For the next instalment in our cities ‘By Design’ series, we asked prolific installation artist and Smile Plastics’ collaborator Liz West to take us on a whistle-stop tour of her home city, Manchester.
Manchester is somewhere Liz describes as “a gritty cultural northern hub”, that has “everything you could ever need”. This led to her moving there 10 years ago, back in 2011. Since then, the city has been elevated to a new status, branded as the “northern powerhouse”, with global investment and a rapidly evolving skyline.
As we become part of the exciting design scene there, with a dedicated Smile Plastics’ POD at the new Material Source Studio in NOMA, we were keen for a creative guide that could provide an off-the-beaten-track tour for us, and any of our readers planning a visit soon.
Without further ado, here’s Liz West’s guide to Manchester, By Design.
In the ‘early days’ of me being in the city, Manchester was rife with artist-led and empty spaces, and had a plethora of artist’s studios, one of which I joined immediately. Being part of Rogue Artist Studio’s was crucial to me getting a foothold into the art scene and learning a lot about the complex tapestry of the city. Property developers bought the textile mill that housed Rogue a few years ago and so the resident artists were moved to an old school building in Openshaw (on the fringe of the city). It is a must see for any visitor; the old high ceiling school rooms make great studios and are filled with natural light. There is also a showing space in the school hall, keep your eyes peeled for exhibitions there.
I also ingrained myself into the DIY art scene initially and took part in several exhibitions, predominantly at (the now-defunct) BLANKSPACE run by Black Media Collective (affectionately known as BMC). I had my first solo exhibition ‘Chroma’ there in 2012. The director and exhibition curator of BMC Mark Devereux moved on and now runs Mark Devereux Projects – offering mentoring, support, curation and production for artists. I know this because I ended up marrying him after working together!
When I first moved to Manchester I had very little money to go out (as I was just starting out as an artist), so made the most of exploring the city for free or cheaply. These recommendations remain some of the best things to see and do in Manchester. You don’t have to spend a fortune to make the most of this wonderful city.
I do not profess to have seen and experienced everything the city has to offer, but have been witness to the city changing enormously in the past decade. I love walking everywhere in Manchester, there is so much to see. The city seems to be growing skywards at the moment as construction work is everywhere.
Creative to the core
In close proximity to one another Manchester Cathedral, Chetham's Library and John Rylands Library are all places to behold, they are exquisite examples of Grade I listed architecture that has to been seen ‘in-the-flesh’ to be fully appreciated. You feel like you are walking into a film set when you arrive.
There are other ‘finds’ in and around the city to be explored, including the spectacular Tudor Ordsall Hall in Salford.
Directly across the River Irwell from Manchester Cathedral is the location of my brand-new artwork Slow Revolution It’s a new permanent large-scale sculptural artwork, developed site-specifically for Greengate, Salford. The work comprises of individual prismatic triangles covered in luminescent reflective colours and stacked to form geometric columns, spanning across the building to create an optically vibrant and kaleidoscopic installation.
During the Industrial Revolution, positioned across the River Irwell from Manchester’s cotton mills, were Salford’s dye works, which formed a major part of the region’s manufacturing landscape. Using industrial and vibrantly coloured materials to pay homage to the area’s heritage, this monumental work is constructed from steel and aluminium and clothed in a swathe of retro-reflecting colour. Retro-reflective material is an unplugged phenomenon made with tens of thousands of tiny glass beads that reflect light and send a focused image directly back to the original light source.
Slow Revolution self-illuminates when a direct light source is projected onto the surface of the artwork both in the daytime and in the dark, acting as a multicoloured signpost and vibrant gateway into Salford. It is sited within the confines of the historic Greengate Triangle, an area that dates back to the medieval settlement of Salford. The use of multiple triangular forms within the artwork helps ground it to its site and references the area’s past.
