Exchange Square, Manchester, UK

Location: Manchester, UK
Client: Manchester City Council
Size: 1.21 hectares
Status: Completed 1999

Exchange Square, the site of an IRA bomb in 1996, is located in the heart of Manchester, UK. The square is at the heart of a vibrant retail and entertainment district which was developed for the turn of the millennium, over the last 10 years this district has catalysed the regeneration of the entire city centre.

Vital to the design of the square is that the plaza extends out to the building edges as its success, in part, is due to carefully “borrowing” the activity of the surrounding buildings and streets. Because of the existing topography, the sculpting of a plaza level change is the major design factor. The level change accomplishes three things. It creates places for a great variety of activities, it provides a setting for the surrounding buildings and it makes the square accessible to all.

Connecting the two levels is an exuberance of ramps and stairs that become objects of both movement and stasis. These ramps act as landscape-scale furniture, accommodating movement and informal seating.

The upper level is the largest open area of the site as well as where the majority of retail activity will take place. Inserted into this plane are flush-mounted rail tracks with inset colored glass panels lit from below. The tracks mark the historical importance of railroads in the industrial development of Manchester. The lines of colored light move the project into the twenty-first century. In a city that can be dark and overcast for much of the year, the effective use of light is a dramatic and wonderful addition to the public realm. Sliding along the tracks are moveable benches that allow seating to be rearranged as needed.

The lower level is the area of the site that will get the most sunshine and will accommodate outdoor dining with a close relationship to the fountain. The historic line of Hanging Ditch is brought to life through an abstracted river. An excavated “ditch” is fi lled with stepping stones and water. Arcing jets spray water along and over the stream. River Birch trees mark the line of the water feature giving a soft and more casual quality to this area.