THE HUGE UPSTAIRS WINDOWS GAZE DEFIANTLY ACROSS THE WASTELANDS TO THE CANAL
de Metz Forbes Knight, the practice formerly known as de Metz Architects, was established in 1996. It featured in the AJ/Corus '40 Under 40', and is made up of three partners who met while studying and worked for Moshe Safdie, Richard Rogers and Lifschutz Davidson. The firm has incorporated development into its work, buying properties and renovating them for rental.
During the past decade and a half, Manchester's regeneration has accelerated to make its city centre a frequently cited exemplar of British urban policy. Questions remain, however, as to whether the trickle-down urbanism to which it is host represents a sustainable urban future, most especially in social terms.
In the rather desolate doughnut of inner-city margins, more public investment is being devoted to problematic housing estates created in the wake of post-war slum clearance. As the latest demonstration of this policy, the redevelopment of the Cardroom Estate in east Manchester aims to remedy the scars of industrial squalor and post-industrial decline.
Urban Splash was commissioned by the Manchester Methodist Housing Association (MMHA) as lead developer to deliver a reinvigorated community, with a mixture of social and private housing, between the booming city centre and the Eastlands development initiated on the back of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The masterplan produced by Will Alsop in that year for the rebranded 'New Islington' promised a bright future of urban barns; an extended waterside landscape with a new canal arm; and the trappings of 21st-century city living. His vivid colour palette suggested a slightly forced optimism in the face of the serious problems of the area and the general greyness of the environment and climate.
Whatever the more theatrical aspects of the Alsop masterplan, the strategy of 'fingers' (of accommodation, landscape and water) was amenable to the plan being compartmentalised into separate packages, with different scales and housing types to be produced by different hands. The larger architectural components are yet to come, but the 24 houses produced by FAT at Islington Square and occupied in 2006 announced the rebranding of the area in a concise form, with the strong visual language of the diapered surface speaking of urban transformation in cheerily eclectic slang.
Against this latter-day Potemkinsche Stadt, the row of 14 houses at Guest Street by London-based de Metz Forbes Knight (dMFK) is an altogether more clipped and sober affair, though it too was developed for the MMHA. The architect had to reconcile the aspirations of the client, the residents (who will be the ultimate judge), and the highly image-conscious lead developer.
dMFK's practice philosophy includes a statement about materials that have a patina; that wear well and age gracefully. It hopes to design architecture that 'surpasses expectations'. Following its selection, a community consultation process was initiated, with the architect partners subdividing the residents into smaller, more intimate groups, where individual and family needs could be fully addressed. This design process was time-consuming and intensive, with the architect travelling to Manchester fortnightly for six months to meet with clients and end-users, but dMFK stresses the constructive and creative relationships that were established as a result. Julian de Metz describes Urban Splash as 'totally supportive and very respectful of the architecture', and the residents as 'a very understanding and thoughtful group of people'.
The architect leant initially towards a 'defensible space' courtyard scheme. However, in accordance with the New Islington masterplan, the preferred model was the terrace, which dMFK adapted through the variation of house type and the exploitation of the topography - the narrowing of the site in plan and the slight fall across the length of the plot.
This new terrace runs parallel to a surviving row of housing from the Cardroom Estate. As part of the broader landscape strategy, the new and existing housing will eventually share a wide communal garden immediately behind the individual back gardens, with their provision for in-curtilage parking (a stipulation of the 'Secure by Design' strategy produced in liaison with the local police).
Opposite the house fronts and their new street will be a public space bounded by a new canal-side block of private housing, another finger of the masterplan. The three parallel blocks - the existing housing, the new terrace of social housing and the future block of privately owned dwellings - therefore represent in microcosm the mix of housing which New Islington is intended to achieve when complete.
The terrace of 14 houses, which was supervised on site by dMFK partner Ben Knight, falls gently down the hill, tightly packed between the health centre, temporarily housed in a series of Portakabins, and the rather more substantial industrial relic of Stubbs Mill (which is to be refurbished by Ben Kelly Design).
