Saturday, 9 June 2012

Help Save Library Walk!

Neither building nor public square, park nor plaza, a small public passageway left by a gap between two buildings has become one of the most contested spaces in Manchester after the council announced plans to turn it into a gated, semi-private space. The designs, which were announced last month, would see a well-loved and much-used footpath, Library Walk (which is currently closed as neighbouring buildings undergo refurbishment), blocked by a glazed box by Beetham Tower architect Ian Simpson, which would be closed at night via gates at one end.

Library Walk, a curved walkway nestled in between EV Harris's Grade II* listed Central Library (1934) and the Town Hall extension (1938), has long provided a convenient link between the municipal heart of the city – Albert Square and the Town Hall – and the busy public interchanges of St Peter's Square and Oxford Street. In an area dominated by continual tram traffic, busy roads with one-way streets, bus lanes and taxis serving the large hotels that face onto nearby streets, the lone pedestrian can feel outnumbered and overwhelmed. Library Walk is a rare place that prioritises the pedestrian, providing a calm, convenient walkway that cuts through the jumble and avoids having to go round the bulk of Central Library or the Town Hall. It is the quickest, simplest route from A to B.

While part of Library Walk's appeal is practical, it also has a value which is indefinable, arising not just from its beauty and elegance but its atmosphere. Unlike in many buildings and urban landscapes, here you can lose yourself in your surroundings and be enveloped in the communion between two buildings reaching for the sky. We can all appreciate how Central Library looks from a distance, but it is equally impressive close-up: by following the contour of its curves we experience the architecture too. It's possible, for a moment, to be overtaken by the place and forget where you're going or why, but feel part of a shared heritage and cityscape that exists on a grand scale. Library Walk is a place that is unlike any other in Manchester.

The argument against altering Library Walk is also symbolic. If Library Walk is gated, we lose not just one footpath, but a significant right; the right to control where we are allowed to go in the city. Public safety arguments in the planning proposal cite a rape which took place in Library Walk, and the tendency of people to urinate in the passageway. Ian Simpson, quoted in Building Design, called Library Walk a 'dangerous place', saying: “It needs to be a managed space.”

While any rape is horrific, it is unrealistic to design out all risk from the city. It is impossible to try to police every public space – but it should be possible to provide education, with the aim of creating a culture in which respect is the norm, and facilities such as public toilets. Making artificially sanitised spaces, and designating some places safe and others unsafe, hides the wider issues around where and why acts such as rape take place. Furthermore, when some people take the attitude that women should not be surprised they attract unwanted attention if they walk alone at night, the public safety argument helps perpetuate notions about what is 'sensible' behaviour for women, stipulating where and when they 'should' and 'should not' walk.

The plans for Library Walk are unnecessary – not least at a time when services such as libraries are facing spending cuts. Ultimately, there is no need to seek to 'fill' Library Walk, or give it a function other than as a thoroughfare. The current absence of a structure on Library Walk does not mean it is lacking in purpose, or a place with unfulfilled potential.

The Heritage Statement on Library Walk says: “As a potential tourist destination, Library Walk is not a pleasant public space for visitors to the Civic heart of one of the largest cities in the UK.” I beg to differ. In its own, unassuming way, Library Walk already captures the public imagination, as is evidenced by it being one of the most photographed views in Manchester. As prominent photographer Aidan O'Rourke, who has snapped most of Manchester's buildings, puts it: “It's perfect as it is.”

For practical suggestions on how to register your objection to the plans, visit http://manchestermodernists.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/do-you-object-to-the-proposals-for-a-glazed-link-between-manchester-town-hall-extension-and-central-library.

To find out more about how to involved in a campaign against the proposals, join the Save Library Walk! Facebook group.

1 comment:

Gerald (Hyde DP) said...

Heard something about this elsewehere recent (Aidan O'Rourke's blog it was) so thought I'd take a look last week only to find out it is all blocked off behind the library and TH extension works. Sad to see no sign either of the "Adrift" statue.