Phil Griffin examines how Manchester is thriving 20 years on from the IRA bombing

On Saturday 15 June 1996 IRA terrorists planted the biggest bomb ever detonated in mainland Britain in peacetime. It devastated the commercial and retail centre of Manchester. Damage to insured property ran to £700m (£1.2 billion at 2016 values). Which is a lot of broken glass. 212 people were injured. One person was kept in hospital overnight. No one was killed. You can Google the details.

I wasn’t in town that Saturday morning which, in some camps, makes me less of a Mancunian. I didn’t hear the blast, didn’t head in along the Parkway, though I’m often tempted to say I did. To have been evacuated to Deansgate by Rylands Library, or beneath the glass canopy at Victoria station, to have been cleared out of your flat in Cromford Court on the roof of the Arndale Centre, yards from the blast, or shooed from Marks & Spencer by a police woman who wasn’t to be ignored, was an initiation into a Pantheon.

Talk of the bombers having done Manchester a favour is as barmy now as it was twenty years ago. They smashed the city and the city had to set about repairs. You could argue that such extensive reconstruction put Manchester at an advantage over other post-industrial cities, but such an argument overlooks the peril that 80,000 innocent people were placed in that morning, the clean up that took three years to complete, and the possibility of hostilities between Irish and non-Irish communities in the city (this didn’t happen).

Michael Heseltine arrived in Manchester the following Monday morning. Not for the first time he got things moving in a city that is not his natural ally (he had visited after the riots of 1981, and set up the Central Manchester Development Corporation). A Task Force was quickly established, led by Howard Bernstein. It became his power base. Council Leader Graham Stringer entered Parliament in the election the following May. He was succeeded as leader by Richard Leese. Bernstein, the man who started working life in the post-room of Manchester Town Hall was appointed the city’s Chief Executive in 1998. Leese and Bernstein went on to consolidate the most effective and consistent metropolitan administration in the country.

Twenty years between the IRA bomb and now, and in that time, the credit crunch and global economic crash. Post-bomb, minds were concentrated on renewing leisure, retail and service sectors. These were the ones most damaged; these, and the city’s self-confidence. The scramble to recovery could get a bit over-excited. “We’re Up and Going” was a marketing slogan too far; the Peter Saville epithet “Original Modern” (much spoken, rarely explained) not far enough.


Beetham Tower by SimpsonHaugh and Partners. Image ©Daniel Hopkinson

Midway through this post-bomb period stands the Beetham Hilton Tower, named for its developer, who has since gone out of business. Completed in 2006, this 47-storey hotel-and-apartments block provokes equal parts praise and opprobrium for architect SimpsonHaugh and Partners. The planar glass tower defiantly marks Manchester from a distance in all directions. No mistaking the Mancunian brag of it. A planning application has recently been lodged with MCC for a cluster of four SimpsonHaugh and Partners designed towers, from 38 to 64-storeys for CQ Investments. Nothing signals a market upturn quite like 1,400 high-end apartments aimed squarely at the Private Rental Sector. Can Manchester sustain it? That’s exactly the sort of question that a twenty-year anniversary brings forward. You won’t find many Mancunians prepared to bet their pretty suburban semi on it.

In the enforced hiatus of subprime, Bernstein-Leese played some dazzling hands. They commissioned wholesale refurbishment of Manchester’s Central Library (Ryder Architects) and 1930s Town Hall Extension (SimpsonHaugh and Partners), drove on with enormous expansion of the Metrolink tram system (ongoing) and signaled redevelopment of St Peter’s Square. They designated the perimeter of Manchester Airport an entrepôt city, pushed and cajoled all their development partners, commercial and public sector, to trade up, and brought on thousands of square meters of Grade A offices, higher education and medical sector facilities. Sure, the recession bit deep, and of course the social and economic inequality gaps are still far too numerous and unbridgeably wide, but in some defiant, almost bellicose way, Manchester kept building.

On February 14 2015, wreathed in hearts and flowers and fireworks, The University of Manchester reopened its Whitworth Art Gallery, neatly refurbished and extended by MUMA, who won a slot on the Stirling prize short list. Theirs was the second Manchester university building to do so in successive years. In 2014 the Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University put Fielden Clegg Bradley on the list.


The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

In the following May HOME, the new £25m shared facility for the Library theatre and Cornerhouse cinemas and galleries (Mecanoo), was noisily opened by Danny Boyle, the film director from Bury. In July, yet more fireworks exploded over the fifth Manchester International Festival, biggest and best yet. And, waiting in the wings, Chancellor George Osborne awarded a staggering £108m to fund Factory, a new permanent venue for the biennial Festival, in the Old Granada Studios complex, now jointly owned by Allied London and Manchester City Council. Nobody remembers asking Osborne for this cash, but who looks a gift horse?

The clearing of the Hulme deck-access blocks and the City Challenge initiatives of the late eighties are most often cited as Manchester’s turnaround moment. I might throw in 1976, year of the Sex Pistols in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and the opening of Levitt Bernstein’s modernist benchmark Royal Exchange Theatre. You might say the 1990 Strangeways Prison Protest, or the Hacienda, Ecstasy, the Smiths, Madchester, Manchester United or the Gay Village. I might say May 3 1956, the first transmission from Granada Television

Sixtieth or twentieth anniversary, or something in between, Manchester thrives in spite of adversity; deindustrialisation, economic deprivation, globalisation (that it helped bring on), hostility, terrorism and rain. It thrives because of diversity, creativity, inventiveness, entrepreneurship, musicianship, world-class universities, and football.

In 1996 Ian Simpson joined the team, including EDAW, Martin Stockley and Benoy, which won the Heseltine-sponsored competition to masterplan the reconstruction. Simpson and partner Rachel Haugh thought of themselves as the new generation back then. Simpson recently tiptoed around a significant senior birthday. There are new kids on the block and in the bars and on-site these days. And there are, or have been, working in the city, Denton Corker Marshall, Jastico + Whiles, Mecanoo, Hawkins\Brown, Rafael Vinoly and, soon to be, OMA and Rem Koolhaas at Osborne’s gift factory.

You can mark time whichever way you choose. The bomb of 1996 is certainly significant in Manchester’s timeline. Did the IRA do Manchester a favour? Only if thousands of tons of shattered plate-glass, chocking dust and rubble, and lives in peril have somehow become a necessary precondition for regeneration. My friends in Belfast know a thing or two about that.

In a presentation at the National Football Museum recently Simpson pointed out, not for the first time, the huge values gap between London and Manchester (and, to some degree, Manchester and the rest of the country). Consequent build costs suffer horribly. Over the last two decades Argent Developers have been big players in the city. They, and their new American business partners Related, have just withdrawn from Manchester citing low returns. If you wish to see the stark contrast between build quality in the UK’s first and second cities, take a walk through King’s Cross then hop on a train to Manchester Piccadilly and look around you.

There are huge efforts being made in this city, and in neighbouring Salford. 2017 sees big upheaval in the political structure, towards an elected mayor for the extended city region. Leese and Bernstein were both knighted for their delivery of the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. I like to think the two of them sat alone in the top tier of the empty athletics stadium (that was to become the Etihad, home to the richest football club in the world) and faced the chilling recognition that what they were about to enter was a marathon, and they’d been training for a sprint.

Philip Griffin is a freelance writer and curator based in Manchester.

The first Volume of MANCHESTER, his collaboration with photographer Jan Chlebik, is available here.
Volume 2 will publish in 2017