The IWM North building is hard to miss – the aluminium-clad building with jutting angles has become an iconic part of the Manchester skyline since it was built in 2002.

But have you ever wondered why you seem to get lost when you're inside, or perhaps feel a little unsettled? There's a lot more to IWM North than its striking looks – the whole building was designed to enhance the stories within and give visitors a multisensory experience of war.

Here are eight things that might surprise you about IWM North.

1. It's built on a bombsite

Buildings burning in Manchester after a German air raid on the night of 23 December 1940.
IWM H 6318
Buildings burning in Manchester after a German air raid on the night of 23 December 1940

When IWM decided to build another museum in the North of England, the wartime history of Trafford Park made it stand out as an ideal location. It was here that vital munitions were built for the First and Second World Wars and here that factories churned out munitions, tanks and engines to support the war effort.

Trafford Park was a main target in the Manchester Blitz, which caused extensive damage to factories and warehouses in the area. The site that IWM North stands on today is where the Hovis Grain Silos once stood before they were bombed and burnt down in the Second World War. When the foundations were dug for the museum, shrapnel and an anti-aircraft cartridge shell were found.

2. It's the first building in the UK by Daniel Libeskind

External image of IWM North in Manchester
© Jason Lawton

IWM North was the first building in the UK designed by the internationally acclaimed architect, Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and was recently behind the masterplan for the Ground Zero site in New York. Daniel Libeskind was born in Poland, the second child of Polish Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust. His insistence that the architecture of a museum should give richer meaning to its subject matter was just what we wanted.

3. It represents a shattered globe

Libeskind used a shattered globe concept to create a symbol of the effects of war on land, sea and in the air.
© Daniel Libeskind

Libeskind wanted the building to be a symbol of the effects of war, so he came up with the concept of a globe shattered into three pieces – and though it's been put back together,  it will never be the same again. That's why IWM North is made up of the EarthShard, WaterShard and the AirShard – a piece of the building to represent conflict on land, sea and in the air.

4. A teapot was involved in the design

Design in Everyday Things - The Teapot Poster
Art.IWM PST 16924

When Libeskind came up with the broken-globe concept, he dropped a teapot (the nearest object to hand with a spherical shape) out of his studio window in Berlin and used the broken pieces as inspiration for IWM North’s three shards. (He sealed the teapot in a plastic bag before dropping it!)

5. It's purposely disorientating

The entrance to IWM North
©Jill Jenning

Libeskind wanted visitors to the museum to feel the unsettling nature of war. He used a variety of techniques within the architecture to achieve this. The route into the museum itself is confusing, and the curves of the shattered globe that make up the outline of the building also continue inside, affecting how the visitor moves around the museum.

6. The AirShard is neither an outside nor an indoor space

The AirShard and its confusing concrete tower
©Len Grant

The AirShard entrance to IWM North is small and bunker-like, quite different from the grand entrances of traditional museums. When visitors enter they have to follow a pathway through the AirShard that goes back on itself – creating a feeling of disorientation. To increase the feeling of confusion, the AirShard is neither an outdoor or indoor space, and while it offers some shelter, it's also exposed to the elements. The concrete tower in the AirShard looks like it’s leaning but in fact it’s straight – it's just a technique to disorientate the visitor.

7. The floor of the Main Exhibition Space slopes by eight feet

Story Seekers at IWM North

There is a distinct lack of right angles in the Main Exhibition Space, no natural light, and even the temperature fluctuates at different points – all features intended to intensify the visitors’ experience. The floor of the Main Exhibition Space also slopes down by about eight feet. This is both to mimic the curvature of the Earth and to add to the experience of disorientation.

8. The Water Shard gives a nod to the area’s shipping past

The Manchester Ship Canal was once the route for large cargo liners.
©Trafford Local Studies

The Water Shard is the wave-like part of the building. Stunning views across the Manchester Ship Canal can be viewed through the Water Shard's ferry-like windows, which give a nod to the cargo liners that once travelled this route.

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