Building Secrets: Arndale Centre

It's the 70's. The rubbish is piling up on the streets, telly is full of weirdos and the Bay City Rollers are at the top of the charts...

By Ben Brown | Last updated 12 August 2022

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William McCue // Unsplash

It must have been a miserable time that not even the low-low prices of a pint of lager can fix. But it was around this time that two blokes had an idea, an idea that would bring a little ray of sunshine into everyone’s lives – especially in the ‘grim North’.

These two blokes were Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippindale, one an owner of a chain of baker’s shops, the other an estate agent. Together they changed the future of many a Northern town and city with their revolutionary new ‘Arndale’ idea – an idea that would also change Manchester forever.

It was pretty much a given, even as far back as the Second World War, that the area around Market Street were in a bit of a sorry state. The area consisted of mostly Victorian buildings built on an old layout of winding streets, manky alleys and dingy open courts – all interspersed with dirty warehouses and dilapidated office buildings. It was pretty much a complete shit hole if that’s a more applicable description for you.

So Arnie and Sammy bought up a massive plot of this land and decided to erect one of their swanky new Arndale centres on it – in the hope of bringing some much needed commerce, footfall and glamour into the centre of the city. It was to be the biggest of the lot – the flagship Arndale Centre and Manchester was going to love it!

Well, as is usually the case with these things – it didn’t quite pan out like the two lads envisioned. Sure the Arndale Centre was built, and it’s still in operation today, but people initially didn’t think too highly of it. In fact, most people pretty much despised it.

To begin with, the design and construction of the Arndale was highly flawed. The developers demanded that the centre house a bus station, a market, ample car parking, an underground railway station and strangely – as little natural light as possible. They rejected a more open, roof-lit design in favour of this dingier alternative – much to many people’s dismay.

It wasn’t just inside that was bad though. Anyone with eyes can still to this day appreciate the terrible decision made on the external appearance of the building – I am of course referring to those disgusting yellow ceramic tiles.

The universally hated tiles were made by an Altrincham company and were described at the time as being “bile yellow”, “vomit coloured” and now by me as “‘effing awful”.

So it looked atrocious. Well done everyone. It was also excessively large, stretching from Withy Grove right up to and over Market Street – filled with a warren of seemingly unconnected corridors and areas – with shoppers often having to turn around and go back the way they came when they reached a dead end. Not even a refurb after 6 years could help matters – the design was a complete dud.

Older readers will remember (not fondly) the Arndale bus station which was located on a street that joined High Street with Exchange Square and was quite possibly one of the dingiest, dirtiest and most disgusting places in the city.

Grabbing your bus from there was not advisable, especially at night when all manner of scum bags crept out of the shadows to annoy anyone within shuffling distance.

As a 35-year-old bloke I do have some fond memories of the Arndale though, as well as a few fleeting weird ones.

I remember being dragged around a maze-like market bit by my mam that seemingly only sold net curtains, as well as eating a Happy Meal in a rather vile McDonalds up on the top floor somewhere.

The best thing I remember though is the brilliant Warner Bros. Store that opened in 1991 – quickly becoming the jewel in the Arndale’s crown.

I doubt my mum and dad ever thought to actually buy me anything from there but they didn’t need to – the fact that there was an actual Batmobile behind some glass down one of the corridors made up for it – and even though it wasn’t a full-sized one – it was every kid’s most favourite thing around 1993.

Let’s not forget about the houses on the roof either. Yes, from 1981 you could live on top of the Arndale – bedding down in a lovely 2 bedroomed gaff in Cromford Court complete with grassy front garden and stunning views of the yellow tiled Arndale Tower.

The Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the development and must have wondered what the hell the council were thinking. Or maybe he didn’t care – instead thinking the whole time about how long he had to stay in a manky shopping centre before heading back down South to give the Queen a bloody good snogging.

The houses were finally pulled down in 2003 as part of the redevelopment of the whole centre in the wake of the IRA bomb in 1996. A bomb that pretty much destroyed a whole side of the centre and prompted its biggest and most substantial refurbishment.

Vast areas of the centre were bulldozed down and replaced, with the unsightly yellow tiles (mostly) disappearing and being replaced by lovely bits of glass and metal.

Around half of the centre was completely replaced and it’s clear to see which bits. To this day there’s the low ceilinged half and on the other side, there’s the much more open and significantly lighter new side – which is almost (almost) a pleasure to go shopping in.

Today the Arndale is Europe’s biggest inner-city shopping centre with a whopping 1.4m sq ft of space in which you can do your shopping, eat some food or just shuffle along really slowly in front of me. I must admit that I absolutely despise walking around it, but there is one saving grace – the Arndale Food Market.

Home to a dazzling array of food vendors, the Food Market is exceptional; offering up a massive choice of cuisines from Vietnamese at Viet Shack, Greek at Zorbas, Mexican at Pancho’s and loads more.

There’s also an excellent fishmonger on site, fruit and veg stall and a cracking little pub that serves up some excellent cask ales and ciders. If there’s one reason to love the Arndale Centre today it’s the Market. Oh and Five Guys of course.

The Arndale has stood tall and proud for 45 years and I imagine it will certainly stand for another 45 after that before someone plucks up enough courage to tear it down and fill it with swanky glass skyscrapers. Either way, the Arndale is a much-loved icon in the Manchester skyline and it would sure be weird to see it go.

Pictures courtesy of Manchester City Council Library Archives & MMU Visual Resources.