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

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