This image was entered into Manchester Met’s Images of Research competition in 2020. It was taken in summer 2019 and it always makes me smile, not only because of the subjects’ happy faces, but as I distinctly remember taking the photo stood on a chair, wearing a sparkly dress having just run down Oxford Road from an industry awards night! All because I wanted to capture the inimitable Rainbow Noir group who used the meeting space at Manchester’s LGBT+ Centre a month before the building was due to be demolished… but why in the name of research was I doing this?!
The image is just one in a much larger series of images captured as part of the ‘Documenting Demolition’ project, created in partnership with The Proud Trust, the charity who manage Manchester’s LGBT+ Centre. The building, located on Sidney Street behind the 8th Day Cafe, is the only purpose-built centre for the LGBT Community in the UK (and possibly Europe!) It has served the LGBT+ Community for the last 32 years, saved time and time again by the centre’s staff, users and volunteers. Originally built in 1988, it took 20 years’ campaigning, fund-raising and searching for a suitable location before the volunteers and staff eventually found some council owned land and it was constructed, entirely funded by the local authority and designed by the (now defunct) city architects’ department.
My involvement with the building started from a personal connection; friends worked and volunteered at the centre, my partner Caroline had even attended youth groups in her own youth, and she had recently become a trustee of the organisation. I always had an interest in the building, as I studied architecture – and I always noted how in need of a ‘face lift’ the building was (leaky internal gutter, too hot in summer, too cold in winter, no daylight etc!) I eventually researched the history of the 80s centre to find out more about how it managed to be constructed in the same year that Section 28 came into law! Then, a few years later, having become fully qualified and working for design cooperative URBED in Manchester, the centre manager asked if I could quote to re-design the porch. Knowing they needed much more than a new porch, I carried out design workshops and got them dreaming of building a new centre!
This led to a very involved design process, and fund-raising (again) this time from over sixty different funders, including the BIG Lottery and the Greater Manchester Combined Authorities. Over several years, the hard decision was taken to demolish and re-build the centre.
The main aim of the ‘Documenting Demolition’ project was to ensure accurate and detailed recording of the demolition and construction process to validate the necessity of community spaces such as these in our modern cities. Activities of the project included: photographing all user groups, staff and volunteers; creating a festival to celebrate the last days of the centre; creating a 3D scan of the interior of the original centre; setting up and maintaining a time-lapse camera to capture the demolition; and collaborating with an architectural photographer to document the occupied and the empty 1988 building.
For the photos of the user groups, staff and volunteers, I worked in collaboration with photographer Sally Ann Norman, an architectural photographer with experience capturing community groups. Challenges of photographing the different groups included that some only met monthly, some did not regularly use email, and for some the only contact we had was through the centre manager. Making contact and gaining trust was critical to be able to take the intimate photos we wanted to capture.
The aim of photographing the groups was to capture the people inside the building. There was, understandably, trepidation amongst staff, users and volunteers when the decision to demolish the existing building was taken. The photographs were intended to demonstrate that once the people are removed, the centre is just bricks and mortar. The groups who use the spaces are the life and soul, without them all that is left is an empty building. Sally Ann returned a few months later once the building had been emptied, just before it was to be demolished, and took matching photos. The contrast is stark.
The aim is to return twice more; once just as the building is completed, but not occupied, and then finally when the user groups, staff and volunteers return (who knows how long that might be though…)
When the new building opens in 2021 it will more than double the community activity space and ensure that the centre is fit for the next 30+ years working with and campaigning for the LGBT+ community.
As I type this blog, the new centre is currently being constructed opposite Manchester Met’s refurbishment project for the Institute of Sport. So if you ever make it onto campus, do take a look. It will re-open in 2021, and will continue to support the LGBT+ community for many years to come.
Emily was a finalist in the 2020 Images of Research competition. The 2021 competition is now open. Check out the celebratory brochure and website here: https://www.mmu.ac.uk/research/research-study/events/images/