Going underground: visiting Manchester’s co-operative tunnels
Last week, I was lucky enough to be in a group of Co-operative College staff that had an exclusive, behind the scenes tour of some of the buildings which currently house the Co-operative Group’s family of businesses. However, for us there was no VIP treatment. Instead of red carpets and glamour we were advised to wear trousers and flat shoes to walk over worn parquet and uneven lino floors, and warned to look out for hidden steps as we set off on an expedition through hidden tunnels and dusty basements. Due to space limitations, we also had to split up into groups of five and spread the tours out over the week.
Andy Goodwin, Facilities Operations Manager for the Co-operative Group, looks after the co-operative buildings of all different architectural styles and periods that are clustered near Victoria Station in Manchester. Most of the buildings will soon be vacated as the Co-operative Group gets ready to move into its shiny new headquarters across the road later this year.
As well as taking us around the underground tunnels that connect the various co-operative buildings, Andy is full of interesting facts. Who would have known, for instance, that there’s a huge glacial boulder beneath the 1960s-built CIS tower that was too big to be moved, or that the space where the Sports & Social Club is now was once a nuclear shelter?
In an impressive vanishing trick, we started underneath the CIS building, among the fiery boilers and thick pipes (coated in what we now know is hazardous asbestos) that transport water around the building and, after a short walk, ended up in a more familiar place; next to the escalators in New Century House across the road. Like a Turkish bath, as you move from room to room the temperature changes rapidly, from balmy, almost tropical heat to rooms with a distinct chill in the air and rooms where you’re suddenly swept by gusts of wind. In another disorientating adventure, we started in the gloomy depths of the ornate old bank building and emerged into daylight from the art deco Dantzic Building.
It would be easy to get lost in this warren of rooms and tunnels and, if you did, you could be there a long time. Once, a team of carpenters, electricians and even an in-house French polisher (think of all shiny that mahogany in the plush offices above!) worked in the windowless bowels of the CIS tower, but now these services are contracted out, employing far fewer people, and there aren’t many people around.
Two people who do spend a lot of time in the basements of the co-operative complex are archivists Adam Shaw and Heather Roberts from the National Co-operative Archive at the College, as they are in the middle of a mammoth project to catalogue the (often long-forgotten about) records of the Co-operative Group. These records, which date back decades, languish in the underground spaces alongside a strange assortment of co-operative memorabilia that ranges from masonry taken down from the facade of a building when it became unsafe to a collection of old-fashioned office calculators.
As you walk from room into room piled high with records, you realise the extent of the task they have before them. Many of these spaces resemble graveyards for office furniture. In one case, Andy tells us, a whole building was abandoned in the 1970s and is boarded up but, since he started work at the Co-operative Group less than a year ago, he has come across vintage tins of cat food and even (empty) cans of beer!
Some tunnels are wide enough for carts to pass through, and others are decorated with the beautiful glazed bricks fashionable in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Others tunnels were bulldozed in as the buildings they once connected to were demolished, and lead nowhere save for a pile of rubble or a bricked-up dead end. One tunnel leads, via a ladder, into the old bank building. Fittingly, under this building we see the heavy metal doors guarding old bank vaults.
The tour wasn’t just about the past. Andy was keen to point out that these co-operative buildings, while they are being emptied by the Group, have a future as part of the NOMA development that will establish a new ‘co-operative quarter’ around the area, and could be reinvented as retail, dining and residential space. Though the sixties buildings are now hugely inefficient, they were well built and have aged well, and the CIS building will be reinstalled with double glazing (this will also mean it is, once again, see-through as the architect originally intended).
Published On: January 23, 2012
Written By: Natalie