In 1981, American artist Richard Serra created a steel sculpture in Federal Plaza, New York. His “Tilted Arc” was characteristically austere – a curved wall that cleaved the plaza in two. It was so hated that 13,000 people signed a petition calling for its removal within months.
Today, a similar controversy is raging in Manchester, where a concrete pavilion (known locally as “the Wall”) has finally been demolished after years of acrimonious campaigning. The structure, completed in 2002, was designed by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect who is undoubtedly one of the world’s most revered. It was the only structure he’d designed in the UK, which – regardless of what you think of its aesthetic merits – is a big deal.
But rather than being a source of pride, the Wall had come to stand as a symbol for a range of social problems afflicting the city. The Manchester Evening News refers to it as “the hated wall”, and has even compared it to the Berlin Wall.
The wall is seen as an enabler of public sex, urination and drug consumption. Some people think knocking it down will be the solution to these problems, which seems to ignore the more complicated question of why this anti-social behaviour is happening in the first place.
“The police have been quite vocal in tearing it down so that visibility is increased across the gardens,” Labour councillor Jon-Connor Lyons tells me. “We’ve seen this with planting and lots of other things. It’s great having trees and bushes and plants, but they all act as barriers between CCTV, police and natural surveillance of pedestrians, or people wanting to do drugs or get up to all sorts of behaviour.”
Tadao Ando’s standing as an architect is in no doubt, but not everyone agrees that the Wall was reflective of his talent.
“A lot of the appeal of Ando's architecture is that it has this wrought, harsh presence, but here it's so badly built and manky that it doesn't work,” says architecture critic Owen Hatherley. “All those enigmatic concrete surfaces weren't meant to be pissed on constantly.”
The controversy surrounding the Wall plays into a fairly perplexing moral panic centred around Piccadilly Gardens. The area is a little scruffy, but in terms of atmosphere it’s not dramatically different to the central squares of any similarly-sized city in the UK. To its critics, however, it might as well be Hamsterdam in The Wire. It has become the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the city.
Before COVID, Manchester was doing well financially. There’s been an explosion in development, and it’s been designated “the UK’s Top Digital Tech City”. But this success brings the same problems which have plagued London for decades. Manchester might be becoming richer, but few of its inhabitants will tell you that it’s a better city to live in. Instead, people are more likely to tell you a story of closed venues and noise complaints, familiar to anyone who’s ever lamented the death of east London at the hands of housing developers.
Piccadilly Gardens represents a challenge to the new narrative being put forward. At a time when PR experts and city councillors are trying to brand the city as ‘“Manc-Hattan”, a slick metropolis of skyscrapers and salad bars, the area is an unfortunate reminder of the place being left behind. If Manchester is trying to be the Manhattan of 2020, Piccadilly Gardens is the city in all its 1970s Taxi Driver glory.
“The council are hellbent on putting up the shiny luxury flats that no one can afford,” says Beth Redmond, a housing organiser based in the city. One elderly woman Beth spoke to, who lives in an area of North Manchester spotlighted for development, recently received a letter telling her that she might have to leave her home. This would make it the second time she’s been forced to move.
“When she had to move out of her old house, she refused to leave,” says Beth. “They had to pick her up off the bench outside the garden because she didn’t want to go. Her husband was buried in the garden outside and they made her dig his ashes out of the garden.”
These are the kinds of stories upon which the new business-friendly Manchester is being built. Urban development can be a zero-sum game: a city becoming wealthier makes it a better place for rich people, but worse for everyone else.
Along with the wall, one of the key elements of the Piccadilly Gardens controversy has been the so-called “spice epidemic”, referring to a series of chemical compounds designed to mimic the effects of cannabis. Spice has hit homeless people and the prison population particularly hard. In 2017, the height of the epidemic, The Guardian reported that “90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug”. This is partly due to cost and ease of access, and partly due to the effect it has.
“It takes you somewhere else,” explains Harry Shapiro, director of drug information charity Drugwise. “It completely zonks you out, and if zonking out from a crap life is what you need, then Spice does the job in a similar way to heroin or crack.” The epidemic has been closely tied up with portrayals of Piccadilly Gardens as a dangerous and lawless place, with people who use Spice often being referred to as “zombies” and portrayed as a kind of menacing horde.
While researching this piece, one criticism I heard repeatedly was that the council has been too focused on reducing the visibility of homelessness and addiction, at the expense of substantive action.
“I’d love to see no homeless people off their heads on Spice in Piccadilly Gardens – but not by just taking them away and hiding them somewhere else,” says Martin*, a civil servant based in the city. There appears to be a tension between how property developers and the council want Manchester to be seen, and the enduring inequality that reveals this to be, to some extent, fanciful. “The council are obsessed with the idea of Manchester being a ‘world city’, and it turns it into that really bland, business travel view of what that means,” says Martin. “They just want to hide homeless people and addicts away.”
Councillor Lyons rejects this narrative. “We’ve had ten years of significant underfunding,” he says. “These issues cannot be fixed by regenerating or transforming a single space, you need to invest in housing. We don’t have a government that is willing to facilitate that, because we’re so dependent on national government for funding, which is a different devolution issue altogether.”
Few would argue against the need for devolution and better funding for homeless people and addicts. And the fact that Manchester put up a fight over funding for being placed in Tier 3 lockdown is reason to be optimistic.
However, the focus on Piccadilly Gardens seems to suggest a model of urbanism that is more about exerting control than enriching people’s lives, and which sees vulnerable people as, first and foremost, a nuisance.
“It’s funny that the council have this obsession with Piccadilly Gardens and want to measure their success against it, but actually never, ever do anything to improve it,” says Beth.
Tadao Ando’s Wall might have been removed yesterday, but whether this finally delivers a public square fit for a business utopia remains to be seen.