Dr Jonathan Foyle scales iconic structures to reveal their secrets. Here, he explores the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, designed by Daniel Libeskind.
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That is the 180-foot-high aluminium cliff
that is the pinnacle of the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.
But how did the brutality, the misery of war lead to such an inspiring, radical building?
This is Climbing Great Buildings and throughout this series I will be scaling our most iconic
and best-loved structures from the Normans to the present day.
I will be revealing the buildings' secrets and telling the story of how
British architecture and construction developed over 1,000 years.
The Imperial War Museum North lies in Trafford on the south bank of the Manchester Ship Canal.
Designed by a controversial architect, Daniel Libeskind, it's one of five museums across
the country dedicated to enabling people to understand modern warfare and its impact on society.
Construction on the museum began in January 2000.
It took just about two years to finish it.
So it's very much a building which paves the way for the 21st Century and its attitudes to architecture.
In a way, it's like Durham Cathedral 1,000 years earlier in
pushing the boundaries of available technology.
But whereas Durham looked back to the achievements of Romans and
hoped to match their solid grandeur, this does something quite different.
It tears up the rule book of history.
The first building we have seen that fully does that.
Instead, it looks to create something very distinctive and forward-looking.
In order to tell the story behind the museum's construction
I have been given unprecedented access to this 21st century masterpiece.
I will explore how a broken piece of pottery led to the creation of this wonderful memorial to war.
There are going to be kids across Britain now smashing tea pots and
saying, "Mum, look what I've done - deconstructed it for you!"
I'll reveal why this award-winning museum's greatest attraction is these simple white walls.
And I'll scale 180 feet to show how architecture has
been used to replicate the cruel and unrelenting nature of war.
This shard, with its brokenness, its half inside, half out,
gives a sense of the pretty brutal nature of war.
But I won't be going it alone.
Joining me on my imperial adventure is a major star in the world of climbing - Lucy Creamer.
Along with her army of riggers and battle-hardened cameraman, Ian Burton.
This striking and powerful monument may look like it's landed from outer space, but the shape of the Imperial
War Museum North is designed to make you experience something of the emotion of war.
It's modelled on the concept of a globe shattered by conflict into three distinct shards
that represent different arenas of battle - earth, air and water.
I'm beginning my climb at the Water Shard to see how the three elements come together.
-So much work going on, Lou.
Diggers, drills, cranes everywhere.
This is now one of the oldest buildings on the site all ready, isn't it?
-The most modern building in the series, but it's about to be engulfed, it seems.
So what do you think of it. What's your first take?
I'm finding it hard to make sense of it.
You sort of look one way and it feels like the building's going to fall on top of you
and you look another way and there's this sharp corner.
Now, I've got to constantly keep in our mind the idea of what it says about war.
Yes, that's very true.
Because that is at the top of the agenda for this place, isn't it?
Yeah. It sounds like we're in some sort of war zone here, actually.
Well, you start to get a sense from here of the position of the museum
right next to the canal and the public walkway that's being built between the building and the water.
Along this route people will walk and get a sense of this building, without even having to walk into it.
This is such a dynamic and expressive shape
that it tells you about war, even on your way to work or on your bike.
In 1997 a competition was held to design the Imperial War Museum North.
The winning design was that of Polish-born architect, Daniel Libeskind.
Often accused of designing the unbuildable, prior to winning
the competition he had only one major commission under his belt, the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
What was it about his track record that inspired confidence?
I think his track record didn't inspire confidence.
This was his first major building, apart from the Jewish Museum, which took 12 years to build in Berlin.
So he was not a guy with a great practical record.
But he's a hugely convincing and likeable man and his designs are very compelling.
He came to the presentation with a ceramic that was broken,
saying, "Look, a world shattered by conflict.
I'll build you a museum from the pieces of the broken world."
But I sort of give thanks every day that Libeskind was chosen, because
it is a very remarkable building, I think akin to some of the great cathedrals for its presence.
How did Daniel Libeskind's own personal history infuse this place with meaning?
Both sides of his own family and his wife's family were involved in concentration camps.
They were incarcerated for quite a long time and then eventually went back to Warsaw
and encountered a surprising amount of anti-Semitism in post-war Warsaw.
So Daniel's own personal experiences, even though he was
too young to be in the war, were overshadowed by it.
