UMIST is a unique piece of Manchester’s heritage – It should be saved

I know what you’re thinking. This is supposed to be a YIMBY page, three pieces in and you’re already joining the ranks of the conservationists? And all of this after defending Manchester’s very own world-ending, square destroying homage to Tour Montparnasse. What happened?

Look. I can explain.

As is the case with every spec of land across the city in this relentless development cycle, the site of what was once The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) has been thrown onto the conveyor belt of regeneration to see what comes out.

Officially speaking – as of February 2019 the University of Manchester has stepped up its search for investment to deliver a £1.5 billion “Innovation District” in its place.

Scandalously uninspiring branding aside, this sets the scene for the loss of some of Manchester’s finest examples of post-war modernist and brutalist architecture.

The campus, constructed to house UMIST in the 1960s sits on the space between Piccadilly Station and Oxford Road, while its southern border backs onto the Mancunian Way. Across the vast estate is an enviable range of architecture that represents some of the very best of its style.

However its treasure trove of angular concrete brilliance has slowly degraded since the University of Manchester merged with UMIST and relocated the majority of the student base to their Oxford Road campus in 2004. In the intervening years a range of estate strategies have proposed a variety of solutions to the problem of what to do with the campus.

It’s these efforts that have led to the most recent strategy, the aforementioned…ahem “Innovation District”. Less said about that the better.

Among the general populace, brutalism is the architectural equivalent of the embarassing child that everybody tolerates, but simultaneously wonders what went wrong. Shamed into silence by their glorious Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian siblings achievements and for having the gall to place function over form and try new ideas and materials before they had reached full technological maturity.

This bias is seen in the public outcry every time a nondescript weavers cottage or warehouse is so much as touched by development, while icons like Balfron Tower in London are altered with all the subtlety of a Donald Trump press conference (and lets not even get into the disgraceful subversion of the political intentions of this style by redeveloping it into luxury apartments for the super-rich).

Brutalism is a major part of Britain’s architectural heritage, and though it doesn’t conform to modern beauty standards, that does not lessen its importance.

The jewel in UMIST’s crown, and perhaps the most likely element of the estate to be listed, the Renold Building (1962), demonstrates just how fantastically brutalism can mix function, innovation and aesthetics – while paving the way for the modern architecture that we see today.

Designed by W.Arthur Gibbon of Cruickshank and Seward the Renold Building represents one of the UK’s first efforts in combining a tower and podium element. Growing from this trailblazing base every elevation contains something to spark the imagination, and countless elements that foreshadow architectural trends to come. From the Rogers-esque glazed external staircase to the textured and angular black facade facing the square – designed to accomodate the acoustic requirements of the lecture theatres within. Not a single part of the design bores, and the visual interest continues all the way to the building’s peak, as the design concludes with a final flourish. A curved plant room that wonderfully echoes Oscar Niemeyer.

UMIST’s design brilliance doesn’t end at individual buildings either. The square that ties the area together between the grand Victorian Sackville Street building, railway viaducts and Barnes Wallis building (1964) is a uniquely serene space in the unrelenting bustle of Manchester city centre. Its sweeping concrete staircase effortlessly links the upper and lower elevations of the site, and helps preserve the green oasis that forms the below. Not only is this piece of urban planning innovative for its own time, it should provide a lesson for some of the more profit-driven modern developers too.

The Renold Building is in good company across the estate too. The aforementioned Barnes Wallis acts as an imposing and complimentary partner at the centre of the estate, embracing the square and protecting it from the elements. Even providing a nod to the past with glazing that echoes its Victorian predecessor in the Sackville Street building.

Of course it wouldn’t be brutalism without a number of functional and divisive tower elements too. Beyond Renold, the site is dotted with a plethora of high-rise elements in the iconic Maths & Social Sciences Building, Faraday Building, and Chandos and Wright Robinson Hall. All of which are exemplary examples of the principles of modernism supplemented by small touches that elevate them beyond mediocrity.

The Maths & Social Sciences, though potentially beyond saving at this point given its condition, incorporates brilliant changes in height across its form. The Faraday Building is a subversive combination of functionalism and decoration with its unique textured concrete cladding. While Chandos and Wright Robinson Hall incorporate exuberent flourishes in the latter’s angular crown and the former’s glazed staircasing.

