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Manchester placemaker: Hodder + Partners’ Cambridge Street housing


A two-tower PRS housing scheme, part of Terry Farrell and Partners’ 2004 Macintosh Village Masterplan, creates a muscular landmark, writes Jay Merrick


Just what is it – to mimic the sardonic title of artist Richard Hamilton’s 1956 vision of ‘today’s homes’ – that makes today’s urban masterplans so different, so appealing? Is there something shared between Hamilton’s legendary Pop Art collage and Terry Farrell’s mid-noughties masterplan for the Macintosh Mills segment of south-central Manchester?

The masterplan was designed to create a new focal point-cum-gateway in the city to bolster the 214ha Oxford Road education corridor, 100m to the east, masterplanned simultaneously by John McAslan + Partners. 

Hamilton’s artwork includes a pumped-up Charles Atlas figure, a naked, seated woman with a lampshade on her head, a tin of ham, and various other consumer doodads. And there is, architecturally speaking, a collage vibe at the northern end of Cambridge Street, where Hodder + Partners’ PRS scheme sits.

The building has been carefully thought-out and well executed by the developer-contractor, Renaker. It’s the shrugging Atlas figure in Farrell’s placemaking collage, with taut, highly defined tectonic flesh that humbles the relatively flaccid architecture around it. Fifty metres to the east, Farrells’ 2005 10-storey Green Building sits on a svelte trapezoidal mixed-use podium and is topped with a cocked photovoltaic crown (see ‘lampshade’ above). That building’s circular structure is described by Farrells as ‘iconic’ – an utterly tiresome claim. 

Hodder’s building runs contrary to the generic Gadarene rush to create high rental value New Jerusalems, six-packed with buildings heralded as remarkable. For example, Denton Corker Marshall’s forthcoming 36-storey twin residential towers in the £1.35 billion St John’s redevelopment in Manchester are marketed as Nickel and Dime. Memo to DCM: in the USA, to be nickel and dimed is to be ruined by a continuous flow of small hidden charges. Furthermore, ‘the five and dime’ was the original nickname for Woolworths. What, in any case, have nickels and dimes to do with Britain, let alone Manchester? 

The 0.35ha site of Hodder’s Cambridge Street building is tightly collared on its north and east sides by a loop in the River Medlock. Just north of this squiggle of water is the railway viaduct leading to Oxford Road station; the decrepit ex-Dunlop India-rubber factory, whose brick chimney resembles a monumentally vulgar e-cigarette, sits on the western side of Cambridge Street; immediately south is the Grade II-listed Chorlton Mill, which now contains flats. A little further out to the east and west are two student accommodation buildings. 

The essential quality of Hodder’s in-situ concrete-framed architecture is concentrated in the way it has been skilfully demassed in plan and verticality, and in the details and modelling of external surfaces. Internally, judging from the one apartment I visited, the 282 accommodation units (rents starting at £1,200 a month) are pleasantly laid-out, with multiple outlooks. On the other hand, the double-height, main ground floor entrance lobby seems oddly compressed and rather narrow, as do the building’s corridors.

There are two towers. One rises 28 storeys from ground level on the southern corner of the site; the other 19 storeys, passing through a gated podium on the north-east side. The podium carries a small, dog-legged plaza from which the smaller tower is entered. The landscaping here, with obligatory water feature, is unremarkable, and it’s clear that the north-western third of this space – and the lower storeys of the  stepped-down portions of the towers – get very little sunlight from the south.

There is a strong sense of precision in details such as balcony railings and the way the projecting balcony pods meet the façades

This was clearly an unavoidable trade-off in the quest to produce a substantial building that is architecture rather than the kind of blunt, tricked-up vertical cash registers that supposedly deliver the ubiquitous ‘landmark gateway’ effect to inner-city redevelopments. That phrase was applied specifically to Hodder’s site in the Macintosh Mills masterplan. The building might be a landmark, but it is not a gateway in any sense – Cambridge Street runs north past it and immediately ducks right into Whitworth Street through a grungy arch in the railway viaduct, which divides two completely different types of townscape.   

Most of the practice’s formal and material design decisions are admirably rational. The white Wienerberger Corium brick tiles, with pale grey pointing on the façades, contrast satisfyingly with the weathered brick of the Victorian façades to the west and south. The tower heights vary in stepped segments. The cores are expressed externally in bronze powder-coated aluminium sheafs. Verticality is accentuated via two-storey slit-windows in the centres of the façades. Flush-fronted, two-storey balcony sets are deeply punched. Filing-cabinet-like balcony pods are stacked in runs. Details such as the substantial setbacks of the fenestration and aluminium spandrel panels are finely tuned. And there is a strong sense of precision in details such as balcony railings and the way the projecting balcony pods meet the façades.

The character and sophisticated composition of the architecture is almost retro-Modernist (in a good way) and, viewed from the east, it is practically Bauhausian. But in view of that, there is one significant feature that is debatable. The building’s relative clarity of modelling and surface is sliced by significant horizontal indents at seventh storey level in the main tower, and across the fifth storey in the other – and these indents are accentuated by cantilevered aluminium ledges. These in-out horizontals are meant to relate to Chorlton Mill’s cornices, and the height of the railway viaduct, but in both cases there is only an approximate horizontal match.

