Cottonopolis: A Skyline Reimagined

Resize Skyline

October 8, 2012 in A WONDROUS SPACE, MANCHESTER, Wondrous Cities

My family are predominantly from Liverpool, and so it’s safe to assume I’m the black sheep of the family in my adoration of Manchester. I love it because I feel like I’ve made it my own. It’s a city where it’s very easy to do that and to carve yourself a place where you slot in and feel at home regardless of your roots. It’s also a challenging city to love because you have to work at it. There’s nothing immediate about it, it’s small yet spread out, it’s unremarkable in many ways, and you certainly don’t get that breath-taking moment of flinging open your hotel window and gazing down on an urban paradise – its not an easy city for a visitor to love.

Manchester was my blank canvas when I first came here and it remained that way for several years, just a corner of the canvas was filled in and it was rudimentary and pencil drawn. Then I realised that I hadn’t approached the city like I do all other cities; as a tourist – always asking questions about its history, its art, exploring the streets and getting lost in its dead-ends. I did this and my canvas became florid in its detail. I still explore like this everyday because there’s no reason, in any city, for that curiosity to ever wane.

I’ve adopted Manchester as a home and so it saddens me when a building I love is at threat, with that in mind I’ve looked at what Manchester could have been had these threats never reared their heads. What we’ve lost and what we almost had.

Over the years there has always been a kind of marvellous futuristic machinery at work behind the scenes of some of the major buildings.  In the late 19th century Manchester Hydraulics Systems supplied this brand new source of power to the air conditioning of John Rylands Library (in itself a ground breaking concept at the time), the safety curtains of the Opera House, the organ of the Cathedral, and the clock of the Town Hall.

The Palace Hotel on Oxford Road used this hydraulic power in a fashion not dissimilar to something you’d expect to see in the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. They installed a series of tubes in what was then the Refuge Assurance Building, and inside of leather-bound capsules they would seal notes before dropping them into the suction system and transporting them to another part of the building.

Sunlight House on Quay Street (see the image above) is perhaps something of a silent star in amongst all of these landmarks and ground-breakers. It’s a grand building on an otherwise bland street, it’s not a building whose name is instantly recognised nor is the purpose of it clear to the everyday passer-by, but it’s this building that’s inspired me to look at Manchester as it could have been.

There are lots of ways in which the skyline of Manchester could be re-imagined but I’m going to look at a handful of possibilities: of proposals that were never approved, and outstanding buildings that were demolished.

Cottonopolis, Manchester’s moniker during the industrial revolution, already conjures images of a Metropolis (be it Superman’s or Fritz Lang’s) but when you think of it realistically – a city born of cotton mills, well it doesn’t hold that same excitement, not the excitement that you’d experience in a city dominated by a behemoth of a skyscraper that’s made entirely of imposing white Portland stone. A skyscraper that looks down on a giant hippodrome that was built to be flooded so that it could ensure the most spectacular of shows. And how about the secret foundations of the city and the empty pockets of space underground that were intended for something a little more bustling.

Over the course of this week we’ll look at these eventualities and re-imagine the skyline of Manchester; Cottonopolis.

And it’s Sunlight House where the outline of a new city begins…

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Hayley Flynn

Hayley is the creator of 'Skyliner' (, a Manchester-born blog that is dedicated to the pursuit of rare and fascinating art, architecture and histories. A lover of opening closed doors, microfilm, and architectural drawings. She fled the confines of an office job to work in the arts and spend more time exploring the secrets of cities, Hayley and is now a tour guide, location scout and researcher but above all things - a professional dilettante.