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IF THIS BUILDING IS A LIFE ACCESSORY, THEN MAYBE IT FITS THE BILL VERY WELL. IT IS CERTAINLY MORE ZIGGY STARDUST THAN TOVE JANSSON

MBLC / THE LOCK

MBLC is an established Manchester-based firm of architects and urban designers. Key projects include the Zion Arts Centre in Hulme; a headquarters building for Siemens; the Millennium Powerhouse multi-functional community centre in Moss Side; and the Royal Northern College of Music. The Lock is one of numerous housing projects that range from social housing through to luxury homes.

This building reflects many current trends and preoccupations and, precisely for that reason, raised more questions than answers in my mind about what living in our cities means and should mean. This building is for a certain type of living, represented by form rather than function, image rather than substance and glamour rather than instincts.

Set in the centre of Manchester amid a gritty buzz of development, it forms a wedge-shaped residential block fronting Whitworth Street and backing onto the Rochdale Canal. The site is densely packed, with 155 apartments on nine floors, above two floors of car parking and retail units. There are a variety of unit sizes, mostly small but with glamorous duplexes on the top. While more conventional neighbouring developments seem to comprise a single depth of dwelling looking onto the street to the front and the canal to the rear, this accommodation is arranged in two strips, facing across an atrium which is packed with architectural drama.

Like most English cities, Manchester does not have a tradition of inner-city apartment living. In this development, I was struck by an analogy with European cities - say Paris or Barcelona - with dense planning around a lightwell on the inside of the building. But the well here is not actually like the European ones that have their backyards and private spaces in which you glimpse drying, washing and slivers of other people's lives. Here it is the heart of the building and the primary circulation and, with access walkways running centrally down the atrium on each floor, it is very much the public domain. If, at some level, most of us need a degree of communal and separate living with delineated defensible space, does this new model meet these primitive and fundamental requirements? Few of the flats are occupied yet, so it has not been put to the test.

The flats are arranged with living rooms looking out onto the street and the canal, and bedrooms facing the atrium. In some of the latter, windows are of obscured glass blocks with small inset opening lights. These have a strange, ghostly, underwater feel, which might be attractive with a hangover and are preferable to others, that have full-height windows, some of which are two metres from the main circulation route and some of which abut it and the entranceways to dwellings. I was reminded of a student trip to Barcelona, when, chatting to my partner from the en suite bathroom, I found to my embarrassment that a friend could hear us all too clearly. Inhabitants will learn about this and presumably make adjustments for this intensity of habitation. Does this matter?

On one side of the atrium, the wall slopes from floor to ceiling, as do others in other parts of the building. This creates spatial drama and dynamics. On the other side of that wall are the bedrooms which are barely large enough to hold the necessary furniture. Presumably triangles of empty space will sit behind wardrobes and chests of drawers. Is this balance of form and function valid? Overall, does this building reflect the unacceptable face of developers' greed and a lack of understanding of fundamental human requirements, or is it a novel and imaginative response to market demands for struggling urbanites, who mostly live at work and want a crash pad with suite attached?

If this building is a life accessory, maybe it fits the bill very well. It is certainly more Ziggy Stardust than Tove Jansson.

The atrium has a 50mm-deep, 2m-wide strip of water running the length of the ground floor, reflecting low-level red fluorescent strips opposite piles of white stones, in which mounds covered in crumpled tinfoil (temporarily for a film set) were set, soon to be replaced with sedum. One is minded of an unearthly life - stone, water and vegetation, lit with coloured fluorescents in purple, pink and green. It is strangely, but not unpleasantly, calm, artificial and quite un-natural, although this alters a bit on the upper floors.

The cross walls of the flats are loadbearing, hence the ease with which partitions can be arranged non-orthogonally for the tapered section and other areas. The lightwell is spanned at roof level by curved steel beams, which carry a glazed canopy and from which the walkways are hung by means of delicate 40mmdiameter rods. This is the only part of the building of which Ruskin would have approved - but then this is now and that was then.

The atrium is not sealed at the top and the end wall above the entrance is open to the air, enclosed by utilitarian galvanised-steel panels holding an industrial steel mesh through which, on the upper floors, a hazy view of the city may be seen. At these upper levels, there is a pleasant sensation of contrast when stepping out of the lift, from the closed artificial interior to contact with the elements - at this time of year feeling a cold breeze and sunlight.

Generally, however, there is dislocation between inside and outside. The interior has a set-like quality. Walls are white-painted plasterboard; balustrades are flat grey or milky glass; lighting is concealed fluorescents or downlighters; floors are laminated-timber boarding and most balconies are only large enough for two.

Perhaps this truly reflects current aspirations for internal comfort.

In contrast to the starkness of the interior, a wide array of materials, forms and colours are liberally expressed on the outside of the building, much of which is undoubtedly photogenic and, incidentally, different on each elevation.