Against the local grain, the frontage of the terrace is broken down into a series of brick blocks (two-storey in 12 of the 14 cases) which run perpendicular to the street and are slightly staggered in relation to one another.
This 'finger' cannot therefore really be described as a true terrace, as at both the front and rear the elevations are fractured, and interspersed with courtyards and gardens. A heightened sense of security means that the front doors and any opening windows are in the more private protected area of the courtyard, while the arrangement of the back gardens was dictated by the need for parking. The larger three-bedroom, family houses are sensibly situated at the Stubbs Mill end of the terrace, where the gardens are bigger.
Visual separation of each dwelling from its neighbour is articulated by a number of decisions in the stepped plan and the dividing courtyards, and also by the palette of four different brick types, the contrasting rendered surfaces, and the variation in colour of doors and window frames. As one approaches along either aspect, their presence evokes the cubic volumes of Mies' brick villas (which the architects have cited as an inuence), which is reinforced by the different types of brick. They reect the patina of the area, particularly the adjacent remains of Stubbs Mill against which they are silhouetted; the flat parapets of the houses contrasting with the saw-tooth roof of the empty mill.
Even more striking are the juxtapositions of form and scale. In among the vastness, detritus and demolition of New Islington, this tiny development brings an immediacy to the ambition of the masterplan. The huge upstairs windows gaze defiantly over the high temporary picket fence across the wastelands towards the canal. They are fixed, and treated almost as depictions of windows, square elements of void and reflection that increase the scale. There is little detail - no header, a minimal sill, a painted frame and a massive piece of glass - but it is these elements that tell the story of the houses and their aspirations, because the intention is to maximise the quantity of light.
This strategy also informs the internal planning, with the individual houses arranged as a sequence of T-shaped plans. The double-sided kitchen is at the centre, physically at the heart of the home, in the leg of the T. Typically the dining room occupies the slightly smaller arm at the front of the house, with the living room at the other, quieter end. All these spaces surround the stairs and bathrooms, and the relationship between them is flexible since screens can be pulled across to vary privacy. The ground floor of all the houses is relatively similar. The single-storey houses, with their lack of stairs, have a slightly different organisation, but with two storeys available, the two-bedroom homes have a roof terrace above the kitchen instead of the third bedroom.
dMFK says that it is 'sick of brutal and unresponding houses' and wants its development to be 'honest and strong'. Julian de Metz talks with enthusiasm about the process and the eventual product. He is naturally concerned about the position of the alarm boxes, which are, contrary to his direction, in the middle of the fronts rather than on the other available surfaces. However, these are just elements of occupation. If architecture is to be honest, appropriate and beautiful, it must also be able to withstand the attrition of human occupation. As yet, the courtyards are still empty, and the planters along the street have not been installed, but neither have the residents been in occupation long; indeed, some were still moving furniture in during our visit.
The self-effacement and modesty represented by Guest Street suggests a sustainable model, both in terms of the material quality of the building and the urbane common sense of its simple form. Through the architect's sensitive use of typology, variation and difference, the traditional strength of the terrace and the contextualism it implies are employed for their most important purpose - allowing the residents to create the public face of their homes rather than imposing an image. The strongly defined integrity of the framework provided by dMFK has a boldness that far exceeds the limits of site and budget.
SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £135/m 2Combination of traditional strip footing and cfa piles; precastconcrete suspended ground floor SUPERSTRUCTURE Upper floors £17/m 2Softwood timber joists with plywood decking; acoustic flooring Roof £105/m 2Timber roof structure; plywood decking; Kingspan insulation; single-ply membrane; sedum roof finish; aluminium rainwater goods; ManSafe safety system Staircases £10/m 2Timber stairs and handrailing External walls £207/m 2Masonry cavity walls; inner-leaf concrete blockwork;
Rockwool full-fill cavity; outer-leaf combination of various bricks, Vincent timber shingles and Alumasc render;