COMMENT: Reviewing St Peter’s Square winner

Carolyn WillittsI'm looking at the winning landscape proposals by the German landscape architects Latz + Partner for St Peter's Square, Manchester, and you can't get away from it, the graphics are stunning, writes Carolyn Willitts.

The scheme is extremely simple; an open area of paving, some seating, some planting, a grove of trees. Clutter has been cleared, and the sunken garden has been reclaimed. The designs show striking purple flowering trees. I'm interested to know what species these are as they provide such an impact within the scheme.

In front of the Central Library, relocation of the cenotaph and tram stops has opened up the square, finally enabling this grand building to have the impact it deserves. When you're drawing a landscape plan the temptation can be to fill the space with 'stuff', and leaving such a large area empty is brave, but this clarity of approach is just right.

Materials and detailing will be all-important. I want to see beautiful natural stone paving, please, not a vast expanse of cheap bland flags bequeathed by some painful value engineering exercise. The visuals show a "carpet of paving" continuing across Oxford Street and into Lower Mosley Street, creating a wonderful continuous flowing space even beyond the boundaries of the scheme. I really hope the council allows this to happen.

Moving north, the design makes maximum use of the existing colonnade along the Town Hall Extension by introducing bars and restaurants to the square, and there is a potential development coming forward by Peninsula & Century on Mosley Street. This is where the tram stops and cenotaph have been relocated to, amongst the grove of trees. It makes for a different character to the space in front of the Central Library, but the expanse of paving provides a visual link between areas.

The problem in this square will be Manchester's trams. Of course they bring life to a public space with movement and activity; I was in Berlin at the weekend and the trams are an important part of the texture of the city. Unfortunately, rather than being accessible at street level like those in other European cities, Manchester's trams have to have raised platforms, which create large physical and visual barriers cutting across the urban realm. You have to make a decision which side of the tram stop you're going to walk on, and when that decision is made you can't change your mind; there is no crossing the unused trench between the platforms.

Sitting here in St Peter's Square, I'm enjoying the first sunny day we've had in Manchester for quite a while. The square is bustling with people moving through the city and the stone of the Central Library is glowing, but the public realm needs drastic improvement. I, for one, am excited to see this design come to the city.

Carolyn Willitts is a landscape architect, the director of Carolyn Willitts Design and a member of the Landscape Institute North West Committee. Image of Carolyn courtesy of Claire Cousin Photography.

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Carolyn, I read somewhere in the submission that the proposed trees were going to be paulownia tomentosa. I hope they get some seriously large specimens, as these trees can be quite straggly when young. But to see them all in flower will be quite a site!

By Adam Ash

They’re Princess Trees.

By Jet

Thanks Adam and Jet. Great looking tree! Absolutely agree about needing large specimens, they really would provide the wow factor.

By Carolyn Willitts

I must be looking at something else – this is one of the blandest most anodyne schemes ever presented since Piccadilly Gardens, what a missed opportunity,what a lack of true informed critique. Given, it resolves the dreadful changes of level that were present on the site and the appalling ‘ peace garden’ (sic) which added nothing but gloom, shadow and an accumulation of the ever present thin veil of mud that covers all paved surfaces in Manchester. However, the destruction of the object focal point of the vistas that exist both along Mosely St and Oxford St by the removing the Lutyens Cenotaph for engineering purposes that have been substantially disproved as necessary, only to tuck it away around a corner is simply an act of aesthetic and moral vandalism. I would not overly concern myself with the trivia of final species of the trees either it’s immaterial at this stage as the seductive graphics will never truly represent the finished articles unless you moved the location about 60 degrees further south.

By Shibboleth

Shibboleth’s comment: best this year on Place North West.

By Saz

Shibboleth – spot on. Best Comment of the Year award. FACT.

By Saxondale