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Culture

War and Conflict in Manchester

Daniel Libeskind’s striking Imperial War Museum North in Manchester was opened by the Queen this week, marking the end of a six-year reconstruction programme in one of Europe’s largest industrial cities.

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The Imperial War Museum North is the new landmark on Manchester's skyline

Only a decade ago, Manchester’s skyline was marked by its numerous factory chimneys. Today, the skyline of the world's oldest industrial city is dominated by what looks like a huge aluminium fin.

This striking landmark architecture belongs to Manchester’s new Imperial War Museum North, designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum, which was informally opened to the public on July 3, and was officially opened this week by the Queen, is the fifth branch of the Imperial War Museum in London.

It is the first building in Britian built by Libeskind, the Polish-born American architect known for his striking Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Perched on the waterfront next to a working flour mill on the industrial estate Trafford Park, this building is a visionary symbol of the effects of war.

Its mission is to cover conflicts -- especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth -- from the First World War to the present day. It seeks to "provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and 'war-time experience."

Based on the concept of a world shattered by conflict, the museum is made up of three seperate buildings – three interlocking shards representing conflict on land, air and water and which stand for a fragmented globe reassembled.

Visitors enter the museum through a bunker-like entrance and can take a lift up a 55-metre high "Air Shard", climbing past the criss-crossing beams of the perimeter wall to walk along a platform perched precariously above the water – an unnerving experience, designed by the architect to make visitors feel the precariousness of life that is destroyed in modern warfare.

Down below, the curved Earth shard houses the attractions of the main museum, including a Harrier jump jet, a 1982 Trabant car from former East Germany and a field gun which fired the first shell from the British flanks back in WWI. In addition a 360-degree audio-visual show draws on the museum's photograph and sound archives, which chronicle the impact of conflicts in which British and Commonwealth forces have been involved since 1914.

Exterior vs. interior

Despite the museum’s sizeable collection, however, it has not been left uncriticised. Similar to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the exhibits are easily overshadowed by the building’s striking architecture.

"With most museums, the experience begins internally", BBC arts presenter Mark Lawson said on a discussion panel earlier this month. "This is trying to offer two, the exterior and the interior one".

Alkarim Jivani, editor at ´the arts magazine Time Out, said the exterior of the war museum works much better than the interior. "I thought the problem with the museum was that by comparison it was flat and dimensional", he said, after visiting the building.

British journalist Alison Pearson called the museum "a caring sharing War Museum", saying she thought the exhibits, such as the parka worn by an Iraqi soldier in the Gulf War and a cheerful letter from a British soldier writing home saying "we took out five tanks and our APC’s this morning, pretty good, eh" were amazing juxtapositions, but that it lacked "testerone and aggression".

City of birth of European industry

The opening of the Imperial War Museum North in Trafford Park marked the end of a six-year reconstruction programme in the area and heralds the change Manchester has undergone in the last ten years.

In the 18th century, the hitherto remote and inconspicuous town of Manchester attracted world attention due to its industrial success, especially in the textile industry. The surrounding region profited from the industrial development of the city, and grew rapidly as a result. The red brick factory and its chimmneys coughing up filthy, black smoke, became its hallmark.

But by the 1950s, Northern England's textile industry was struggling to compete with cheaper foreign imports. And since then, Manchester began to go slowly but surely downhill.

But after years in the slumps, Manchester is evolving into a vibrant 21st century city. Despite its problems – an unemployment rate still double the British average, and memories of the IRA bomb blast which destroyed much of the city centre in 1966 – residents have put many of these troubles behind them.

"A catalyst for focusing energies"

Architect Libeskind sees the Imperial War Museum North as "a catalyst for focusing energies, both entrepreneurial and spiritual, and moulding them into a creative expression".

"It is the cultural dynamo transforming the past into the New Millenium. The importance of this act of construction is underscored by the recreation of the entire Trafford region – urban regeneration, job creation, tourist spending".

Indeed, with Libeskind’s striking new museum, Manchester’s battered city landscape has seen significant change.

Joining the dramatic shell of this War Museum are numerous other examples of the facelift the former industrial city has undergone in the past six years – including the new Millenium Bridge, the Lowry art gallery and the Urbis museum.

The Urbis museum, which tells the stories of the world’s greatest conurbations using the latest in high tech multimedia, rises above surrounding buildings like a huge steamer made of metal and glass.

The Lowry Gallery, described by Culture Secretary Chris Smith as "a major centre for the performing arts which will provide jobs and help regenerate the area socially and economically" hopes to attract two million visitors a year. Built by architect Michael Wilford, this building has the curved window panels of a cruise liner and a conical "funnel" complete with portholes and rigging.

These new architectural faces, shimmering above the city’s disused docks, are a far cry from the grim days when Manchester was marked by industrial decay and the gloom of recession.

Michael Marek

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