Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
This is a companion piece to the Spinning (through) Spinningfields blog entry.
The question of what makes a good piece of city is one that bothers a lot of architects, planners, developers and commentators, and quite right too. Cities continue to change and, downturn aside, commerce is the driver of new, rejuvenated and repurposed districts. What form these areas should take and how they should knit into the existing urban grain are critical in achieving identity, coherence and acceptance by those who live, work and play in them. And those are always the three main occupant groups, often with a bit of culture thrown in too.
Examining the vast Spinningfields redevelopment in Manchester city centre provides a useful opportunity to assess one approach in a large and economically challenged city.
Spinningfields is the creation of Allied London and Manchester City Council and is costing £1.5 billion. Cutting through the rather gushing hype of the former’s website, one calmer phrase is worth quoting in full: “Led by commercial space and complemented by supporting commercial, civic, residential, hotel, leisure, retail and public spaces Spinningfields creates a unique sense of community within a carefully planned and managed environment.”
We’ll return to the second part of that sentence, but the first gives a good idea of the range of uses being brought to the area and the scope of ambition in play.
Office space is the key, with around a dozen buildings providing 220,000 square metres (2.37 million square feet) of space and the usual features – sustainability, flexibility, resilience. Anchor tenant is RBS, with two neighbouring blocks housing regional headquarters, swish retail banking facilities for the public and back office. A large interconnected set of apartment towers lines the Irwell with a way through to the riverside preserved at ground level. The new Civil Justice Centre and City magistrates’ and coroners’ courthouse continue the civic focus begun after the war by what is now the Crown Court, the only old building of the Spinningfields district to remain (that it does so at all and is, moreover, largely unmolested is notable and will be explored later). A high-rise hotel tower from Foster + Partners is awaited.
Placed freely around the development, the varied geometric shapes of these new structures give a nicely loose street block pattern, far looser in fact than early iterations of the scheme which envisaged a more emphatic diagonal axis through the site. Architecturally, though, and with a couple of exceptions, they are mostly a mixture of the bland and the crude, often in the same building.
The former National Museum of Labour History/Pump House Museum, though, now simplified as the People’s History Museum, has had a superb extension added, the work of Austin-Smith: Lord. Of roughly triangular plan, its gently convex walls are clad in Cor-Ten steel, popular is the 1950s and 60s but a rare sight today. With an exterior finish intended to oxidise to a microscopically-thin coating of rust and then stabilise, this matches the red brick of the original Victorian hydraulic power station beautifully as well as being an intelligent nod to Manchester’s formidable industrial heritage.
Denton Corker Marshall’s much-acclaimed Civil Justice Centre with its wilfully transparent arrangement of popping-out courtrooms and glass façade/atrium rising the entire height of the building is certainly impressive without being dominating, and attractive, especially as the sun sets and its artificial lighting kicks in. Unfortunately some tricksy layouts and poorly-considered, cheap-looking finishes within betray the spirit of quality set up without.
The new magistrates’ court is credited to Gensler and TPS Consult. Moving away from the conventional arrangement for a courthouse in which office and court spaces are more or less intertwined, this is in essence a mid-rise office block with a stack of courtrooms adjacent, the two halves split by an atrium. The interiors could not be visited on this occasion but published images show a dynamic escalator bank piercing this to give access to the upper levels, and palm trees standing proud. Squat, bulky and clad in red sandstone, atrium aside the building has relatively little glass, in direct opposition to the bright, light Civil Justice Centre; clearness and openness are obviously deemed less appropriate for a criminal court.
Elsewhere, Sheppard Robson’s prominent protrusion of office and retail space at 1 The Avenue signposts the development from Deansgate and stands at the head of a new retail thoroughfare intended to attract prestige occupants. The same firm’s rather calmer 3 Hardman Street is by far the most appealing of the commercial blocks erected so far. Composed as conjoined volumes, the facade detail of multi-plane glazing is effective and holds the interest.
The less said about the Leftbank Apartments the better. The tall towers, designed by Westbury Homes with Allied taking some interest, are exactly what you would expect for a new prime riverside site where potential income yields demand as many units as are possible within whatever height and massing planning restrictions apply – and there do not appear to have been many of those here.
But there are plenty who believe that it’s not (necessarily) the individual buildings that make a piece of city, it’s the spaces in between. At Spinningfields the developer has, as we have seen, made a big noise about this, and it’s certainly true that some thought has gone into what we now must call public realm. So is it any good? And how public is it anyway?
The new square is more a strip of pedestrianised road, and was remarkably quiet even at lunchtime. The Avenue might be seen as a 21st century contribution to the Mancunian tradition of intimate and interesting alleyways and passages, but feels too narrow and restricted for its stated purpose, and too afflicted by steps.