Wright Robinson Hall & Barnes Wallis

In this regard UMIST is somewhat unique in its combination of functional modernism that isn’t afraid to dip a toe in the decorative. The Hollaway Wall (1968) on the eastern boundary of the site sits alongside the innovative Chemical Engineering Pilor Plant (1966) and both are playful and expressive additions to the site that elevate it beyond the expected tropes of the era.

The former literally acts as an artistic solution to a design problem, by insulating the site against the impact of the roads adjacent with its enigmatic and expressive offset columns. While the latter adds a splash of colour in its blue highlighted glazing, and quite incredibly, incorporates external service runs with their use represented by individual colours a full five years before the construction of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers Pompidou Centre in Paris. This alongside a liberal application of glazing that showcases the inner workings of the machinery within, a design choice that has been aped by what is in some respect UMIST’s successor, the highly impressive MECD under construction on Oxford Road.

In approaching the preservation of the UMIST estate, planners can look to a number of developments in Manchester that demonstrate that a sympathetic approach to this issue can be successful. The treatment of the Grade II listed CIS Building and Allied London’s revitalisation of Astley & Byrom House stand as local examples of how these important pieces of the UK’s architectural history can be effectively modernised to fit current standards while maintaining their character.

Allied in particular deserve significant praise for what is an sympathetic rework of a building that many developers would demolish without a second thought, and the city is better for its retention

The unfortunate irony in brutalism is that in the court of public opinion the materiality of these buildings is what lets them down. The insistence on material honesty in the style, though admirable, eventually leads to disrepair without effective maintenance. However the CIS Tower and Allied’s rebranded ABC demonstrate that given a clean, or a sympathetic reclad, modernism and more specifically brutalism stand the test of time in both form and design principles.

Beyond very specific voices (that undoubtedly do a fantastic job), the call for the listing and preservation of brutalist landmarks across Britain is often limited. Their retention is not fashionable in the mainstream, bar perhaps a certain subsect of Instagram and brilliant organisations like the C20 Society and the Modernist Society.

It’s because of this that it’s so important that when they are threatened we come together to vouch for their value. They lack the immediate decorative grandeur of earlier heritage architecture, but that does not strip them of aesthetic or historic value.

Their structural and material honesty, unprecedented ambition beyond the time in which they were built, and historic context should place them at the very forefront of public concern. After all it was a relatively short time ago that Victorian architecture was held in this unfortunate esteem, considered a remnant not worth preservation.

We would be naive to make the same mistake again, by assuming that a style’s worth is only held in its beauty relative to the standards of current architectural trends.

UMIST is a Mancunian gem, and the same energy and vigour should be dedicated to saving it as would be reserved for its Victorian counterparts.

For more information on the fantastic UMIST estate from some brilliant sources – please do visit the below links which all informed my thoughts:

https://c20society.org.uk/100-buildings/1962-renold-building-manchester/

http://modernist-society.org/news-mcr/2017/1/7/umist-time-to-shout

http://manchesterskyline.blogspot.com/2014/05/umist-past-present-and-future.html

http://www.mainstreammodern.co.uk/casestudies.aspx/Detail/59/chemical-engineering-pilot-plant

https://c20society.org.uk/botm/hollaway-wall-manchester/


The great Axis debate – Much ado about nothing?

As is tradition, the external completion of another major tall building in Manchester city centre has led to an eruption of debate and outrage on social media. In some ways it’s comforting that in times of such uncertainty you can rely on something I suppose. As sure as the seasons change and the Pope is Catholic, so the sight of another shadow on the skyline will inevitably go down with all the grace of an overloaded lead balloon.

It’s impossible to deny though, that the backlash towards Property Alliance’s Axis Tower across the Twittersphere was uniquely vociferous. So much so in fact, that it earned itself an entire article in the Manchester Evening News. Indeed the tweet that sparked the discussion currently sits at 298 likes and 74 comments, you can hardly deny it has touched a nerve with the Mancunian public.

So, does the much-maligned tower deserve this level of vitriol?

Contextually, quite the opposite is true when considering the site and its history. Built on a miniscule sliver of land hemmed between the magnificent Manchester Central and the Rochdale Canal, this scheme has been ten long years in the making. All things considered, it’s somewhat miraculous that anything has been built on this absurd parcel of land in the first place.

