It was a cold and overcast Sunday morning - quite appropriate for a tour of concrete structures in the city centre. The grey stuff looked grim. Our guide was enthusiastic in his account of the history of its architectural, structural and aesthetic applications, although the last of these was hard to swallow.
Manchester has a reputation as a red-brick repository but, if you look closer, you'll see an awful lot of concrete as well. It's to be found in some of the pioneering, early 20th Century buildings; in post-war reconstruction projects; in a collection of stylish, 1960s university campus buildings; in the vast, secret complex of subterranean, nuclear bomb-proof tunnels; and in the Mancunian Way elevated road (which won an award).
Love it or loathe it, concrete, like most things, becomes more interesting upon closer acquaintance. Its applications are numerous, its appearance can be enhanced (painted, polished, embossed etc.) and it occasionally keeps company with much more glamorous materials - the University's now redundant Faraday Building, for example, is a concrete structure which incorporates a specially commissioned series of coloured mosaic panels, Hans Tisdall's The Alchemist's Elements, the fate of which hang in the balance as demolition is mooted. On the same campus there is a rough-cast retaining wall, designed by Antony Holloway, which stands aloof and independent of any other material. It defies beautification, relying instead on mass and form to make its artistic impact. Campaigners have succeeded in listing it for preservation, much to the annoyance of the University which wishes it gone so that redevelopment of the site can proceed - a familiar conflict of interests.
I can't claim to be an active campaigner for the preservation of buildings - I'm unwilling to make the commitment - but I am thankful to the zealots who are prepared to devote their time and energy to determined action in the cause of documenting our history. Sometimes, however, even they have to admit defeat. Halfway through our tour, as we clustered around and gazed up at a forlorn and crumbling concrete house built in 1911, now isolated between two vacant plots on a side-street, our leader lamented the fact that it was beyond repair.
"Anyway," he said, "It's owned by a gangster and he'll break your legs if you start making enquiries." He wants it demolished for the value of the land, in which respect, it may be argued, the gangster's motive is the same as the University's, though his means to the end may be less subtle.
A few days later I was at the medical centre on the adjoining street. The doctor who saw me was not the usual one but, like the usual one, he was polite and attentive - convivial even. As it turned out he was flummoxed by my presentation - a persistent pain in the hip - but we agreed that it probably wasn't anything serious and he promised to ask around his mates for ideas and let me know if anything came to light. While he was making his notes I wandered to the window and saw that it overlooked the back of the gangster's concrete house. Shrubs and small trees were growing in various crannies and gutters.
"Did you know this is an architecturally significant house?" I said and proceeded to tell him why.
"I often see a kestrel perching on there," he said.
Despite his lukewarm interest I ploughed on. "...and have you ever looked up at the gable end of City Tower? The concrete panels are imprinted with a design said to have been inspired by early computer circuit boards. They're very striking in the morning sun" His eyes began to glaze. He was trying to think of a polite way to get rid of a concrete convert.