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Bomb to Boom

The Largest Marks and Spencers in the world

At 11.20am on Saturday June 15th 1996 a 3,300lb (1500Kg) IRA bomb exploded in Manchester city centre. At least 80,000 lives were placed at risk by the bomb but prompt police action ensured there were no fatalities. The most serious injuries were caused by falling glass over 300 metres from the site of the explosion. The retail heart of the North West was more or less ripped out together with a vast area of office space. Damage estimates amounted to £700m. About 200,000 sq ft of retailing and 300,000 sq ft of office space was destroyed. The bomb remains to this day the biggest ever detonated on the British mainland.

This pillar box is the only piece of Corporation Street to have withstood the blast of the 1996 IRA bomb, the largest ever detonated in mainland Britain.
On Monday 22.11.99 it was ceremonially re-installed in the exact same position it occupied in June 1996 by Manchester's Lord Mayor.

But Manchester, the original industrial city, is a place born of ingenuity and energy. Within a very few weeks a Lord Mayor's fund had been set up to help stricken businesses and the decision had been made to turn the IRA's violence against itself and rebuild a city better than ever it was before the IRA left its calling card. Manchester Millennium Ltd was created and a competition held to draw up a masterplan for the city's redevelopment. The competition was won by an international group called EDAW but their plans were anchored locally by the acclaimed Manchester design practice Simpson Associates. The new Manchester features a new square, 240 trees, a park and even a new street.

On Budget & On Schedule

Now, most of the main elements of the redesigned city centre are completed. Chief amongst these was to reintegrate the Cathedral into the city centre. This has been achieved by creating a new pedestrian street, called appropriately New Cathedral Street, where shoppers can enjoy, during retail hours, almost a kilometre of pedestrianised access from Victoria Station to King Street.

History and context have always played a role in the redevelopment plan. The area around the Cathedral was the original medieval focus of the city. This has been recognised with the provision of a heritage centre which will tells how Manchester developed from Saxon times to the early modern age.

The pedestrianised route passes through Exchange Square, designed by New Yorker, Martha Schwartz. This is a playful new space which provides delight throughout the day and evening with rows of lights gently changing colour, a water feature following the historic watercourse of Hanging Ditch, and 20 metre high pop art windmills spinning round and round. There has been some criticism that the square might be a little overdesigned but it certainly will surprise. Adjacent to the square the repositioned pubs, The Old Wellington and Sinclair's Oyster Bar, provide that important alfresco refreshment opportunity.

The masterplan was all about being ambitious. The new Marks and Spencers has four floors each the size of a football pitch and includes a customer lounge "where shoppers can put up their feet, watch television and read a newspaper". It is the biggest Marks and Spencers in the world. Close by is the Royal Exchange which reopened in 1998 after more than £30m of rebuilding. The effective manner in which the vast former cotton trading hall was lightened and made fresh again went way beyond the need to simply reinstate. Every visitor to the city who takes a coffee in the Royal Exchange cafe is amazed by their surroundings.

Other New Attractions

New shopping areas include the Corn Exchange, which returned as the Triangle in August 2000 and hosts top quality international retailers such as Henry Lloyd and Quicksilver. Meanwhile the much-loathed Arndale Centre has been rebuilt to provide a more accessible, less forbidding frontage. Local architect Stephen Hodder has provided the rebuilt link bridge between the Arndale and M and S with a spiralling and twisting new profile. Beyond Exchange Square, another major project which has been completed is the the Printworks, a leisure and retail development with its IMAX cinema and Hard Rock Cafe. URBIS, which opened in June 2002, was the most stunning modern addition of them all. Eight floors of glass and steel rising like a prow on Corporation Street built to celebrate the role of the city in the modern world.

There is a unwritten rule that says writers should always avoid the use of clichés. In this case a cliché most accurately sums up the changes in Manchester. The city has risen, as told in old legends, like a phoenix from the flames. Perhaps the most abiding symbol of this rebirth is the 100 year old post box which despite standing five metres from where the bomb exploded survived almost without a scratch, its letters safely enclosed within, awaiting collection eleven days later. The box has now been placed back close to the site in which it had stood for so long complete with a nifty little brass plaque telling its story.

More development took place in the south part of the city centre around the 1898 Great Northern Railway Company's warehouse. This sturdily impressive building was the focus of a £100m retail and leisure complex which has provided 500,000 square feet of shops, bars, restaurants and cinemas. The landscaped new square in front of the grade two listed warehouse has also proved popular with its fountains and theatre area, helped no doubt by sharing a space with a Scottish and Newcastle Brewery owned Bar 38. Just beyond this development the attractive walk along Rochdale Canal from the Gay Village to Castlefield has been enhanced by a further development called Deansgate Locks. Here a row of bars and restaurants are being built in the dramatic arcade of the old railway viaduct.

New Millennium, New Manchester

Thanks to the post-1996 redevelopment, the city of Manchester is now as vibrant a centre of excellence as ever it was in the heydays of the cotton industry. The city has re-invented itself, ready to meet the challenges of a new century.

by: Jonathan Schofield

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