as part of a large overhaul of one of the city’s foremost public spaces.
Constructed just 14 years ago, the meager lifespan of Ando’s project is shocking, but those behind its demise are convinced it is the only viable course of action. According to the Architects’ Journal, project backers L&G and Manchester City Council say the new scheme will be “more attractive and welcoming to families” than the existing Ando building. The decision spells the end for a controversial concrete structure that has been compared to the Berlin Wall by some locals, with Piccadilly Gardens being branded one of the city’s worst tourist attractions by TripAdvisor.
When the pavilion was first commissioned, Manchester believed it was gaining a stylish new landmark by one of the world’s preeminent architects. Ando’s appointment was meant to signify a forward-thinking approach to the design of one of England’s most populous urban centers, providing a vibrant new hub for local people and attracting new tourists to the heart of the city.
What went so wrong?
The answer is comprised of three different but interconnected factors. Firstly, Britain’s penchant for architectural conservatism is well documented: There has been a long-standing resistance against structures that display a contemporary style in contrast with prewar urban fabric. Tainted by misguided Corbusian megaprojects in the 1960s and ’70s, the British public is naturally suspicious of any project that employs a Modernist architectural language in such an uncompromising way, with many viewing such buildings as startling, incongruous and — worse still — just plain ugly.
The concrete wall that forms the southern boundary of the pavilion has been compared to the Berlin Wall by some members of the public; via SkyscraperCity.
Secondly, fault must lie at the door of the city council, whose neglect of Ando’s pavilion belied the cultural significance of the architecture and its author. The curved south elevation of the building is defined by Ando’s signature exposed concrete, creating a boundary wall that has been left to crack and stain under leaden skies for more than a decade. The deterioration of this surface negates an essential quality of minimalism: A beautiful material finish is key to the success of Ando’s most iconic designs, and when left to elements in perpetuity, the magic of the architect’s work begins to fade.
This issue was compounded by the addition of cluttered street furniture, and the fact that the building’s tenant — Café Nero — has been given carte blanche to pepper the exterior with cobalt-blue signs, barriers and banners, completely diminishing the legibility of Ando’s vision.
The pavilion’s interior is occupied by Café Nero, with its standard cobalt-colored branding; viaWojtek Gurak.
Thirdly, some responsibility must be taken by the designer himself — and, to his credit, he has done just that. Ando acknowledged that the lack of a well-defined planting scheme for the pavilion had compromised the architect’s original vision, whose work frequently succeeds by blending concrete with soft landscaping and greenery that spreads across its hard surfaces over time. In 2013, he supported plans to cover the building’s gray concrete in greenery and plant life, echoing aesthetics seen in projects like the architect’s apartment buildings at 152 Elizabeth Street, New York.
Ultimately, though, this plan was not put into practice, the council instead opting to pull the building down and replace it with a retail unit designed by Urban Edge Architecture. The new structure, with its wavy roof, mixed cladding and glazed façades punctuated by retail signage, looks very much like the kind of retail architecture that now populates every city in the United Kingdom — pragmatic, profitable, but wholly lacking in courage. The planned transformation of Piccadilly Gardens is a truly vanilla affair that neither offends nor inspires, and constitutes the antithesis of Tadao Ando’s bold brand of minimalism.
The new pavilion falls in line with conventional retail architecture throughout the UK; via Manchester Confidential.
The saga of Piccadilly Gardens Pavilion appears sadly symptomatic of the longstanding disconnect between the British public, city councils and the contemporary architecture firms that they commission. The public could be accused of missing the point when it came to Ando’s distinctive work, which possesses an unparalleled purity and level of craftsmanship treasured by architectural critics and theorists around the world. On the other hand, Manchester City Council could be found guilty of failing to identify the needs and priorities of the people that would ultimately inhabit this space.
This fact is especially saddening since the United Kingdom — but for a few notable exceptions — suffers from a dearth of daring contemporary architecture, and Tadao Ando’s commission should have heralded a breakthrough moment in this regard. Instead, the city will revert to an architecture that it knows, the conservative tendencies of city councils will be reinforced and any possibility of the country embracing avant-garde public architecture will be put on ice for another few years at least.
In another place, at another time, the Piccadilly Gardens Pavilion could have been held up as a brave new beacon for British design. Instead, its fate is sealed.