The ambition of developers Property Alliance, architects 5plus and contractors Russell Construction to build anything here, let alone a 93 metre tower, should be applauded from a purely aspirational perspective. It’s hard to think of any one active project in the city that better embodies Tony Wilson’s age old phrase that “we do things differently here”.

Indeed it’s in these spatial constraints that Axis really shines, great raw concrete columns jut out from below street level and cantilever the tower precariously over the canal. This feat of engineering is an impressive display of strength, and undeniably the focal point of the scheme, an example of unapologetic structural expressionism rarely seen in UK cities.

Exposed concrete support pillars
Enough to bring a tear to the Brutalist’s eye

Atop these columns emerges a form reminiscent of a closed book that takes cues from the limited site. With the wider north and south elevations sandwiching the future residents in, then overrunning the thinner western and eastern elevations facing Deansgate Locks and Medlock Street. All in all, it responds well to the canalside location, particularly when the slender and restrained east elevation is viewed from below Medlock Street.

Axis from the canalside
Did you get my good side?

However it’s the wider elevations that lit the fuse on the digital furore that ensued on completion. The first major bone of contention being the cladding. This is an issue that is near impossible to reach a consensus on so I will not try, just as debate raged on the colour of “that” dress, so will debate rage on whether this tower is beige or gold.

Of course those of the dreaded beige persuasion cannot reconcile any positives in the building because it looks like shudder the Arndale Tower. Now ignoring the fact that this is a patently lazy observation, the fact is that there is more to this building than that element of the cladding.

In fact this scheme implements refreshing pearlescent accent colours throughout that change from blue to pink depending on light and break up the offset windows while providing some level of visual interest. This is not to suggest in any way that it’s outstanding in this area, the lack of glass and black sections do not flatter and the design has a noticeable “front” and “back”, but the quality is high and a passing resemblance to one bad building does not an identical scheme make.

But now we arrive at the truly contentious issue. Brace yourselves.

They’ve only gone and put a bloody telly on it.

From a design perspective, I cannot really claim that I think this makes sense. It’s in an odd position, doesn’t line up with the offset cladding, and is literally tailored to vertical video (do they plan on having all content provided by bewildered YouTube dads?). This is without even getting into the painful irony of such a transparently capitalistic undertaking taking place quite literally under Friedrich Engel’s (currently residing at First Street) nose.

However, my own political pearl clutching aside, I must confess to having a strange love for the awkward thing.

Axis Tower advertising screen
Absolute madness

There’s something to admire in the pure and unapologetic absurdity of it, it’s placement in a position that barely sees footfall, the very real possibility that it will be covered by further development very soon, its insistence on going against the design of the very building it’s attached to. It’s hilarious, and somewhat endearing, like it was designed by the idiosyncratic villain of a Wes Anderson film.

That’s not to ignore it’s capacity for good either. For one it certainly turns heads, for better or worse, and as agency Social Chain have now proven, it’s a fantastic vehicle from which to promote a good cause (which you can find out more about here).

This is a building that is by no means beautiful in the traditional sense. But the response to this should be, is that always the highest priority? Of course some would argue that of course it is, and I would not say that they’re wrong. However there’s something to be said for this building embodying the current spirit of the city.

A city finding its feet on the world stage and reaching for new heights. Yes Axis is divisive, it’s imperfect, it’s brash, but it’s breaking the mould, it’s optimistic, it’s trying something different, and that has to count for something.

So while Axis Tower is deeply flawed from many perspectives, as Twitter has gone to great pains to demonstrates, it’s impossible not to find the awkward madness of this building loveable deep down. The entire scheme rejects common sense, rising from a ridiculous site, to house high-paying residents above some of the loudest clubs in the city in a building with a giant advertising board emblazoned across it’s northern elevation.

It’s absolute lunacy – but it’s also kind of brilliant.

Axis from below
At its best

Deansgate Square two towers in – a new Mancunian landmark?

Deansgate Square on a cloudy day

Manchester’s architect in residence Ian Simpson has never been one to shy away from indulging in the extravagent. Across a diverse portfolio, Simpson and practice partner Rachel Haugh have brought the UK, and in particular Manchester, some of its more iconic buildings. In an era too often marred by conservatism in British regional architecture, Simpson Haugh have, at times, been a breath of fresh air with a progressive approach that toyed with some much-needed flair.

