Ian Simpson: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Today marks twenty years since a one-and-a-half tonne ammonium nitrate and Semtex bomb, the largest such bomb in Great Britain since World War II and the preferred recipe of the Provisional IRA, detonated in Manchester city centre. The bomb was the seventh and final in a series of attacks on the British mainland which started in February 1996 following the breakdown of the 1994 ceasefire.

Early on Saturday the 15th of June 1996, a Ford Cargo lorry was abandoned on Corporation Street between Marks and Spencer and the Arndale centre. An hour before the blast the customary coded phone call was made to Granada Studios. Despite the efforts made to defuse the bomb it detonated at 11:17. The shockwave destroyed close to a third of the city centre, the mushroom cloud soared over the Arndale Centre’s 25 story tower, and the blast could be heard up to twelve kilometres away. Of the 80,000 people in the city centre, two hundred and twelve people received injuries, some serious, but mostly walking wounded from glass and debris. Thankfully, there were no deaths.

Typically when such attacks occur we are invoked to never forget, however in recent weeks Manchester City Council released a statement on the city moving on from the bomb. Not that anyone needed to be told, there’s little official recognition of the event. For many, the most noticeable legacy was the removal of bins from the city centre and their replacement by a workforce of street cleaners with barrows. The only brass plaque commemorating the event is on a postbox that survived the blast, while the Museum of Science and Industry commemorates the event through a damaged traffic light and a looped recording of the 1997 hit Moving on Up by M People.

This bizarre inchoate history reflects the divergent opinions on the effect of bomb; John Major and Bill Clinton were, rather understandably, deeply outraged and even the IRA when claiming responsibility for the attack sincerely regretted the civilian injuries. For Sir Gerald Kaufmann, MP for Manchester Gorton, The bomb was obviously bad but from a redevelopment point of view, it was a lost opportunity. But these people must be counted amongst the passéists, Terry Rooney, MP for Bradford North infamously described the bomb as, the best thing to happen to Manchester. Meanwhile architect Ian Simpson recently commented, In those days to the north of Manchester it was very poor, but the leafy suburbs to the south were quite wealthy. The bomb allowed us to break that and create visual and physical permeability to the North.

This is the narrative that followed, that the city’s regeneration was spurred by the bomb, in fact the city had already drafted an urban renewal plan, although it is true that following the bomb this was hastily written,

Prominent City Centre buildings such as the Arndale Centre and Shambles Square exhibit some of the worst failings of 1970s brutalist architecture—presenting a drab image to visitors and residents alike. The damage caused by the bomb provided the opportunity to replace or remodel these buildings, and to address their shortcomings in terms of functionality, quality and permeability.

Ian Simpson was one of the members of the public-private group that worked on the new draft, and while I am unable to say precisely whose words these are, I suspect the word permeability comes from him. Simpson has done remarkably well out of the bomb. The first major work of Ian Simpson Architects (now SimpsonHaugh and Partners) was No. 1 Deansgate, built on the site of a bomb-damaged building. In the immediate area of the blast Simpson realised his desire for visual and physical permeability through the new spaces created; New Cathedral Street, Urbis (now the National Football Museum), Cathedral Gardens and Exchange Square.

This aesthetic permeability went hand in hand with the economic and social permeability. Many of the businesses that had occupied the ground floors of damaged buildings were removed, by the blast or by rent hikes. The Corn Exchange building invoked a force majeure clause in the lease to evict their tenants, and the building was then converted to a shopping centre. The areas immediately north of the epicentre may today be more accessible, but they are little more than wasteland and the shells of luxury flats while New Cathedral Street is largely populated by those unable to access the clubs and bars of a city culturally dominated by 18+ drinking venues, such as Cloud 23 in the Beetham Tower (SimpsonHaugh and Partners).

About fifteen years after the start of this too literal Shock Doctrine Owen Hatherley judged Manchester as the model of, regeneration in its purest, least botched form. Around the same time I travelled back to Manchester and noticed on arrival that the city had actually installed a number of bins while simultaneously cutting the street cleaners, with the result that litter covered the streets and collected in puddles. Architecture is cheaper than people when you’re in the business of regenerating cities.