The Pilcrow: pints and placemaking

Can you build a community by building a pub? Via weekly workshops on everything from furniture to food, a group of designers and volunteers in Manchester are helping to create a pub that will form part of a major new development in the city

The Pilcrow is a new pub in Manchester. Once it opens at the end of September, it will be like any regular public house – albeit with a particularly nice interior design and fittings – serving pints and food to local office workers and residents.

What sets it apart is its evolution and ambition. The usual expectations for a good pub are simple: a great place to hang out, that will hopefully make its owners money. In the case of The Pilcrow though, the goal was far loftier: to be the vehicle via which a new neighbourhood is built.

Interior of The Pilcrow in August
Interior of The Pilcrow in August

The pub is situated in NOMA, a new £800 million, 20-acre development that is underway in the north of Manchester city centre. The project is backed by The Co-operative Group – which has a history in the area going back nearly 160 years and still has its head office there – alongside Hermes Real Estate. It will bring new offices, homes, shops, and restaurants to the area.

pilcrow sign

As part of the development, Sadler’s Yard, a new public square and events space has been built, positioned near to Manchester Victoria station. It is here where The Pilcrow sits, looking like a vast yet elegant wooden shed. The idea for it originated from schemer/project manager Ben Young, whose background prior to this project has been in events and marketing. “I’d been working with the Co-op to try and find ways of bringing people down to this new part of town that they’ve just built,” he explains.

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“I started talking to them about ways to get the community back involved with this area. We were talking about big one-day events, summer festivals, that sort of thing. Quite typical of the sort of stuff you see in town centres to try and drive people there. But they kept talking about this idea of ‘neighbourhood’ and building a neighbourhood…. Really one day events wouldn’t cut it, because people come down for an event and that’s great, but then they go again and they’re not really part of anything in particular.”

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Young’s suggestion was to create a pub, as much as possible by hand, and bring in local craftspeople and designers – as well as, crucially, the general public – to help in the making of it. In the process, those who volunteered to help would learn new skills, as well as hopefully make friendships and develop a vested interest in the pub and, in turn, the area.

“The idea is we’re using design as a catalyst to build a neighbourhood,” Young continues. “We’re laying out a design framework and inviting people to come along and help us build an aspect of the pub, and as a byproduct of that we’re building a neighbourhood. That’s the theory – so people become invested in the space and if they’ve built a bar tile or a bar tap or a stool, they get a bit of ownership over that, get bragging rights over it.”

The developers at NOMA leapt at the idea. “To be honest it’s a no-brainer, it’s an absolute gift of an idea,” says Nicky Moore, brand and marketing manager at NOMA. “It totally aligned with our vision for the place, of creating a sense of real community from the grassroots up…. I always use the term ‘unique’ sparingly but I genuinely do think it’s a first really to have this kind of very hands-on approach at a relatively early stage in a development – we’re really proud of it.”

Young admits that when the project got the go-ahead initially he felt “completely out of my depth”. It’s been a sharp learning curve for all involved, but he’s been struck by the enthusiasm the project has generated from the off. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” he says, “and we weren’t prepared for the amount of work that goes into building a building – we were a little bit naïve there. So there’ve been challenges and absolute knowledge blanks. I guess the positive side of that is we found that because people like the idea of the project, it as an idea has been enough to get past all of this. There’s always somebody … a quantity surveyor, say, that might want to help out just because they like the sound of it. Being able to say it’s a pub is a massive help – getting people on side and getting a little bit of assistance with planning applications and stuff like that, people have been really supportive in that way.”

Very early on Young brought in Joe Hartley, a designer-maker based in Manchester. He devised a series of weekly workshops to be delivered by skilled practitioners to the general public, from which various items for the pub would be created. Around 30 of these have taken place over the past year, with some of the more recent ones happening in the space that will soon be The Pilcrow, while others have happened at alternative venues around the city. They have included workshops in everything from making furniture to harvesting willow, from a pub-snack workshop delivered by a chef, to a class in creating tiles to be used on the bar.

Young and Hartley finding willow in a park in Manchester to be used as part of a workshop run by Cherry Chung. The willow was used in a later workshop to create hanging baskets for the pub.
Young and Hartley finding willow in a park in Manchester to be used as part of a workshop run by Cherry Chung. The willow was used in a later workshop to create hanging baskets for the pub.

