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.
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.