Undeniably, the modern visitors’ perception of Manchester owes a lot to the studio. Between No 1 Deansgate’s homage to Rotterdam’s De Brug building, floating luxury flats over Deansgate on steel stilts, and the Beetham Tower’s gravity-defying cantilever (a theme continued across most of their work), the practices’ designs have in some ways become emblematic of the city.

The Mancunian landscape that their latest foray with prolific developers Renaker at Great Jackson Street enters is different though. Manchester no longer lingers in a post-industrial malaise, it’s a vibrant, ambitious and rapidly growing city. Indeed the population has skyrocketed 149 per cent between 2002-2015, bringing with it huge demand for residential projects, demonstrated by the litany of cranes dotted across the city centre.

It’s no wonder then that Deansgate Square is more Ridley Scott than Alfred Waterhouse in its scale, touching down south of the city centre with about as much subtlety as the Tyrell pyramid. Composed of four octagonal towers, of which two are externally complete, the (estimated) £385 million complex will eventually provide 1,508 apartments and undeniably demonstrates a high watermark for property-based ambition outside of London. With this in mind, it’s somewhat of a shame that from a design perspective the project lacks the gravitas and iconic profile of it’s top-heavy predescessor across the locks. Though that is not to suggest that the design of the scheme is poor, rather more utilitarian. The four vast towers are aware of their imposition on the city, and take steps to address this, with each tower tweaked and rotated across the site to allow breaks in the monotony – showcasing a concerted effort to prevent a wall of identikit glass.

To some degree this succeeds, each elevation fluctuates between two cladding styles pockmarked by domino-style vents as they ascend, one a lighter grey (in an unfortunate nod to the Mancunian climate) and the other a dark black that provides a refreshing alternative to the sea of blue glass we’re often accustomed to.

The quality of the crystalline curtain walling is predictably high-end, and in tandem with the orientation and extended corners thanks to each towers’ octagonal base, does mediate the sheer scale of the scheme. Elevating it above the standard glass box, and projecting an ambition often reserved for commercial developments.

Deansgate Square cladding at its best
The cladding at its best

However, perhaps poetically, the factor that lets the development down aesthetically is its very own Northern context. The offset corners toy with sunlight playfully in the right conditions, but in Manchester these conditions are few and far between at best. On the average day both cladding styles become washed out and borderline indistinguishable, fading into the background and fulfilling the preconception that many have regarding the “greyness” of modern architecture. On their worst days the towers even manage to lessen the impact of their storied neighbour, causing the Beetham Towers’ blue to meld into the grey-black wall behind.

That is not to say there are no positives however, the aforementioned light display that the city is treated to on those rare days is spectacular, though perhaps mildly inconvenient for anybody travelling down Deansgate. It also cannot be understated that development of this ambition and material quality sets a benchmark for a city like Manchester, and has provided an instant skyline worthy of a place among some of the best in Europe, even if these towers provide the bulk rather than the landmarks.

It’s relationship with the streetscape too presents a ray of hope, particularly given the number of high-rise developments in the region that have taken the incomprehensible step of co-opting public space for residents use only. Renders suggest the space will be accessible and well landscaped, opening onto the River Medlock, which is unfortunately little more than a creek at present.

However it remains to be seen whether the plans for Deansgate Square and Great Jackson Street at large will represent good value for money for the average Mancunian resident. Of course, the redevelopment of previously derelict land does, on the face of it, have no downsides, but the scheme continues a foreboding trend among developers to build en-masse without consideration for the amenities that this volume of people require to live comfortably. While new talent will surely be attracted to the city to live in skyscraping opulence, it remains to be seen whether the masterplan will come to act on these concerns and provide much needed education and healthcare institutions.

That is compounded by the damning juxtaposition of such luxury rising into the heavens above those living on the streets as the city grapples with a major homelessness crisis, and (quite literally) casting a shadow on some of the most deprived areas of the city.

Further judgements will surely be made on completion too, if it seems to the local area that flats have been sold off-plan to developers, leaving them empty, as opposed to occupied by ordinary people.

All things considered, though of exceedingly high quality and bearing brutish and impressive imposition, the towers lack the ambition to capture the imagination like their predecessor at Manchester’s peak. Nor can they escape their context, whether that be the perenially dull Mancunian sky, or the collective public exasperation towards such displays of decadence at a time in which so many are struggling.

Deansgate Square site with A380 in background
Fading into a grey day