Manchester's London Road Fire Station, built in 1906 and now listed Grade II, has for the past 28 years been unoccupied and uncared-for. When the fire service vacated it back in 1986 it was bought by a hotel company which, despite promising otherwise, left it to rot. The Council has just launched a second attempt at compulsory purchase so as to give other developers a chance to secure its future. Assuming the CPO is successful, there remains the question of whether it should be converted into a hotel or a cultural asset. Not that the Council will necessarily have a say: the outcome will be determined by economics. My bet would be on it becoming a hotel.
The recently released Cathedrals of Culture, a collection of six documentary films about buildings including the Oslo Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, illustrates (among other things) how the various architects were free to design the buildings to fulfil specific functions, uncompromised by having to convert, say, a fire station into an arts centre. They appear to have succeeded admirably. But one of them, the 19th century National Library of Russia in Leningrad, now resembles a museum because technological advances have rendered much of its functionality redundant.
When Manchester central library re-opened this year after a three-year refit, some found it difficult to comprehend the changes. The main entrance now leads straight into an open coffee lounge-cum-display area full of interactive screens; to one side there are cosy booths for watching archive films; on the other side is an enclosed performance space; at the back there are banks of computers - and a few books - dedicated to local history. The main book collections are elsewhere in the building. In short, the interior has been modified to reflect the change in the way that a lot of information is now stored and accessed.
The librarians that I've encountered there seem pleased with their new working environment, although their expertise remains rooted in the past. I borrowed a couple of e-books (for the first time) and, having read them, wanted to 'return' them. I logged into my account but they were not listed there. At the library I asked why. The librarian looked frightened.
"I don't know much about e-books," he said "I'll ask Colin."
"Well," said Colin, "you don't 'return' them. They expire."
"Fine," I said "but why don't they appear on my account?"
"I don't know," said Colin. "Maybe my colleague can help."
Luckily, his colleague was familiar with this FAQ. "It's because the service is provided not by the library but by a third party," he explained. Three of us had learnt something serendipitously.
I went to get refreshment at the coffee bar. In front of me was a young woman, smartly dressed in a red suit and formal shoes, carrying under her arm a two-metre long aluminium step-ladder. She had ordered coffee and a muffin which she paid for and picked up without releasing her grip on the ladder. She strode purposefully away, to change a light bulb perhaps? Or erect scenery in the Performance Space? Maybe make a start on the Christmas decorations? Stick posters up in Kiddies' Korner? Fetch a book off a shelf even? Library life has certainly diversified.
There are some evenings when a glass of good claret is all I crave and that evening I had my eye on a bottle of Léoville Barton, generously presented to me some time ago. Before breaching it I checked on the vintage and was disappointed to read that, although it was rated excellent, it would not be at its best for another 28 years. I probably won't be around then, but I hope that London Road Fire Station will. (Applicants for the bottle must be under the age of 40.)