Ian Simpson Architects was established in Manchester 18 years ago, and works in the cultural, residential and commercial sectors. There are 50 members of staff in Manchester, and 15 in the London office, which opened eight years ago. Jefferson Sheard Architects was established in 1983, and has offices in London, Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh and the East Midlands.
The fact that the taxi driver had never heard of the Manchester Transport Interchange didn't bode well. He radioed in, but they didn't know it either. 'Drive around, ' said the crackly voice from the control room, 'and ask someone.' Fortunately, I had a map.
'It's all changed around here since the bomb, ' said the driver, wistfully. 'Everything is mostly glass now.' And as we drove past the mundane M&S, the anodyne Selfridges, the monstrous Urbis and the dated Arndale, I couldn't disagree with his astute architectural observation. In fact, I had come to see yet another of Manchester's glazed regeneration marvels. If only we could find it.
It was 7:30 on a freezing spring morning when I was eventually dropped off outside Rambo's body piercing shop (motto: 'fresh needles used for every client') and beside the derelict Manchester's Original Bookshop. Across the street was the building also known, but not to the city's cabbies, as the Manchester - or Shudehill - Transport Interchange. I had glimpsed it from Corporation Street on my magical mystery tour, and through the morning mist I had thought it was an office building; its green glass facades made iridescent by the brightly shining fluorescent tubes within. At close range, it looked slightly less appealing.
My initial impressions were that it is a building that is showy and coy at the same time, each sitting somewhat uncomfortably with the other. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that it had been designed by Ian Simpson Architects (up to stage C) and completed by Jefferson Sheard Architects. Its glass facades are dramatic and yet refuse to express its functionality.
Viewed across the main bus entrance, the external dark glazing patterns seem to mirror the style of the 1960s CIS tower beyond. Even without the 45-year-old comparison, I found it hard to believe that this was a new building at all, as it looked for all the world like a reclad concrete structure on a tight budget.
The building comprises an existing tram stop (upgraded and brought back into mainstream service by this project), a bus depot and a car park. In 1999, John Prescott announced that the next big thing would be investment in 'easy interchange through transport hubs'. To its credit, this interchange-cum-NCP car park didn't piggy-back off government cash. The concept predated the transport 10-year plan by five years, with the intent of linking private car transport with buses and trams; although this morning, there didn't seem to be many people interchanging.
'It's a bit quiet, ' admitted the station manager. 'There's not as many people using this place as we'd expected, ' he said as another six people dribbled off a bus and filed into the interchange, before walking straight out the other side and off towards High Street. 'People don't seem to want to walk up the hill to come here, especially if they only work a little bit further in, ' he sighed.
Perhaps things will change when the Arndale opens a new entrance/exit on the Shudehill corner, but until then, as a magnanimous gesture by the station staff, 'Way Out' signs have been placed at the entrance - to direct those passengers disembarking on the northern side, and going straight out to the south. The only multi-modal interchanging taking place seemed simply to be between public transport and pedestrian locomotion.
And people certainly weren't using the facilities as anything more than a shelter from the biting wind.
Maybe the passengers hadn't read the Greater Manchester Public Transport website, which lists the excellent facilities that these people were casually ignoring. 'Whether you just want to grab a quick snack at Pumpkin café, a newspaper from Arden News or sit and relax over a coffee at Café Ritazza - Shudehill Interchange has it all and more.' More? Yes, more: 'As well as offering travellers a safe and comfortable waiting environment, there's a Photo-Me booth, a cash machine, internet kiosks and a travel shop, where you can get impartial advice on local services.' Cancel the skiing holiday, Tarquin, it's too good to miss.
Quite simply, this building comprises a ramped access to a six-story, 777-bay car park above the bus station/interchange concourse, which is designed for 2,000 vehicular movements every day. It is effectively an island contained by the concrete busway, which in turn is encircled by a low concrete wall that continues around the perimeter of the main site. This wall is variously clad in brick (on edge, stacked, soldier course) and ceramic tiles (mosaic, coloured, staggered), and is far too busy and pretentious. On first impression, it's like an inside-out scheme for a public toilet, designed either by a committee or as a school project for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Breaks in the wall on the north and west are infilled with glass or mesh, providing glimpses through to the bus depot but no access, so you can watch your bus disappear without having any chance of stopping it.
Around the southern perimeter, a long finned canopy supported on concrete and steel columns links the tram stop to the interchange - providing precious little cover from the weather but unifying the two elements. While the main bus station and waiting areas have been designed with dark and light-grey steelwork and glazing bars, externally it is the green glass elevations that give the building its distinctiveness, predominantly because you don't expect a car park to look like this.
