What is the meaning of life? Does he love me? What did Spinningfields used to look like? I have all the answers. (I have one answer)
I grew up in a small town near to Wigan and for a decent chunk of my childhood the very centre of town was dominated by a hinge factory named Cromptons. In homage to the factory, around the corner was a pub with the name The Hingemakers Arms - the only pub of that name in the country, apparently. It seems very strange that a factory was the central point of a town where there now stands a shopping centre. But then this is the town where some businesses still close at lunchtime on Wednesdays. Hey guys, memo incoming - it's 2014.
Cromptons was on a school route and had chain link fencing outside that, despite the spikes, you could sit on if you really wanted to and because you shouldn't, you really wanted to. So I can picture all the photos over the years, in boxes under beds, with shots of school friends taken on plastic disposable cameras where in the background looms Cromptons. But that was then and you can't search through a box of old photos under someone's bed as easily as you can type search terms into Flickr. What this convoluted babble is getting at is that I can't remember what Cromptons looked like.
Most times when a building is demolished and rebuilt my mind completely erases what came before. You'd think that it was being highly efficient by deleting what it considers superfluous information but if my mind was truly this streamlined then I wouldn't remember all the lyrics to Tarzan Boy or find myself singing the Ariston jingle in the shower 25 years after I heard it.
I'm clearly not the only one who suffers from this immediate city amnesia as the amount of people who ask me "What did Spinningfields used to look like?" will testify. So to answer everybody in one fell swoop it looked like this...
The lovely art deco building is Northcliffe House. It was known as the Daily Mail building although it housed a variety of publications including the Manchester Evening News and The Guardian. The site was named after Lord Northcliffe who can be credited with reformatting the British press into what we have today. Northcliffe declined into what is speculated as a syphilis-induced madness, seeing two moons and developing an obsession with Perrier water, although syphilis was never confirmed as the cause of death.
Northcliffe House along with Sunlight House and the Debenhams building on Market Street make a lovely triptych of white portland stone art deco turrets, and the tenants themselves saw the location form part of another triptych - one of print houses alongside the Daily Express and the Printworks.
Built in 1931 and designed by Waddington Sons & Dunkerley in 1904 with further design tweaks made by JW Beaumont in the 20s, the rocket-shaped tower was a landmark of Deansgate so it's strange then how few people remember it and how few images I can find.
It has that same American-noir feel to it that Sunlight House has but with something altogether more astronomical about it - its shape seems to anticipate the dawning of a space age, of a Deansgate where The Jetsons fly by. It has a bold newness and must have seemed a futuristic beacon in a city of chimneys and smog-stained blackness.
In an advert for an insulation firm from The Architect and Building News in 1931, Northcliffe is described:
"Northcliffe House seems to typify in its austere modern lines all the striving after efficiency, all the endeavour to achieve beauty inherent in use and worth. The striking tower is a milestone in the progress of journalism in the North of England.
Everything that modern research has achieved in connection with printing and speed in production will be found in this thoroughly up-to-date establishment"
They don't word insulation adverts like that anymore.
From the other viewpoint, in 1968, you can see the two other buildings that lay between Northcliffe and John Rylands library.
In 1968 immediately behind Northcliffe House additional offices were built for Manchester Evening News and The Guardian and in 1970 the MEN commissioned a sculpture for their new site - apparently this was the first abstract sculpture the city had seen. The sculpture "Vigilance" was by Keith Godwin and celebrated the newspaper's centenary. The base was made of a red standstone to compliment John Rylands library behind it. Godwin said of the piece:
"I have dealt with order and harmony of shape rather than meanings."
In 2003 Vigilance vanished. The disappearance was temporary, to be reinstalled once the Spinningfields site was complete. It has never reappeared.
I suppose instead we will just have to accept our lot and enjoy the Chopin sculpture which has appeared across the road from where Vigilance stood. Hmm, let me just take a look at that....oh that's...it's...I don't....WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING? WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIS FINGERS?! MY EYES!
The Daily Mail vacated Northcliffe House in November 1990 and in 2002 it was demolished. Allied London began building the Spinningfields as we know it today, with the RBS headquarters building replacing Northcliffe.
And if you're still not satisfied then here's what came before Northcliffe House from a postcard image care of the exhaustive and wonderful Manchester History