The Print Works and the Arndale Centre remain popular mainstream shopping and food destinations, but they leave me uninspired and a bit cold. I would rather go 2 miles out to South Manchester for the day and enjoy the sensory experience of a Middle Eastern food store and gelato in Rusholme, a craft beer Emporium and Scandinavian style interiors shop in West Didsbury, a tasty Dosa (as good as the ones you would find on London’s Drummond Street) in Withington or a walk around Fletcher Moss Park in East Didsbury. This side of Manchester was my stomping ground until I moved further out of the city a few years ago. I got married there (St James’ Church on the edge of leafy Fletcher Moss Gardens) and my son was born there. It was my patch; I go back often. Good times!
For the foodies
Rudy’s has become one of my absolute favourite places to eat in the city, it is always busy – and for good reason. There are now several restaurants across Manchester, a testament to their success. They do an excellent and authentic Neapolitan pizza. I would take anyone there and know it would be enjoyed.
The Pasta Factory is another Italian foodie diamond that I have taken visitors to for meals during their stay. There is a limited menu but everything on it is gloriously tasty, high quality and freshly made. Best pasta in Manchester.
Art & architecture
Castlefield Gallery, in my experience, best known for its brokerage of large-scale free spaces around the city (and across the North of England) for artists to use and experiment in. I took on an entire floor of their New Art Spaces Federation House back in 2015 and made site-specific light work Your Colour Perception using a bag of scrap theatre gels. It helped raise my profile in the city and internationally.
Manchester Art Gallery: lots to see here if you are interested in art and design. There are many different galleries to explore from the classical to the contemporary. They have a changing programme of both permanent and temporary exhibitions all year round as well as excellent workshops for all ages.
Just up the road from Manchester Art Gallery are two of my all-time favourite Indian restaurants. Forget your bog-standard curry house, as both of these places base their menu on Indian Street Food. Bondobust and Indian Tiffin Room are both worth trying if you enjoy the likes of Dishoom – but, I think, these are better!
HOME (used to be Cornerhouse), great for exhibitions, performance and cinema. Has a wonderful café too. Hang around here for long enough and you will probably bump into everyone ingrained in the city’s creative scene. It is THE go-to place for art meetings and creative chat over a beer or brew.
Around the corner from HOME, is Manchester’s iconic Beetham tower, the first skyscraper to be built in the city. My only costly recommendation on this list is to go and enjoy a cocktail with a view on the 23rd floor of the tower. The views over the city are worth every penny. I did this before I moved to Manchester, when I was a visitor myself. I haven’t done it since, but often feel I should.
The Whitworth: my Mum was artist-in-residence here when she was pregnant with me so I have a strong personal connection to this institution, which is linked to the University of Manchester. It was totally refurbished and given a new lease of life in 2015. It has a strong international artist exhibition programme. Have a good walk down Oxford Road to get there or take the blue Magic Bus as it’s not in the city centre.
Another University of Manchester institution Manchester Museum, has gorgeous and intriguing displays which were recently given a revamp by exhibition designer and architect Pippa Nissen whom I have had the pleasure of working with on a couple of my past commissions; An Additive Mix (2015) at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford and Our Spectral Vision (2016) at Natural History Museum, London.
Once you have done the Manchester circuit, a trip across the river to Salford is worthwhile. Get the tram out of town to MediaCityUK to see the hub of all the UK’s television and radio production. ITV and BBC both have studios on the plaza, and I am told a tour of the Coronation Street set is a must. Across the Quays is theatre and exhibition space The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum North.
Don’t miss my new permanent work Through No.4 on the Quayside, commissioned by Quays Culture, which was launched in August 2021. This work uses the same colour injected polyester material that was used for my temporary monumental art installation Hundreds and Thousands at Greenwich Peninsula (March – October 2021). I have been living and working in the city for 10 years, then all of a sudden, like buses, two permanent commissions came at once.
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Liz for producing this guide for us. You can discover more about Liz and her work at: www.liz-west.com
Is there anything you’d add to Liz’s tour of Manchester? Or would you like to contribute a tour of your home city? Let us know! And if you’re local to Manchester, do keep an eye on our blog and social channels for more details of our partnership with Material Source Studio, coming next week.
And if you’re local to Manchester, do keep an eye on our blog and social channels for more details of our partnership with Material Source Studio, coming next week.