In Manchester, the CUBE Gallery (the Centre for the Urban Built Environment) and CCI (the Centre for Construction Innovation) were two sides of the same coin, together promoting excellence in the design and construction of cities and towns. Based at 115-7 Portland Street, Manchester, thousands have passed through the doors for exhibitions, talks, seminars, meetings, launches, videos, even poetry.
After fourteen years, both are about to close.
This is not a potted history, though someone should surely pull that one together. Rather, as someone who worked at CCI for five years it is my eulogy. I had hoped that great words would have come from on high. But I hope these few words at least help a little.
The cause of the built environment, of sustainable cities, is not an easy one to promote now. The credit crunch hit the property and construction sectors hardest of all. And then for these two organisations, which in their prime days were sponsored by the University of Salford, the cuts in higher education tore away the last harbour wall that was protecting these two bedraggled ships. Manchester has already seen Urbis transform into the National Football Museum, subject to much the same economic forces.
At its best, CUBE and CCI wove a spell which brought together designers, architects, engineers, planners, builders, politicians, urban academics, community workers and many others, to hear each others’ stories and to learn together. If it had one slogan, it was collaborative working. Not blaming the ‘other’ profession when things were not good enough. Sure, we tricked the architects to visit the gallery while hoodwinking the engineers with a seminar of graphs, but we knew they would soon stumble across each other and realise they had a shared passion in making great places.
A diversity of backgrounds and outlooks, it has to be said, that was reflected in the CCI and CUBE staff teams, producing some watercooler moments which were pure theatre.
We pushed Passivhaus before it became, thankfully, fashionable. We promoted best practice clubs in each of the five counties, roughly, across the North West of England. We provided a venue where officials from the Treasury could speak directly to a built environment audience, and without charging, not excluding anyone from being able to speak their truth directly to power. We connected small and medium construction firms with major programmes such as Network Rail.
We had our low points too. When half a dozen staff decamped together around December 2011, and the legal tussle they had with the university afterwards, it was hard for those of us left not to think that ‘the high ups’ generally were only interested in counting the cutlery.
But our heyday was bright. A full gallery on a launch evening with people spilling out on to the pavement. A packed seminar room, standing at the back, while a key speaker holds the room spellbound. A calendar of events which was the envy of organisations three times our size. The chance to walk around a newly-built inner-city school and hear from the builders how they had applied an idea they had learnt from us.
I know in my bones that in a few years time some working group of bright young things will say, “Hey guys, we need a place for the urban built environment, for sustainable cities, a sort of neutral space where ideas can ferment, paths can cross, not for profit and open minded …”
So, it is not goodbye, but see you soon.