There have been many great achievements in the past 200 years that Manchester has a city can quite rightly be proud of but one it cannot not, is its treatment of our historical built environment. Manchester on the whole as a woeful record of protecting its heritage.
Whilst air attacks during World War 2 were until the London Blitz the heaviest and most destructive claiming some notable buildings, of which Alfred Waterhouse’s grand Manchester Assize Courts on Great Ducie Street and next to Strangeways Prison was one notable victim, the destruction that proceeded the end of the war and rebuilding phase that followed, resulted in the loss of many of Manchester’s greatest architectual achievements, many of which were of national importance and in some cases such as with the York House, world importance.
Historically, there have been 3 main reasons why the architectural heritage of Manchester has been at risk: redevelopment; regeneration or improved road networks. In the case of York House it was the later.
When a project to widen Portland Street, one of the main roads into the centre of Manchester (Piccadilly) was proposed, York House lay in its path. Whilst the project was never realised, demolition continued and destruction of what is commonly said to be Mancheter’s first modern building when it was built by H.S Fairhurst and Sons in 1911 and said to be one of the first of this type in Europe, resulted in a rare modernist gem being lost forever.
Prior to demolition in 1974, German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius sent a personal appeal to the campaign led by the Victorian Society to preserve and safe guard the building.
There was also a modernist exhibition which highlighted the threat to York House in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Regrettably, all attempts to save this widely regarded masterpiece and despite York House being listed in 1967, all appeals went unheard and Manchester City Council and developers got their way and yet in 2011 the site which has been a car park for decades.
The current space adds nothing to the heritage or cultural experience and nothing of note to the skyline and little in the way of economic opportunity for Mancunians alike and Manchester than testament to how much the car and shortsighted planning has dramatically reshaped and continues to inform policy in Manchester.
It can not be understated the importance of York House to not only the founding principles of the modernist movement in architecture, but to world history. Whilst modernist architecture has transformed cities all over the world including Manchester throughout the 20th century, York House with its striking revolutionary cascading wall of glass, seemingly unsupported, maximizing the light and with functional principles and aesthetic design, whilst sadly lost in the majority of residential housing projects in the UK, whose principles lie in solely in maximizing profit rather than creating enriched space, York House was and is very much still relevant and revolutionary today as it was in 1911 and whose principles are reflected in the Co-Operative Groups new headquarters on Miller Street, which is set to open in late 2012.
York House was built for function within the textile industry, yet transcended it, becoming a central beacon for the founding principles of an architectural movement which changed the landscape of the towns and cities the world over.Yet whilst we can still ponder the radical qualities of York House we regrettably can never view this masterpiece of Mancunian Modernism.
If you walked around the area today, which in more recent times has become known as the Village where York House stood, you get a real sense that it is relatively untouched by planning decisions. There are still many fine architectural gems to be found in this part of Manchester and yet it is quite common to come across quite random empty spaces, where on further investigation as is the case with York House, quite typically, there may had been a very important piece of architecture there at some point in time.
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