His family experiences were very strong and he just comes alive when
he's working on something that he really believes in and I think that shines through in this building.
It's a passionate expression of his own sense of history.
I've made it to the top of the Water Shard, where I'm greeted
by the sight of the 180-foot high Air Shard.
Gosh, that's a view.
Wow, look at that thing.
It is a giant wedge and no wall seems to be at all regular, is it?
-It's curved everywhere. There's not a right angle in the place!
This lack of right angles, or indeed any discernible symmetry, is the first of many architectural
tricks Libeskind uses to evoke the confusion of war.
There's nothing charming or pleasing about Libeskind's building in the conventional sense,
for which he makes no apologies, reasoning that war is inherently disorientating
and destructive, the shape of the building should reflect this.
Right, well, we've done Gothic, Tudor, Victorian, lots of other styles, has this got a name?
What would you call this sort of architecture?
It's a good question.
This is called deconstructivism.
And what this does is says, "Right, take an item, smash it up, put it back together again."
-It's about creating form for form's sake.
Something totally new, something often quite dramatic.
But the real thing about deconstructivism is that there is no historical
language to draw on, so you can't say, "Oh yes, what this is, that's St Paul's Cathedral reinterpreted."
There's nothing like that that gives it away.
It's very much, you have to form a relationship and see what you can make of these buildings.
-You've got to be open-minded, that's the thing.
Deconstructivism emerged during the 1980s and as it deliberately ignores
any style of architecture that went before, it's often been viewed with great suspicion.
It is intriguing, the idea of deconstructivism, you take something
that's perfect and then you break it up and make it interesting.
-You can see there are going to be kids across Britain now, smashing tea pots and saying, "Mum,
"look what I've done - deconstructed it for you!"
"Thank you, William, don't do it again."
But if you're going to do it anywhere and disturb and disorient people,
the Museum of War is the place to do it, in my book.
Before construction began, the whole project was thrown into crisis.
A bid for Lottery funding failed, so Libeskind's budget was slashed by a third.
Forced to scale down his vision, he kept the shattered globe concept, but was no longer able to build
out of solid concrete as originally planned.
His decision to reduce costs by dressing the building with 80,000 square feet of aluminium cladding
proved to be a blessing in disguise,
as it allows the museum's sharp metal facets a certain beauty in the shifting sun.
I'm going inside the Water Shard to get a closer look at how it was constructed.
Tell me if you find a horizontal surface.
-I'll be in to enjoy it.
-No straight lines.
-Great, we're in.
Right. I'm going to go out and tidy up some of these ropes.
-Bless, you thank you so much.
-See you later.
I'm going to have a little nosy around.
And it's great to see the structure inside this, which is the Water Shard, you can see the steel
eyebeams, what is called a universal column and an eyebeam.
Standard part of steel construction but then there is a frame on the inside, clad in insulation,
because this will be the top of the core of this shard. This is just the cladding.
And then you see the aluminium, quite simply bolted to it.
So it's a very skeletal, simple construction, even if all the angles are cranky.
The trick now is to descend and get into the building itself.
I'm dropping down into the main body of the Water Shard,
which is used as a cafe for the quarter of a million people who visit the museum each year.
The Water Shard is intended to symbolise battles on the high seas
and I'm keen to see how Libeskind uses architecture to convey that.
I don't want to leave any marks on the wall there.
Imagine children in this cafe, looking up and saying, "Mummy
"there are footprints on the wall, who's been walking up there?"
That would seem bizarre indeed, for this is a cafe.
I'm inside the Water Shard and immediately you can see
that the curve of the roof outside is followed inside.
This is a remarkably-shaped space and nothing is at a regular angle.
Those great piers with the lights running through them,
like great search lights going up to the ceiling, they're all at diagonal angles.
This room, with its stripped windows, is directly overlooking that Manchester Ship Canal.
It brings to mind boats, but the way in which the roof
curves down, that ceiling, makes you feel the prow of a boat, something like an ocean liner.
Really, really thrilling building.
Even in the cafe.
Whilst the Water Shard is a great place to have a cup of tea, the true genius of this building
doesn't reveal itself until you enter the main exhibition space, housed in the cavernous Earth Shard.
As you move through the exhibition, you're struck by an increasing sense of unease.
But it's not just the relics of war on display that cause it.
This is the main exhibition space inside the Earth Shard
and the floor follows the curve of the roof.
