Tadao Ando’s much-reviled “Berlin Wall” comes down in Manchester

End of the Line

Tadao Ando’s much-reviled “Berlin Wall” comes down in Manchester

A hulking concrete wall erected as part of an Ando-designed pavilion in Manchester is being demolished for a larger revamp of Piccadilly Gardens—and many Mancunians are celebrating. (Francisco Osorio/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Work to remove a 20-foot-long section of a concrete pavilion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando at Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, England, kicked off earlier this week as the city gears up to revamp the historic public square. The demolition brings to an end a protracted battle over the fate of the architecturally significant (the pavilion is Ando’s only work in the United Kingdom) yet locally maligned modernist structure viewed by many residents as a “monstrous” Mancunian version of the Berlin Wall. Per Vice, the wall has served as an “enabler of public sex, urination and drug consumption.” As noted by the Architects’ Journal, the monolith—locally referred to as simply “the Wall”— has also been blamed for Piccadilly Gardens’ ranking on Tripadvisor as one of the worst attractions in England’s third-largest city.

As reported by The Guardian, efforts to remove the wall began in earnest in 2014 when the Manchester Evening News launched a campaign to raze and replace a structure deemed by two-thirds of Mancunians as a blighted “concrete carbuncle.” Despite widespread enthusiasm for the wall’s removal, Manchester City Council resisted, claiming that demolishing the hated-on public landmark would be too costly and, as an alternative, it announced a scheme to camouflage it with vegetation. As noted by The Guardian, the matter was complicated by the fact that the larger Ando-designed pavilion, which is home to a cafr (and has also come under threat), is privately owned while the wall section is owned by the council.

graffiti on a concrete wall
The wall at Piccadilly Gardens pictured in October 2020. The graffiti is a comment on the COVID-19 crisis. (Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Earlier this year, however, officials reversed course by announcing that the city would in fact demolish the freestanding wall section of the pavilion as part of a larger revamp of Piccadilly Gardens, a sprawling green space in the heart of Manchester first established in 1914. Ando’s pavilion was completed in 2002 as part of a park project makeover project initiated in advance of that year’s Manchester-hosted Commonwealth Games.

Funding to demolish the wall was approved in March with the scheme getting the full go-ahead in August. As reported by the Evening News,  the city council has allocated roughly $2.7 million for the demolition and related survey work as well as public consultation process to elicit feedback on how the park can best be improved. The full revamp is expected to cost north of $13 million.

“This is the news that everybody in Manchester has been waiting for—part of the wall is coming down. I’m going to mark it on my calendar,” The Guardian noted council member Pat Karney said as saying earlier this month. “This is only the first part of what will be much bigger plans to make Piccadilly Gardens the vibrant and inviting space at the heart of the city which it should be.”

barricades and warning signs at a concrete wall
Demolition prep work at Piccadilly Gardens’s much-maligned concrete wall in November 2020. (Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

And Karney’s enthusiasm for seeing the Wall crumble certainly has not waned since the demolition was first announced as he has been painstakingly documenting the progress of what he has called a “major Manchester moment” on his Twitter account with photos and video. Most of the wall’s dismantling, which will take place over several weeks, is happening during the overnight hours as to not disrupt traffic on the adjacent Metrolink tram line.

The glee of Karney, however, isn’t matched by preservationists. While they acknowledge the wall’s less-than-favorable reputation, they also believe that a work by an architect of such high-caliber as Ando should be spared and that the city should instead focus on remedying the issues—graffiti, public urination, and other unsavory goings-on—that have long beset Piccadilly Gardens.

“There are fundamental problems with Piccadilly Gardens and they won’t be solved by knocking down the wall,” Eddy Rhead of the Modernist Society told The Guardian. “It’s very easy to use architecture as a whipping boy for lots of much bigger problems, and it’s very easy for politicians to stand there and blame architecture rather than doing something about those problems.”

tram passing by a concrete pavilion
A tram passing by Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion at Piccadilly Gardens. (Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Any other city in the world would give their right arm for a piece of Ando architecture,” Rhead added.

Yet despite Ando’s undoubtable standing as one of the world’s most celebrated architects, some believe his concrete addition to Piccadilly Gardens was, well, a miss.

“A lot of the appeal of Ando’s architecture is that it has this wrought, harsh presence, but here it’s so badly built and manky that it doesn’t work,” London-based architecture critic Owen Hatherley told Vice. “All those enigmatic concrete surfaces weren’t meant to be pissed on constantly.”