Tadao Ando in Manchester


“ ...I subject to abstraction the elements of nature water, wind, light, and sound. Bringing nature's vital energy to crystallisation within an austerely composed architectural order, I confront people with its presence. Out of this confrontation startling encounters between people and nature are born, and a tension is evoked that can awaken the spiritual sensibilities, still covetous of sleep, in contemporary humanity... “ Tadao Ando

The internationally acclaimed Japanese architect Tadao Ando has worked in collaboration with EDAW and Arup Associates on the new design for this prominent city centre site in Manchester. Most of the construction work has now been completed and the Gardens are due to be open in time for the Commonwealth Games this summer. Ken Alessandro Tani reports on the history of the project.

The New Piccadilly Gardens is an urban design project, part of a consistent regeneration scheme taking place in city centre Manchester: a change in the image of the City in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games taking place this year. Since 1752 the area now known as Piccadilly Gardens was occupied by the Royal Infirmary, which gave relief to the sick and the poor. The original gardens were an attractive Victorian sunken green with a fountain and ornamental flowerbeds. Bombed during the Second World War, the area later became degraded and people passing nearby felt unsafe.

I will first mention a few facts concerning the origin and the realisation of the project. Key figures in introducing Tadao Ando to Manchester were Graham Cooper and Peter Budd of Arup and Partners. Graham Cooper described to me how the idea of having Ando design something for Manchester occurred to him in October 1998, at the time of the Osaka-Manchester Forum in Japan and at the November debrief in Manchester. The chance came up with the international competition for the redevelopment of Piccadilly Gardens a month later, which was staged for the renovation of city centre Manchester in the wake of the IRA bombing in 1996 and in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. Peter Budd, Director of Arup Manchester, invited Ando to work as part of the competition team. EDAW, the London-based landscape firm, would lead in the planning and landscape design and Arup Associates would carry out the engineering.

In 2000 the team won the competition for the re-designing of Piccadilly Gardens and met in Osaka. Hiroshi Araki, ·the architect responsible for international affairs at Ando's office, came personally to Manchester to survey the construction process.

Jason Prior of EDAW was enthusiastic in describing the teamwork with Ando: "I've always been a fan of his work. We developed the design quite a long way before Ith Ando became involved. We sent him the concept drawings asking him to respond, creating a structure to enclose the South West of the Gardens. Ando responded with an elegant simple arc. We had long debates about components and strategy. The Japanese approach to public realm is of course different to the UK. The cultural conditions are different, the level of vandalism for example. I think the Japanese were a bit surprised about how robust the scheme has to be." Jim Chapman of Chapman Robinson, the implementation architect for Tadao Ando in Manchester, assisted with the detailed drawings; he said: "Piccadilly Gardens is going to be a major green public space in the city centre. We have worked as part of the EDAW team, working closely with Ando's office producing and implementing the details and supervising the construction on site."

Tadao Ando founds his philosophy in the traditional relation with nature and the minimalist geometry of stillness and void, concepts that seem difficult to grasp looking at the busy construction site at present. However, when the construction process is still, during the early hours or at weekends, peeping through the barrier it is possible to anticipate the beauty and greatness of the space. As Kenneth Frempton has underlined, the sensitivity of Ando is expressed in architecture through the image of landscape rather than in the building itself.

The pavilion forms a main gateway and portal to the new garden. A simple curved concrete wall characterises its structure. The opening in the wall is like a torii, the Japanese wooden trilith, found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. The curved walls, which we have seen in previous works by Ando (Iwasa House at Ashiya 1982-83, the Children's Museum at Himeji 1987-88, the Chapel on the Water at Awajishima 198990), relate the building to the space around it. They are intended as an expedient to widen the foreground to the horizon, a traditional Japanese optical illusion called shakkei.

What is remarkable in Piccadilly Gardens is that the wall itself, which has become an icon of Ando's style, is in this project the essence of the dialogue of the building with its surroundings. The constant use of a square grid that defines the architecture of Ando from his early works, has been realised in the square through a pavement pattern of limestone in two pastel colours. Ando's pavilion is related to an oval fountain through a linear pathway..

Water, mizu, is one of the essential elements of nature that often mark the architecture of Ando, whether in relation to the sea, or to a nearby stream, or recreated artificially in man-made ponds and fountains. The Pavilion, for its form, proportion and scale, relates to the gigantic Piccadilly Plaza Hotel complex by Covell Matthews & Partners, symbol of Brutalism Architecture of the 60's. Fluorescent lighting is placed at the base of the structure to light the pavilion from the ground. Inside, a glass curtain wall defines two smaller retail units within the building, which will host an information point and a tearoom.

The Gardens represent an important first point of contact for visitors to the city arriving at the railway station.

The space is contained on the north-west and north-east by lower Victorian buildings. A new hotel by Allies & Morrison is being built now on part of the site, and will further enclose the Gardens on the southeastern side. In contrast with recent UK trends, the surface of the square will be widely turfed and a range of sitting areas, some incorporating colourful plants, will be placed all round the Gardens. In the central area the lawn will be gently sloping, creating a sense of slow movement. The landscape architects have paid particular attention to tree planting in order to recreate the right fukei, Japanese for scenery or landscape. On the lawn, in front of the pavilion, two Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) and three Magnolia kobus can be found. Cypress oaks (Quercus robur fastigiata) beside the tram tracks are trained and pruned in order to maintain a long linear shape and not interfere with the passage of the wagons. Near the pavilion Pear trees (Pyrus calleryana 'Chanticleer') and Honey locust trees (Gleditisia triacanthos 'Skyline') have been planted. On the north and the eastern side a row of London plane (Plata. nus x hispanica) define the border with the Victorian buildings.

The cafes and bars on that side of the square will spread their tables on the pavement nearby. Buses will be re-routed and the general traffic will be moved from Lever Street to improve conditions for pedestrians. The statues of Queen Victoria, Wellington and Peel were dismantled and cleaned following consultation with English Heritage, before being relocated on new pedestals. New horticultural gardens will be planted next to Queen Victoria's statue.

Complex work has been carried out for infrastructure and cable systems. The new fountain is made of three layers of tubes, and part of the old underground structures were retained and used for the electrical and hydraulic equipment. The lighting by Peter Fink will ensure that the square is a luminous and safe place in the evenings.

The Square is envisaged as a calm and relaxing place in Manchester's busy city centre. Ando gives a Japanese touch to the gardens, a meditation space in the middle of a hectic western city, for all the people who come away from the hustle and the bustle of the workplace.

Although rooted in Japanese tradition, the language of Ando's architecture is nevertheless universal. In this moment in history, when globalisation is not always an asset and people often lack personal unity and peace, the realisation of a place like this, born out of a cultural exchange of the highest quality is to be praised and cherished.

What better invitation to visit Manchester?

Special thanks to Graham Cooper, to Jim Chapman and Jon Healiss of Chapman Robinson Architects, and to Jason Prior, Juli Grot and Paula Garvey of EDAW London for the drawings and the useful information on Tadao Ando and Piccadilly Gardens.

Ken Alessandro Tani

Tadao Ando in Manchester - the New Piccadilly Gardens was published in the Journal of Landscape & Art Network No 25 Spring 2002.