“...over my dead body are you building that sculpture”

the subtle art of cultural masterplanning

Ancoats, Manchester’s first industrial suburb, reflects the fortunes of the City that first shaped it – in its heyday, the world price of spun cotton was set by the all powerful mill owners of Redhill Street. The quality of their product was unrivalled and the need to remain at the top of the game provided the incentive to embrace new technologies to increase efficiency and keep costs down. As the world markets for cotton matured and changed, so too did the fortunes of those businesses that had once dominated world markets. Mill development ceased in the early 1900s and by the 1950s the production of spun cotton had all but vanished. From the ’50s to the ’80s the rag trade occupied the mills, but over time, they mostly closed down or moved on.

The final nail in the coffin for the Ancoats mills came from a strange source – Manchester’s first Olympic bid. Several of the building owners decided they would make more money selling vacant buildings for the Olympics than by receiving rents, so the businesses were turfed out, losing both jobs and informal caretakers in the process. When the bid eventually failed, the mills were left abandoned and their decline accelerated. Back in the ’60s the many residents were moved out of the area in a slum clearance programme, leaving it with a fraction of its population and areas of cleared land. Ancoats became synonymous with images of decay, dereliction, crime and abandonment.

Not only was Ancoats itself an investment free zone, it cast a long shadow on neighbouring areas, including what was then the outer fringe of the city centre. Given the City’s ambitions to grow and connect with its immediate suburbs, connecting local people to jobs, amenities and the opportunities that were emerging in the City, it became imperative that something be done to arrest and reverse the fortunes of Ancoats.

In 1989 Ancoats was designated a Conservation Area. Even after the ravages of arson and dereliction had taken their toll, in the mid ’90s this part of Ancoats still boasted a high concentration of listed buildings – all of them on English Heritage’s list of the 100 buildings most at risk in the uk. In parallel with the City realising that something should be done, local people and others committed to the rescue of historic fabric, also felt the need to take more direct action to save what was left of the area’s heritage. In 1996, the City came together with those groups and two organisations were formed: the Ancoats Urban Village Company and the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust, the former a company, the latter a charitable trust, providing opportunities to tap into both public/private investment and charitable funding.

I joined the Ancoats Urban Village Company (later subsumed into New East Manchester) in 1998 to oversee the regeneration of the area. We were faced with highly fragmented ownerships (in excess of 200 across 50 acres) including a substantial number of overseas, and therefore absentee, owners.

The vision was relatively simple: we wanted to reverse the decline and regenerate the area as an extension to the City, containing a vibrant mix of uses. We wanted to create an attractive place to live, work and visit; to safeguard, protect and enhance the built heritage and promote a sustainable, diverse and integrated residential and business community. The strategy we developed to help deliver this vision centred around 3 main actions: renewal of the public realm; removal of uncertainty through bringing land ownerships together (ie Compulsory Purchase Order); and guidance of development and investment through the production of Supplementary Planning Guidance.

This book deals with the transformation of the public how the inclusion of art and an artist as an integral enriched the process, as well as the end result.

Why is the public realm so important?

I was first awakened to its influence for good or ill in the late ’80s when I worked on the redevelopment of Hulme, one of Manchester’s first big physical and socio-economic regeneration projects. The ’70s redevelopment that had promised so much, failed, in part because the residents became disconnected with their own neighbourhoods and no longer felt the streets and spaces between buildings were theirs to use and enjoy. As a consequence, their engagement in the redesign of their area began with a fortress mentality, wanting high walls and fences that would have left the streets and spaces desolate, bereft of passive supervision as well as any sense of belonging... neighbourhood...place. The battle to reclaim the streets and spaces often waged long into the night!

Around this time, I visited Barcelona and was deeply impressed both with the quality of the public realm and how art had been used within it to uplift the spirit. I came away with the feeling that Barcelonians walked at least 2 inches taller as a result of the pride they had and the joy they felt just being out on the streets of their city. I wanted to bring this sense of place and belonging to Ancoats.

Easier said than done, where do you start? I knew how to assemble a team that could design and build stuff, but I didn’t have the first idea about engaging, or engaging with, an artist. I took the easy way out and started with the safe ground of assembling the landscape architect, engineer and QS and told them that I wanted art in Ancoats to be a key part of the process and that they should “sort out how to do it”. They sensibly responded with a competition based on a brief to produce a design for a canal side space in the area. There were some crossed wires about that brief, I had intended to use the ideas simply to choose the artist we wanted to work with, the team thought we would use that winning idea to deliver a piece of work.

[Enter stage left, Dan for his first real discussion with me after being selected]

I’d like to talk to you about cultural masterplanning
[Lyn putting a hand up to stop him talking]

Before you go any further, over my dead body are you building that sculpture
Good, that’s a relief, I think we really need to do something completely different here
[Lyn, wind taken from her sails]

Oh....right, good....erm.

You get the picture. We talked some more and we both realised that no amount of talking was going to get us to a point where we would find the answer there and then, to what art should be in Ancoats, so I told Dan to go away and get under the skin of the place and then come back with his idea(s).

We didn’t stop talking, that’s impossible for Dan, he is irrepressible and he collects people and things at a rate of knots I have never before encountered.

Dan, what is all that stuff in your studio and why do you always walk about with a camera?
It’s how I get to know a place, I’m completely manic and this is the only thing that makes me stand still and really take things in – the stuff well, if I didn’t grab it, it was heading straight into a skip.

Boy oh boy did he get under the skin of the place and the people.

[Some time later, Dan enters (stage left again)]

Hi Dan, so what are we going to do then?
Something subtle
Yes subtle, something you have to stumble across...discover...
Fantastic! I like subtle...

The design team were already passionate about the work they were doing, Dan increased that passion through his enthusiasm and his desire to include the whole team in his approach to delivering art as an integral part of Ancoats’ renewal. For me, it harked back to the traditional spirit of Manchester as a place of innovation and invention, the team became tighter and more committed to making Ancoats a place that people could and would love. So, against the backdrop of 14 listed buildings, a designated Conservation Area, a vociferous heritage lobby (including potential World Heritage status), a limited budget and lots of people with very strong opinions, Dan did his stuff...

So, What is Cultural Masterplanning then?

(Me? I know nothing about art, but I know what I like...)

The conversation Dan tried to have with me when we first met, became a recurring topic between us over the years and I’m not sure that we have concluded even now, exactly what it means. Like art itself, it’s a difficult thing to pin down.

We had a clear intention from the outset that art would be embedded into Ancoats as public investment was rolled out, but quite how this would be achieved, we had no idea. It would have been easy to wallow in the past in a way that would not have connected to the present, but we needed to recognise and celebrate the fact that Ancoats continues to have a life that is every bit as relevant as what has gone before. Arguably, the role of a Cultural Masterplanner is to ensure that in re-making places the threads of culture that provide a sense of place and belonging are drawn through to connect old and new. The form that may take will vary from place to place.

So how do we pin it down and work out whether art is value for money and delivers real benefit? The mechanisms used to measure, monitor and appraise don’t really adapt well to measuring art and culture, yet we ignore the importance of culture in society at our peril. In the current economic climate when choices are pretty stark, the argument that “it’s the economy stupid” is difficult to gainsay, but our response to addressing that issue can choose to recognise that alongside some of the instant fixes, the slow burn of embedding a cultural dimension to what we do, will help in so many ways to ensure that the quick fixes don’t burn themselves out leaving no lasting benefit.

Lyn Fenton