The building has a tripartite order. Onto the canal, the lowest four floors of apartments are set back 1,200mm or so for privacy from the slightly lower but abutting towpath and the gridded steel panels are used as balustrades again. Windows to the middle range of flats are grey, powder-coated, steel-framed, punched holes, mostly full height, in terracotta cladding. The top two floors are zinc clad, with grids of fenestration. This building jostles with strident big-gun neighbours along the canal.

The entrance is on the gable, defined by sloping concrete columns and a cantilever. The base to the entrance ramp and a freestanding portico at the top of the stair are faced with stone cladding. The entrance is further accentuated by a bright yellow panel at the top of the steel-gridded balustrade of steps and ramp.

The building steps out to a point as it turns the corner, in a monolithic slab of white render, which is then curved back to the terracotta cladding on the facade of the main thoroughfare.

On this facade, the as-yet empty retail units form the base, with a regular distribution of hole-in-wall windows above, with vivid orange glazed panels to balconies and the top two floors set back. The architect chose the white terracotta and orange of the balconies to reflect Mancunian building traditions. The orange glass represents brickwork and the tiles reflect the local building practice, well represented by the two-storey, early 20th-century Ritz building nestling next door. This is faced in faience, in broken bond, finely detailed around windows with implied lintels. This elevation lies to the uninformed eye about how it is built. Its new neighbour reflects current construction practice. The different elements, produced by different subcontractors, separated for manufacture as packages, can be clearly seen. The terracotta is hung in a straight bond, which says 'this is not loadbearing masonry, it is cladding'. It tells an aspect of the truth.

Reflecting on this and the parts of the building I liked best - the expressed roof structure, with natural light and the steel mesh and balustrading with clearly visible fixings - I wondered what makes some reality false and some falseness true. Because perhaps sometimes it is better if your eyes deceive you.

STRUCTURE

Paul McKay and Sandy Porter, Woolgar Hunter

Groups of 600mm-diameter bored castin situ concrete piles into rock sockets sustain the building loads and provide the solution to the difficult conditions on this former hydraulic power station site, with certain piles placed to avoid obstructions in the ground. A hard/soft secant-piled retaining wall, along the canal, provides a practical solution to the elevated position of the canal and deals with leakage experienced during construction. The two parallel blocks of accommodation consist of cellular in situ reinforced concrete about the central atrium. A system of full-storeyheight-deep beams form the party walls at 6.5m centres, dictating the structural grid and demarcating apartments. The floor plates consist of 225mm-deep one-way spanning slabs and form linked diaphragms, transmitting the lateral loads to the in situ lift cores at either end. Vertical loads within the loadbearing walls arch onto doublestorey-height columns, enabling efficient car parking within the basement and groundfl oor storeys. Access to the apartments is by way of suspended precast concrete walkways. The systems of tension-rod assemblies and socket connections are hung from plated feature beams, exposed to such an extent that they make a major contribution to the visual aspect of the atrium. A detail at the interface between the frame and the walkway facilitates lateral movements and allowed for construction tolerances. A key feature in this space is the series of fabricated roof beams spanning 10m across the atrium between adjacent blocks, with welded teardrop plates for the walkway hanging systems' pin connection, and providing primary support for the atrium glazing. The facades give a strong frontage, with cantilevered galvanised steelwork balconies fixed to the main structure through cast-in fixings. The main gable has 11m-high inclined cast-in situ concrete columns supporting an end bay of eight storeys.

Credits

Architect MBLC: George Mills, Mike Hitchmough, Steve Bradshaw, Ian Hicklin, Bryn Mainwaring, Mark Serventi, Oliver Schultz, Mandy Tsang, Debbie Harrington, Galli Wu, Tom Sheehan Structural engineer Woolgar Hunter M&E consultant Buro Happold Fire engineering Buro Happold Quantity surveyor Thomas and Adamson Landscape architect Landscape Projects Acoustic consultant BDP Acoustics Main contractor Mowlem Subcontractors and suppliers Joinery A& M Joinery; windows and curtain walling Anaco; steelwork Aspinalls; insulated render Astley; M&E installations Balfour Kilpatrick; fire-resisting glazing Baydale; zinc cladding and insulated cladding Carlton Building Services; underfloor heating Devi; glass blocks Luxcrete; dry lining Mansells; roofing Monoroof; lift installation Otis; rainscreen Richmond Cladding; stone cladding and paving Stone Central; roof membrane Alwitra ICB; plasterwork British Gypsum; cladding Creaton; insulation and cladding Kingspan; bricks Lancashire Brick and Tile; kitchens Moores Kitchens; roof vents Passivent; profiled roofing Plannja; joinery Powell Hardware; fireboards Promat; insulation Rockwool; carpets Tarket; render Weber SBD

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