The 2.8m-high glass panels, of 5mm heat-strengthened outer plane laminated with 12mm toughened and heat-soaked inner plane, are fixed flush on the gable end but staggered in the vertical plane along the main elevations (see Working Detail, pages 36-37). Fixed directly onto exposed steel struts that, in turn, are face-fixed to the concrete structure, the supports are clearly visible and, in fact, protrude below the bottom edge of the lowest panel on the north elevation. The staggered glass panels allow airflow around the edges to maintain the necessary car park ventilation rates, as well as permitting light into each deck. While most car parks do not build in such encumbrances in the first place - allowing the free flow of air and natural light by omitting cladding and having the bays open to external air - architecturally, the glass was intended to add to the visual interest by displaying the colours of each parked car diffused through the glass to the outside.
The car park layout has been designed by structural engineer Hill Cannon, using their TRICON frame system and patented VCM (vertical circulation module) internal circulation system. The entrance - a circular ramp that takes drivers in at first-floor level - is built in situ but within the main building.
The TRICON reinforced prefabricated concrete framing system provided a fast-track construction programme. It also enabled remarkably slender structural deck and ramp sections. The first floor and upwards comprise independent columns, beams, floor slabs and stair cores with upstands and parapets, but the column pattern is not reflected on the ground floor, where massive concrete beams take the eccentric loads.
On each upper level, beams span from the edge to the central spine where they are spliced into the columns and held with reinforcement connector bars, providing a sculpted angular junction. The ribbed precast deck units sit on the beams with reinforcement bars tied into those along the top of the beam.
The gap is filled with in situ poured concrete. In this way, say the engineers, it 'provides the continuity of an in situ frame with precast components, without the need for complicated and costly techniques such as post-tensioning'. The fact that the precast units have been dried in the factory storage yards means there is no need for filled shrinkage joints between the precast units and the infill in situ concrete, leaving the space with a smooth, level surface.
The VCM system addresses the pedestrian usage of car parks and attempts to minimise the necessity for people to walk up car ramps, as is often the case in public car parks. This is done by making the centre the level crossover point for pedestrians, and having the deck rise or fall from this central location. In this way, one longitudinal half of the floor plate rises, the other half falls - effectively diverging from the centre - so that they are almost separated by a storey height at the ends. There is still a need for a ramp at each end, but it has a nominal rise since most of the storey height has been taken up in the falls in each car park deck.
The problem with this clever engineering ruse on this scheme is that because the slender concrete decks actually rise and fall along its length, but the external green glass has been designed to sit horizontally, the mismatch between the ambitions of the two elements jars. To a certain extent, if the cladding had not been translucent, maybe the optical illusion of badly aligned elements wouldn't have been so pronounced. As it is, it looks as if the concrete deck hasn't been laid correctly.
All in all, I was underwhelmed by this building's architecture - and even its ambitions. Admittedly, compared to the dated NCP car park to the south of the site, it's a fairly interesting building. But compared to any fairly interesting building, it's still just a glorified car park.
Credits Construction value £24 million Completion date January 2006 Client Greater Manchester Public Transport Executive Architects Ian Simpson Architects Jefferson Sheard Architects Employers representative GVA Grimley Structural engineer Faber Maunsell Services engineer Hoare Lea Quantity surveyor Gleeds Contractor Costain Subcontractors and suppliers Metalwork AMV Engineering; CDM Babtie Group;
M&E Axima Building Services; roofing Apex Direct Roofing; piling Bachy Soletanche; flooring Bramhall;
precast Britannia Stone; screeds James Cadman;
groundworks Cara, Wrenco; engineering Hill Cannon;
steelwork Caunton Engineering; fire blinds Coppers fi re and smoke; precast stairs Hanson Concrete Products;
rainscreen Coverite Specialist Contracting; roller shutter Crawford Amber; ironmongery Datim; screens Dorma;
fire doors Fendor Hansen; mesh cladding GKD UK;
signalling Manchester Engineering Design, car park glazing Mero; metalwork Matrix Stainless Steel, MSW Structural Floor Systems; joinery Nationwide Joinery Contractors; steel doors Northern Doors UK; curtain walling S G Aluminium; canopy glazing Solaglas; lifts Thyssen; tiling The Tiling Company; suspended ceilings Titan Ceilings; balustrading Turnquest