All of the new buildings in fact have retail units on their grounds floors in a deliberate attempt to animate the streets. This is current practice in at least one other major British commercial centre: the City of London, where the entrances of new office buildings nominally standing in Cheapside are actually placed on side streets in favour of shops lining that main road. At Spinningfields even the magistrates’ court is not immune from this, though one has to wonder about the security implications of retail outlets within the envelope of a courthouse.
It’s a persuasive idea, especially when trying to encourage businesses to move to your new development, but at Spinningfields the opening-up that this initiative has contributed to has had a rather more profound effect on the area.
The new development is focused on what was previously known as Crown Square. For post-war planners, this was intended as a civic quarter of ceremony and dignity. The first building to be erected was Leonard C. Howitt’s Courts of Law of 1957-62, a large, imposing but dignified rectangular block clad with Portland stone that is now solely a Crown Court. Its two principal facades are very different, and a walk around the building is instructive. To the west, toward the river, the look is that of a typical office block of the period, albeit with care taken over the placement of glass and stone.
Facing Crown Square, however, is a magnificent fully open frontage around 200 feet in length whose triple-height glazing, deeply set between elegantly chamfered stone mullions or fins, gives wonderful views to the courtroom concourse inside. The façade closes up at each end with stone screens pierced with a grid of square holes, bookending the expanse of glass. The skilful manipulation of height – note the low basement storey which forms a plinth – reduces the impact of the building and renders it more of a pavilion. It would make a striking country house, and indeed it even has a portico off-centre with a wavy roof and a wide flowing stair crowned with eagles – actually the ceremonial entrance, long disused.
Over the next few years the square continued to be assembled. To the south east Cumberland House (1965-76 by local firm Leach Rhodes Walker), containing council offices, was a T-shaped five-storey block whose facades were articulated through stacked, boxed-out windows of dark glass above a ground floor of Portland stone. To its north, the well-regarded Scottish Life (latterly Manchester) House by the same firm placed a modest tower atop a two-storey podium and became the home of the Manchester Evening News newspaper.
The square was closed and the civic sequence completed in 1971 with YRM’s Manchester Magistrates’ Courts, at the time one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city.
Of seven storeys above a ground floor podium, the internal layout of six main courtrooms on each of two double-height floors with offices at the ends of every floor was clearly expressed in the external window rhythm. The firm’s trademark white tiles sheathed the exterior framing stood well forward of the windows on all sides, to present a clean, smooth vision of judicial efficiency. As CUBE described it, “The Modernist tiled white frame encloses a dark glass box in a minimalist cubic composition that reflects the spatial organisation within”.
The interiors were remarkable in their generosity of scale and luxury of finish. The main entrance from the elevated podium led to a double-height lobby with mezzanine and bronze handrails, the whole clad in travertine, an astonishing luxury for the period and building type. This space alone marked the building as something more akin to a private office headquarters than a public service structure, especially one more typically featuring cold emptiness than warm richness.
The court waiting areas were tall, airy volumes entirely glazed on one side and featuring rows of fixed Eames seating. The atmosphere, inescapably, was that of an airport, and that was both wryly amusing and appropriate given the lengthy waits, stress and production-line nature of the business conducted there.
Outside, the podium with its broad flight of steps up from Crown Square was perhaps less successful, though very much a product of its time. Car parking and servicing lay beneath, along with a covered though rather mean ‘pedestrian way’, a planning requirement.
To have a new courthouse designed – in conjunction with S.G. Besant Roberts, the City Architect – by any firm of private architects let alone one of YRM’s reputation and size was a powerful statement of civic pride.
The very specific occupants of Crown Square generated a very specific atmosphere that was collegiate and quiet, enhanced when a set of lawyers’ chambers colonised Cumberland House and its internal courtyard to create something reminiscent of the London Inns of Court. Architecturally the alignment of cornice lines across the lower storeys of the two courthouses and Cumberland House and uniformity of materials, with Portland stone predominating, greatly contributed to this ambience, as did the mature trees in the square.
Spinningfields changed this closed character fundamentally and irrevocably.
Demolition or alteration of all of these buildings save the Crown Court, erasure and realignment of the streets and even ripping out of the existing trees (to be replaced, rather bizarrely, with saplings) has taken place; a total remodelling of a swathe of city. Gone is the autumnal melancholy that filled the area after 5pm.
Spinningfields is now a place of glass and steel in a denuded ‘public’ realm of grey stone paving and stainless steel street furniture that is in fact privately managed and secured. It is bland, with no local personality and
Manchester modified: Spinningfields
Spinningfields from the air (unknown website) and closer-to. From the top: 3 Hardman Street, part of The Avenue, the Civil Justice Centre and the new magistrates’ court
Leonard C. Howitt’s Courts of Law (1962) pictured in 2003 (top), showing the ceremonial entrance, and 2011, with the steps and landscaping modified. Gone is Cumberland House (1976) with its mature trees (below, also in 2003)
Also no more; YRM's 1971 magistrates' courts in context; note covered public way