So it drops about six feet or so as you make your way through it
and you feel that weird disorientation.
Take a ball, have a look.
Libeskind uses a number of architectural tricks to disturb and unnerve visitors,
encouraging them to reflect on the perils, mechanics and, above all, the human cost of war.
The Earth Shard represents conflict on land and the exhibition space reflects this.
It's made up of a series of large display towers, which never allow you a clear view of the whole room,
echoing the experience of the soldier who never knows what's around the corner.
I'm climbing 30 feet to get a different perspective of Libeskind's interior design.
The design for the museum is based on the idea of silos, where there are these jagged islands
in the middle of the main exhibition space.
You wander from one alleyway to the next, it feels like an abandoned, deserted place,
and above those fractured blocks that might be buildings, are these extraordinary lights.
They look like search lights, sweeping the skies for signs of bombs and aircraft.
And all this contributes to the effect that somehow you're in the arena of war.
It's extremely effective.
But, unusually for a museum, the dominating feature of this exhibition space
is the vast expanse of plain white walls.
It's a cool space, but I'm kind of wondering why there's so many
blank walls, considering it's an exhibition space. It seems a bit odd.
Yes, well Mr Libeskind's so-called silos, these blocks which look so
much like a town or city, they have a real specific purpose.
Because when you walk in normally, you think, "Gosh all of that unused
"exhibition space, you could hang all kinds of weaponry on there."
But it does have a real purpose.
It's where architecture meets installation. Watch this.
CHAMBERLAIN: "I have to tell you now this country is at war with Germany."
WOMAN: 'And then just as he finished speaking, the sirens started.'
It's a really interesting message in there, the fact that war
it is pervasive in society, so there is no one way of looking at war.
There are myriad ways
and even though you are in the midst of what
Libeskind wanted - a total immersion in the panorama of war -
it's still so fragmented, each picture tells a different story.
Some are intimate, some are cartoons, some are crowds.
And the themes change. That you're still disorientated.
-You're still not sure exactly where to turn.
But everywhere you turn it involves you.
I think it's really powerful for a museum to do that.
I have to say when I first saw these silos, I wasn't overly impressed.
-No, but it just works for this exact purpose.
Well, I enjoyed that. That was an unusual perspective on war.
It was, wasn't it?
The third element of Libeskind's grand design is the air shard that looms 180 feet over the canal.
The base of it houses the main entrance to the museum, but it's not quite as grand as you might expect.
The entrance is quite dark, it's solid concrete, almost oppressive and bunker-like.
It's very much a human scale. You can touch the sides with your fingertips,
you can just touch the roof as well.
But then you walk through to the Air Shard and the space explodes.
Imagine the sense of anticipation as you fly off to war - the drama of air-to-air combat,
the mixed emotions you feel as you see your enemy cowering beneath you.
Well, Libeskind designed the Air Shard to give you such sensations,
and I'm going to climb its asymmetrical frame to find out how he achieved it.
-About 100 feet, Lou.
-It's a big one.
-It's like a giant climbing frame, isn't it?
-I know, it's fantastic.
Just wish we had 15-foot long arms, don't we, really?
So we could clamber up like giant spider monkeys.
This climbing frame continues Libeskind's game of subtly disorientating you.
The Air Shard, like the rest of the building, is really rather wonky.
-When you dangle like this...
You, of course, get a natural vertical on your rope, don't you?
Yeah, gravity's pulling us where it wants us to go.
-So you actually get a register of what real vertical is against the sides of the building.
Because when you walk in you don't really notice it.
I totally hadn't noticed that. That is bizarre.
But I think it works on some subconscious level, you know it's not quite what you were expecting.
-Something's not quite right.
-Exactly, that disorienting thing again.
But with a rope, you can actually check it against true vertical.
That's really illustrating it, isn't it?
-And it is quite a way out, isn't it?
-It's bizarre, yeah. It's...
totally off vertical.
The lack of funding created one of the most striking features of the Air Shard.
Libeskind originally intended the walls to be made from solid concrete,
but after having to redesign the building he chose to use aluminium columns
which allow wind, rain and even snow to whistle through the open floor-to-roof slits.
Gosh, I'm glad we're not doing this in winter.
-Oh, yeah, it would be cold, wouldn't it?
-It would be really cold.
-I mean, these tubes...
-Your hands would freeze to those things.
