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Realigning Rochdale: Number One Riverside by FaulknerBrowns Architects

FaulknerBrowns Architects’ £42.5 million new council HQ is a worthy addition to the civic architecture of Rochdale, writes Richard Waite. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Rochdale doesn’t possess many fine buildings. The former mill town and industrial powerhouse on the north-eastern fringe of Greater Manchester has been scarred by changing tastes in town planning and road building and is saddled with uninspiring high-rises, rows of down-at-heel terraces and the Falinge Estate, which The Daily Telegraph has dubbed ‘the worst welfare ghetto in Britain’. But the birthplace of Gracie Fields and Lisa Stansfield, does boast the remainder of a grand civic heart. As well as Edwin Lutyens’ war memorial (1922) and the perfectly proportioned CP Wilkinson-designed post office (1902), Rochdale has a Grade I-listed Gothic Revival town hall (by WH Crossland, 1871) so impressive that, had he won World War II, Hilter intended to dismantle it and transport it to the Fatherland.

The town has now added to this impressive, mainly Portland stone collection with a new, similarly coloured civic showstopper - FaulknerBrowns Architects’ Number One Riverside.

This 17,000m² building overlooking the opened-up River Roch houses council office space, a public library and a ‘customer-facing’ service centre. All this might well have been achieved for less than the £42.5 million price tag - even though the original budget had been nearer £50 million - and some argue it should have been, given the challenging economic climate. But the team behind the project had an ambitious shopping list of objectives.

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Their first goal was to bring Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council’s 1,700 employees, formerly scattered across 33 different buildings, under a single roof at Number One Riverside. The move, it is claimed, will save the council £28 million a year on the cost of maintaining its old building stock and a further £1 million a year in energy costs for the next 40 years.

Steve McIntyre, who led FaulknerBrowns’ team to victory in the competition for the project in 2009, admits the scheme was born out of a cost-cutting drive. He says: ‘It was conceived in a difficult time. But [what we have created] is not an austerity project. To build this in any climate, let alone in this economy, takes guts. It was a bold step driven by strong leadership. Everyone [client, contractor and architect] was singing from the same hymn sheet, even with respect to understanding the life-cycle costings.

‘At a time when services were being slashed, the council tackled the issue of cost-saving in a creative way and we’ve made the building’s assets work really hard.’

What has been achieved has certainly impressed other local authorities. Since completion, the building has been pored over by council officials from Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle.

The second aim was to bring the authority closer to the people it served. The council’s previous headquarters building, the 12-storey, soul-sapping and light-sucking ‘Black Box’ of the 1960s, which will now be demolished, was inaccessible, unwelcoming and universally disliked.

In contrast, the new building has a transparent facade and a five-storey, top-lit central street, housing the public functions on the ground floor. The plan is Zaha Hadid-lite: the open-sided atrium is flanked by two sinuous, Allen key-shaped blocks.

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Above, the space is criss-crossed by linkways and ‘weaving’ floorplates - allegedly inspired by textiles and a nod to the town’s industrial heritage. With only height and the glass balcony edge to separate them, the authority’s army of staff cannot escape the scrutiny of the good burghers of Rochdale who visit below, assisted and chaperoned by the ominous-sounding ‘floorwalkers’.

‘The building is first and foremost for customers, a focus for them to access public services,’ says the council’s director of economy and environment, Mark Widdup. ‘Since the move, footfall to both the library and customer services centre has increased significantly.’

A third aim was to promote flexible working: taking workers out of the office and instituting a hot-desking system would create even more savings on space. The fluid and sculptural floors feature open-plan workstations, breakout spaces, ad-hoc meeting spaces and ‘thinking pods’, which cantilever out from the facade.

Not all of these are as successful as others. The cylindrical, timber-clad meeting rooms with glass doors on both sides are somehow too light, and yet still pokey. They seem a tad clumsy compared with the dynamic corporate panache of the rest of the building. Indeed if there are misgivings about this new public servant, they are that it feels slightly too commercial.

A further goal for Number One Riverside was to create a building with a ‘timeless’ quality that could attract civic pride. As Widdup explains, the council wanted to lead from the front by putting down ‘a benchmark for others to follow’.

It is hard to disagree. The concrete work is pristine, details well-considered and well-made. The whole project has a bespoke, Continental feel - indeed the end elevations were fabricated by Loveld in Aalter, Belgium, and the GRC cladding panels started life in Austria, before being pre-assembled in Treviso, Italy.

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Roger Ellis, the council’s former chief executive, remembers early discussions about the brise-soleil. He says: ‘We were shown samples of a glass type which we could not see in the UK. The architect mentioned, jokingly, that it had been used very successfully on a public car park in Santa Monica. ‘As it happened, I was due to go on my family holiday to the West Coast of the USA. So, I spent one morning photographing a Californian car park. The team confirmed that they seemed to be what we needed.’

Perhaps the biggest effect of this stylish newcomer will be on the regeneration of Rochdale’s town centre. By building on the former Yelloways bus depot and a car park plot at the eastern terminus of the town’s main thoroughfare, the scheme is pulling a wave of redevelopment through to a new civic hub.

Now the Black Box can be flattened and the neighbouring car park and bus station can come down, too, to be replaced, it is hoped, by a long-awaited retail scheme.

An all-new combined bus and tram station designed by Aedas will open opposite the new council headquarters later this year.

Although McIntyre laughs at premature talk of a listing for Number One Riverside, he concedes it should still be standing and in use long after he has gone. And there is no reason why this flexible and unusually high-quality council building, like its robust and time-honoured civic neighbours, shouldn’t stand the test of time.

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