Build Your Way to a Better City

Manchester, So Much To Answer For

Build Your Way to a Better City

Manchester, So Much To Answer For

Build Your Way to a Better City
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 1 2004 5:06 PM

Manchester, So Much To Answer For

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Part 3: Build Your Way to a Better City

Today's slide show: Salford Quays

Part of Manchester’s “Cow Parade,” the Lowry Cow replaces the artist’s classic matchstick men with bovines
Part of Manchester's "Cow Parade," the Lowry Cow replaces the artist's classic matchstick men with bovines

In 1978, when I was 17—the age, in other words, when music you don't care for seems criminally offensive—"Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs," a ditty about the recently departed artist L.S. Lowry, went to No. 1 in Britain. The song's sins were legion—backing vocals by a children's choir, lyrics that sentimentalized poverty and repeated empty Northern clichés about clogs and flat caps, it even featured a brass band. "Matchstalk Men" wasn't just a dreadful piece of music; it was also the final insult to an artist who'd been patronized and underappreciated during his lifetime. Two years after his death, someone else was making money from the painter's work by trivializing his chosen subject matter of unglamorous back streets and industrial landscapes.

The other day, while gazing at the great man's paintings, I found myself humming the evil tune. Perhaps one-hit wonders Brian and Michael deserve credit as early adopters of the Lowry mystique. Certainly, the "new Manchester" has been quick to embrace the artist. The city's only five-star hotel and the beautiful arts center on the Salford Quays—an upscale waterfront project on the former site of the docks of the Manchester Ship Canal—are both named for him.

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The Salford Quays development is the ultimate symbol of the new Manchester—ironically, since Salford is a city in its own right, one of the 10 "metropolitan districts" that make up Greater Manchester County. In the early 1980s, the city of Salford bought up a couple of hundred acres of derelict dockland and commissioned a massive redevelopment incorporating residential, office, retail, and leisure space. Back then, the only boom was in unemployment; the skies were always gray, and even the city's music was depressing. Salford's only 20th-century cultural products of note were Lowry's grim paintings; Love on the Dole, Walter Greenwood's gritty 1933 novel of unemployment and poverty (think an urban English Grapes of Wrath); and A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney's 1959 kitchen-sink drama about working-class life. The councilors who came up with the idea of turning the scrag end of Salford into a chic destination deserve an award for optimism.

These days, the place is transformed. Ten minutes from Manchester city center by Metrolink light rail service, the quays offer shopping (though the "designer outlet mall" is definitely the least impressive element in the complex), a water sports center, Manchester United's "Theatre of Dreams" (the games are all sold out, so the Old Trafford museum and tour is as close as you'll get), and two amazing buildings: The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum North.

Both Michael Wilford's Lowry and Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North are reminiscent of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim—all dramatic geometry and shiny metallic skin reflecting water and sky—but inside they're even more impressive.

The Lowry looks even cooler when the rain stops
The Lowry looks even cooler when the rain stops

The Lowry is home to both theater—two theaters, in fact—and visual arts, a rare combination. Although the curators of the center's collection of L.S. Lowry paintings seem determined to prove that he wasn't just a chronicler of working-class life and industrial architecture, stressing that he also painted sea scenes and landscapes, it's the signature smoky, gray cityscapes full of chimneys and overcrowded streets—packed with, yes, matchstalk men—that are most impressive. Working with a restricted range of colors, always on a white or cream background and without shadows, he said a great deal with a limited vocabulary. A current mini-exhibition, "Lowry's Mean Streets of the 1930s and 40s," juxtaposes his vision of the strange beauty of factories and streets with powerful excerpts from Greenwood's Love on the Dole and effectively puts paid to all thoughts of seascapes.

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Lawrence Stephen Lowry was an odd man, a solitary misfit who led a quiet existence, living at home caring for his aging parents until their deaths. He worked as a rent collector for 42 years, retiring on his 65th birthday. He wasn't an intellectual or a polemicist, and he had no skills as a self-promoter, but three decades after his death, he's the Manchester area's most celebrated native son.

Across a footbridge from the Lowry is the Imperial War Museum North, one of the most successful pieces of high-concept architecture that I've visited. Libeskind's design consists of three interlocking "shards," each with a distinctive shape. (Form is a key part of the concept; the museum's slogan is "war shapes lives.") As the architect put it: "Conflict has been a constant factor of the 20th century as the world has repeatedly fragmented into warring factions. I have imagined the globe broken into fragments and taken the pieces to form the building—three shards—together they represent conflict on land, in the air and on water." I'm usually dismissive of this kind of pontificating, but here the only place my skepticism won out was in the air shard. In theory, it's a "transitional space" where you prepare to visit the museum, but in practice it's a 180-feet-high observation platform from which the view is almost completely obstructed by steel bars. (Urbis flashback!) It looks great from outside, but it's function-free. The museum restaurant is in the water shard, which slopes down to the canal.

The earth shard, which houses the exhibition spaces, is amazing, living up to its billing as "a new kind of museum." It's a wide-open space—the better to accommodate school parties, no doubt—and although there are some large artifacts like a Harrier Jump-jet and a T34 Russian tank in the middle, most of the action is around the edges of the room. The Time Line provides the overarching narrative—how, when, and why wars were fought between 1900 and the present, with photographs, films, and lots of personal objects like diaries and letters home providing context for the concise summaries of the history of the 20th century. (We're talking four bullet points on Stalin, 55 words on death camps brief.) Six "Silos" provide a more thematic perspective on topics like "women and war" or "legacy of war," and "TimeStacks" allow access to a range of objects that aren't always on display—push a button and a tray appears behind glass. (Kids seem to like to press buttons but not to wait for the trays to be summoned.)

The museum's killer app, though, is The Big Picture, a 10-minute multimedia show that takes over the entire exhibition space. The lights are dimmed, and the walls become screens for images from the museum's collection and snippets of audio. The presentation I saw—"Why War?"—includes material from interviews with academics, a war correspondent, a soldier, a psychologist, and, rather annoyingly, Manchester schoolchildren. At times, it did feel like one of those audiovisual preludes that are popular in a certain kind of theatrical production, but even a cynic like me was excited to be literally walking around in the middle of such an immersive experience.

This time last year, I was in Bilbao, Spain, where a belief in better civic living through exciting architecture transformed an industrial provincial city into a major travel destination. If the Guggenheim can draw millions to the Basque Country, why were the Salford Quays almost deserted in the middle of August?

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.