And these great slats, it's like a cladding, isn't it?
-A cladding which doesn't really clad, because the wind comes through. It is one thing and yet
also another, it's...
solid and it's void.
I think what he's trying to do here is
convey something of the quality of a haunted house.
Cos you know when buildings are bombed...
-You tend to see...
Well, they're never totally obliterated at first.
No, you get left with a shell.
-Don't you, there are fragments.
And so this shard with its brokenness, its half inside, half-out,
that's what you get in houses.
The doors are often still on in certain rooms, there's wallpaper
that's revealed to all the world, there's shattered panelling, but all of those things
quite intimate relics of the former life of the building,
and I think he's trying to give you some of that here.
It gives a sense of the pretty brutal nature of war.
Financial constraints may have forced Libeskind to compromise his original vision
but what we are left with is an even more dynamic and original space.
With the wind whistling through those slits combined with the crazy angles of the building below,
you're left with an overwhelming sense of what it's like to be airborne over
a battlefield and reflect upon the precariousness of life below.
Ultimately, I think it's a pretty good result that he didn't have the budget
to build this thing solid, as he first intended, and that
default of saying, "OK, there's not enough money. Tell you what, we'll
"just put some plain boxes of aluminium and slats," exactly.
-It works well, doesn't it?
Beautiful light and shade on a day like today, the way that the air moves through it,
-I think is inadvertent genius, really.
Well, I enjoyed that.
Yeah, me too. It was great.
A curious oversize climbing frame. Hey, but check this floor out. See that?
That's where normal mortals come.
Come out of the lift and walk through this black tunnel.
Look, you can't see up, you can't see to either side except through tiny slits casting light.
But your gaze is directed down, look, through the floor.
-Through this mesh.
It's weird, isn't it? It really is disorienting.
The faster you move, if you think, "Oh, I need to get away from here,"
-the faster you move, the clearer you see that great height.
-That's quite cool, actually.
It actually pins you to the spot, doesn't it?
Isn't that clever? Something as industrial as this
gives you that theatrical sense.
It's really manipulative and clever.
It is. You almost get a slight dizzy feeling, because the eyes don't quite know how to make sense of it all.
Yeah. But you get these occasional bits of reference like that view of
Manchester through the window, it's beautifully framed.
-Very well thought-out, this whole thing, but it does
beg a question, doesn't it, of what is a museum for in the 21st century?
Is it about simply displaying objects or is it about conveying
some emotional reality, a different sensibility?
I like that, that you're experiencing something,
you're not just looking at something in the sort of traditional way maybe
-a museum would have been set up, you are actually part of it and getting feelings from it.
-There's not a single glass case here, is there?
This is Libeskind's masterstroke.
Not only does the museum show you the history of war,
it tells you something about how the experience felt.
The viewing platform is as high as the visiting public can go, but Lucy and I aren't finished yet.
OK, Lucy, how are we going to get up on top of this shard?
Well, the only way onto the roof, apparently, is through this hatch.
-It's a bit narrow for me.
-It is, yeah.
Simply walking to the summit of the Air Shard's out of the question as the roof is way too delicate for my
hefty size elevens, so we have to take a bit of a roundabout route.
-As always, Lucy makes it look effortless...
Whilst I'm a little less graceful.
Well, now, this is a tricky little devil.
Look at Lou already.
This is the life!
Come on, sun!
I'm ready for you.
From here I can get a fantastic feel for how the museum fits into its surroundings.
It's a great place to see the view and get the context of the museum.
On the horizon is the Peak District, and then there's Manchester, the world's first industrialised town
with its high rises, and then Salford, which itself
saw the world's first purpose-built industrial park, key to which was this, the Manchester ship canal.
And here is where textiles and cars and machinery were made,
and into the Second World War 34,000 Merlin engines for aircraft.
So it's no wonder it was a target for the Luftwaffe, and they gave it a heck of a pounding.
And so this brownfield site with polluted soil laid
pretty much fallow for the rest of the 20th century.
Now, though, all that's changed because there's a great deal of development everywhere you look.
Over the water is the Lowry Centre for the Arts, and the BBC are building Media City, a purpose-built
site for broadcasting, and all these flats are springing up.
And so this whole area is like an entire city in its birth pains.
What this has got to look forward to is really anyone's guess so far, but it's an exciting and dynamic place.
I enjoyed that.
