Manchester’s rich canal heritage weaves its way through the city, however, pockets of darkness and undesirable neglected areas remain. The Undercroft of Rochdale Canal, immediately by Piccadilly Station, was identified as one of the worst, had become synonymous with crime and anti-social behaviour.

In March 2023 the Canal & River Trust launched the “Transformation Through Light” project, inviting the community to witness a temporary lighting installation that aimed to reimagine the Undercroft. Various light installations throughout the tunnel created striking effects, with immersive and expansive designs illuminating the area’s unique and often overlooked beauty.

The 130m Undercroft was divided into four sections: the tunnel, lock gates, a columned pedestrian bridge, and an iron bridge. Each section showcased a distinctive yet interconnected installation, contributing to a seamless flow and narrative.

A series of linear RGB projectors in the tunnel created a chase effect on the water’s surface which increased anticipation whilst guiding participants as they journeyed along. As visitors progressed through the lock gates, a dynamic digital installation emphasised various lit scenes with a UV Gobo projector placed to highlight the waterfall cascade. Gobos cast sunlight inspired images onto the structural columns and created depth by washing the soffit with light to highlight the expansive space which followed the feeling of enclosure in the tunnel. Exiting at the iron bridge under Dale Street, pastel-toned lighting across the water created a dynamic interplay with the adjacent waterfall, producing a final brilliant effect.

Studiotech, keen to help support the importance of making the city a safer place, generously supported the event by reusing surplus luminaires and equipment from previous projects and providing the installation and programming free of charge.

Ensuring safety was a significant challenge, and as the site was live, equipment placement had to be carefully considered so as not to hinder ongoing work or risk the security of installers. Sourcing power posed a challenge too; given the temporary nature of the installation on a live site with a council-powered supply, two generators were employed as a practical solution, as opposed to relying on an existing permanent power supply.

The event offered a safe and inviting atmosphere, demonstrating the potential of the space when invested in and cared for appropriately. This initiative not only sought to illuminate the Undercroft physically but also to kindle the imagination of residents, encouraging them to share their ideas for the future development of the area.

Manchester’s canal network serves as a valuable historical asset and by harnessing the power of lighting, neglected spaces such as the Piccadilly Undercroft can be revived, ensuring safety, enhancing aesthetics, and fostering community engagement. The successful temporary lighting installation has laid the foundation for future investments and discussions surrounding the transformation of this part of the city.

Feedback has been so positive there have been calls to make the installation permanent. Ultimately, by prioritising the revitalisation of these neglected spaces, Manchester can preserve its canal heritage and create vibrant, inclusive environments for all to enjoy for generations.

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