Dan Russell reports on a flash mob gathering in favour of retaining one of Manchester’s cinematic landmarks
On 4 May, long after the sun had set, a crowd of 100 people gathered outside the Odeon on Oxford Street. The former cinema, boarded up and unloved since 2004, was the designated location for a self-styled ‘guerrilla collaboration’ between three of the city’s artist-agitator organisations: Manchester Modernist Society, Manchester Municipal Design Corporation (which I admit I’m part of) and the Ultimate Holding Company.
Popcorn was handed out in custom-made boxes. A film that spliced nostalgic cinema snippets with actual Odeon footage, gleaned from the North West Film Archive, was projected onto the facade. Maureen Ward, one of the co-founders of the Manchester Modernist Society, talked up the Odeon’s story and why its demolition, to make room for a new office block, was a bad idea. Perhaps the crowd was moved by her words, or perhaps it was just the free popcorn, but by the end of the impromptu gathering everyone had inscribed their names on a petition raised in favour of retaining this Mancunian cinematic landmark.
Why should we care about this abandoned cinema, a building wedged between a 1970s block cleared for demolition and an unremarkable pub? It reminds us of Manchester’s past, a city that was mad about film (once being home to the most cinemas per head in the UK), and it is a place that remains, despite the dark blue boards blacking out its windows, beautiful.
Rumours swirl around the Odeon, too. The story goes that a bid to get the cinema listed in the 1990s, backed by the Cinema Theatre Association, was deemed unworthy due to internal alterations. But after the last film was shown in 2004, further investigations suggested that behind partitioned walls lay enough original features to warrant a renewed listing application. Those features mysteriously disappeared on the eve of the visit by English Heritage. With nothing left to list, a planning application for the building’s demolition was submitted.
There may be a final twist to this particular tale. The recession, and the resulting slowing-down of city centre regeneration, may just give the Odeon a breathing space. Behind its sub-divided internal walls the baroque style proscenium arch is still intact and worth preserving. Its neo-classical exterior provides much needed diversity to the streetscape – and that was the point of this late night gathering outside the Odeon. It’s not that regeneration is bad, but that the removal of buildings that make up a city’s character and heritage to make way for bland glass boxes and homogenized high streets is a terrible waste.
If regeneration slows, or even fails, then its by-product is the need to make alternative use of vacant buildings. And as the notion of sustainability filters through to the development sector, the idea of reuse rather than replacement begins to make sense – not just environmentally but also financially. The Cinema Theatre Association has suggested a multipurpose performing arts or conference venue as a suitable use for this former film palace. But how about a picture house for the North West Film Archive, a logical extension to the Cornerhouse, a larger Deaf Institute, or even a new home for Urbis?
Dan Russell is the Editor of Things Happen, the fanzine produced by Manchester Municipal Design Corporation (a spin off from MMU’s DesignLab). Images: Ade Hunter (main images) and Rich Brown (thumbnail).