-It's pretty cool, isn't it?
-Yeah, it is.
It is a great city, Manchester.
I'm now making my way gingerly across the curved roof of the Earth Shard
to the base of our final ascent.
I tell you what, it's flipping hot, too, so I'm going to disrobe.
Well, to some extent.
-Hold it there!
-You've got to be fair on the people of Salford.
When we get to the top of this, Lou, I'm going to ask you
what your favourite buildings have been in this series.
So when you're climbing, have a little think about it, would you?
-I want to see if we coincide.
I'm sure we won't.
I'm sure we've got very different ideas about architecture.
In order to stop this building grating me like some piece of cheese,
Lucy's going to lower me slowly into position.
-Now, that's a cunning little knot.
-It is, it's called an Italian hitch.
I think I had one of those once when I was about 18.
That's great, I'm digging this.
Lucy follows me with her customary agility, and now it's time to start our climb.
-It might be a bit of an indulgence...
But as it's my last climb it would be a pity not to reach the summit.
This is the final step in my journey through the story of
British architecture that's taken me from the courage and brilliance of the great Norman and Gothic masons
via the grand ostentation of the baroque age to the technical wonders of the Lloyd's building
and finally here, where radical architecture points to the future even as it speaks about our past.
So, Lou, your favourite buildings, then?
Oh, I was hoping you'd forget!
-Wind your mind back over the whole series, what did you enjoy?
Well, I have to say...
For one of the climbs that we did, the abseil at St Paul's, for me, you can't beat it.
It was just completely incredible. Breathtaking.
-We're doing it, man.
We are abseiling down the middle of St Paul's Cathedral.
That is probably the maddest thing I've done in my life.
Yeah, that was amazing.
But probably not my favourite building.
I really like the older buildings, actually, I really liked getting up close to...
-You like Caernarfon?
-She is so gung-ho.
I really loved Caernarfon Castle.
-It was a very beautiful thing, wasn't it?
-Yeah. So what about you?
Have you got a favourite?
Ooh... I mean, in terms of pure architecture,
loved Lincoln Cathedral. Loved that.
In the Middle Ages, there was a spire that stood here.
It stretched as high again into the air.
The audacity of the people who built this place, it just keeps going on amazing you.
And then the Glasgow School of Art.
Yes! That was a real surprise to me.
Every corner had something.
This is the tree that never grew, this is the bird that never flew,
this is the fish that never swam and this is the bell that never rang.
Poetry in metal.
It's quite rough stone, actually.
-That's done on purpose, though.
-It's much more like a castle or something.
-It's a pretty butch looking building.
For me, all of those buildings, it's about the thought that goes behind the design.
And then using the finest materials as well, that I've always found is something which wins you over.
-It's about creating a legacy.
You can't help but be moved by that.
-Hasn't been a dull note for me.
No. It's been an amazing experience.
So last zip, Lou.
-And that's it.
Aww! OK, right.
Need to enjoy it. Bye!
Oh, I'm quite sad! It's the last one!
Well, that's tried and tested.
It's been a real pleasure climbing all the buildings we've visited, and it's given me completely new
perspectives on buildings that I thought I knew well.
Many of them marvellously crafted buildings - Layer Marney, Burghley, St Paul's Cathedral,
all extraordinary works of craftsmanship and vision, but I'm really pleased we finished
on this one because it's unlike any of the buildings we have seen before.
The way it tells a global story on its small site is really inspiring, and it reaches so many people.
And I think at the turn of the 21st century we can look back on all the buildings we've seen
and enjoy them for what they are, but ultimately they all
lead the way, they all contribute to the evolution of architecture, and that journey is not finished.
We're off, Olly.
-That has been fabulous.
That was awesome. Oh! Awesome!
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of British architecture and construction's development over the last 1,000 years.
The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, built from 2000 and designed by Daniel Libeskind, is an example of a new wave of architectural design that is both dramatic and disturbing, a building that plays with the senses and provokes wonder.
In his final climb of the series, Jonathan, aided by top climber Lucy Creamer, scales over 50 metres up the building to reveal how the museum is designed to reflect war itself. He scales the huge air shard to investigate how the building deliberately disorientates visitors, he finds himself part of the exhibition when he abseils down inside the water shard, and he explores the technological advances that allowed the building, with its 80,000 square feet of aluminium, to be constructed in just two years.