In each, Hartley devised an overarching design for the end products, but intentionally left room for individual expression. “With all the furniture we’ve designed it in a way where there’s a bit of structure, but then there are little subtleties that can be changed depending on who has done it,” he says.

This inclusivity has meant that the finished furniture has a certain earthiness and simplicity to it. “We’ve tried not to use complicated joins, we’ve tried to use ‘satisfying’ joins,” Hartley goes on, explaining how the intention is for those taking part in the workshops to leave with some basic skills that they can replicate at home themselves.

“It feels really good when you do it, you really feel like you’re taking part in carpentry. It’s really straightforward and it’s simple.”

If such an artisanal approach sounds like the stuff of a hipster’s dream, it is important to note that the workshops have attracted a wide range of participants, something that both Young and Hartley were keen to ensure from the outset. “We made a real, hard effort to market and advertise it to as wide a range of people from around Manchester as possible,” says Hartley.

“There’s always a hipster element,” Young admits, “but they’re outweighed by accountants….”

As to why people were so keen to take part in the workshops – each session has had an average of ten participants – in part this seems to be a reaction against the dominance of screens in our lives and also a desire to take part in something alongside others. “So many people at the workshops have said that they spend the day on the computer but what they’d really like to do is actually handle something,” says Hartley.

“People communicate in workshops in an amazing way as well,” he continues. “I was really worried at the beginning that it would be awkward but the second somebody starts doing something with their hands, everybody is suddenly put in the same scenario, there’s no differences between anybody. Then everybody starts communicating and laughing, and really enjoying it.”

Despite The Pilcrow being part of a major development, NOMA was surprisingly hands-off in the evolution of it – helping where appropriate but mostly allowing Young and Hartley space to devise the progress of the pub. This somewhat goes against the common public perception of developers as controlling and distant. “It would be very easy to micro-manage this,” says Moore. “But we’re very conscious of the fact that this idea is these people…. We don’t want to dilute the essence of what makes it so special.

Tile mould created in a workshop run by Stephen Graham
Tile mould created in a workshop run by Stephen Graham

“We’ve been conscious not to stamp all over it and to let the guys, who are clearly very specialist in their field, do their thing, and let time and the story evolve and gain pace and momentum from a grassroots level.”

Young has taken inspiration from the likes of art and architecture collective Assemble, who recently won the Turner Prize for the Granby Four Streets project, which saw local residents regenerate an area of Liverpool. The team that has worked on The Pilcrow – which includes Jess Higham, who looks after communications, alongside Young and Hartley – see communities working with developers as an idea with potential and have recently set up a company, called OH OK Ltd, with the intention of working on further schemes in this way. “Off the back of this project, we’ve decided that we’ve struck on something interesting in this idea of involving a local community in building things for their neighbourhood,” says Young.

Different versions, of The Pilcrow logo.
Different versions of The Pilcrow logo by by Dave Sedgwick and Studio DBD in development.

“This project fits really well with the ethos of the Co-op and the co-operative movement,” he continues. “so we’re really lucky to be working with the Co-op on this in particular, because it all ties together nicely. But projects similar to this are running all over the place – Assemble has been doing similar sorts of things, and there’s a business that operates in East London that I really, really admire called The Decorators who do lovely, design-based outdoor community projects.”

All design by Dave Sedgwick and Studio DBD
Graphic design by Dave Sedgwick and Studio DBD

The Pilcrow is designed to be a temporary building – it can be lifted up and moved in its entirety to another site if necessary – meaning it might not be in Sadler’s Yard forever, though Moore hopes it will always have a home somewhere in NOMA. And while the team behind it hope that its unusual story will draw people to it, in the long term the intention is for it to simply function as a pub, no more, no less.

“We hope that for some people it will be a destination, because they’ve been following what we’ve been doing, and will come and admire the craftsmanship and detail,” says Young, “but we very much want it to operate as any other pub as well. So people that are tipping out of the Co-op at half five can come here and order a packet of crisps and two pints of lager and sit in the corner like you would in any other pub, and not have to do anything in particular.”

The Pilcrow Pub in August 2016
The Pilcrow Pub in August 2016

Follow the story of The Pilcrow at thepilcrowpub.com


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