The indents do de-mass the building further, but the brise soleil-like cantilevers rankle; they appear over-expressive and unnecessary. The modelling and detailing of the building’s envelope radiates quite enough architectural confidence without needing this nervy extra fidget.

A small portion of Chorlton Mill houses the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The great 20th-century Mancunian novelist often looked randomly at dictionary pages to find word definitions that might trigger unexpected descriptions in his writing.

‘There’s a description of a hotel vestibule,’ Burgess explained by way of an example, ‘whose properties are derived from page 167 in RJ Wilkinson’s Malay-English dictionary. As most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re not doing anything naughty.’

I shall, in the spirit of meta-contextuality, defer to Burgess. The cantilevered ruffs on the Cambridge Street building seem arbitrary, but they are not horribly naughty. Nor do they disturb the salient fact that Hodder + Partners has delivered an estimable building in a city where architects must kneel before a totemic private rental sector that doesn’t know a nickel from a dime.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

0039 credit petercook

Project data

Start on site July 2014
Completion October 2016
Gross internal floor area 26,130m² (including basement car park)
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Hodder + Partners
Client CS Developments
Structural engineer Civic Engineers
M&E consultant Hilson Moran
Sustainability consultant Elements Sustainability
Landscape architect (pre-planning) Planit IE
Landscape architect (delivery) TPM
Fire engineer Jeremy Gardner Associates
Acoustic engineer Sandy Brown Associates
Approved building inspector Campagna
Main contractor Renaker Build
CAD software used Autodesk Revit 2015
Annual CO2 emission 23.1kg/m2
On-site energy generation Nil
Annual mains water consumption 32.26m3/occupant/year
Airtightness at 50pa 
Cambridge Street block 2.3m3/hr/m2
River Medlock block 2.4m3/hr/m2
Heating and hot water load
Cambridge Street block 38.4kWh/m2/yr
River Medlock block 39.4kWh/m2/yr
U-values wall 0.22W/m2K • window 1.5W/m2K • floor 0.13W/m2K • roof 0.11W/m2K

Architect’s view

Conceptually, the project’s apartments are disposed in two L-shaped towers, which sit on a landscaped podium, the latter of which responds to the meandering River Medlock, the scale of the adjoining Chorlton Mill and the adjacent railway viaduct. The towers are staggered in height to form a cluster, the tallest emphasising the Cambridge Street-River Street corner.  

The external walls are predominantly a white brick tile cladding, a response to Manchester’s urban structure in which key buildings are articulated materially by the use of Portland Stone. Below entrance datum level, the brick is grey, with a corresponding matching mortar, the intention being to visually ‘ground’ the buildings. The service cores are defined by bronze-coloured polyester powder-coated metal panels with horizontal profiled joints.  Window frames and spandrels, balcony cladding and handrails are likewise powder-coated bronze.

The towers are expressed as sculpted forms, with the main podium and tower elements separated from each other with recessive slots of vertical and horizontal glazing. Above the podium, the balconies are recessed to emphasise the elemental quality of each tower, while affording shelter for residents. Windows are recessed by a brick and a half, reflecting the deep reveals of the surrounding Victorian forebears. Within the podium, balconies project to give visual emphasis to corners.

Tom Goldthorpe, associate director, Hodder + Partners

Cambridge st river street block section

Engineer’s view

The building’s structure is a reinforced concrete flat slab frame with lateral stability provided by reinforced concrete stair and lift cores. A large part-basement, formed by contiguous piled retaining walls, provides two levels of car parking. A key technical challenge was the site location itself, and its constraints in comparison to the scale of the building and the proximity of construction to the site boundary. The site is naturally enclosed on two sides by the River Medlock, and by the neighbouring Chorlton Mill on the south boundary, resulting in access only being possible from one side. 

This required close co-ordination between the permanent and temporary works and attention to construction access and sequencing. We streamlined the process to perform both permanent and temporary works simultaneously where possible.

A wind tunnel analysis was undertaken to refine the applied lateral loads, resulting in a greater efficiency of the stability system of the towers. Further optimisation was achieved in the close co-ordination of the column grid of the superstructure with the two levels of basement car parking, avoiding any costly transfer structure without loss of car parking provision or encroachment on the apartment layouts.

Julian Broster, founding director, Civic Engineers

Balcony detail

Cambridge st detail

Cambridge st detail

The working detail is a section through a two-storey inset corner balcony. Alternate pairs of balconies rotate through 90° in a dovetail arrangement that maintains the legibility of the primary form from which these balconies have been subtracted.   

The rotation means that habitable accommodation occurs both above and below sections of inset balcony. This requires balcony slabs to be insulated as floors and roofs, as well as to mitigate thermal bridging through the projecting floor slab. Radmat’s vacuum-packed Quantam Protherm insulation was used to minimise insulation depths where balconies were forming the roof over an apartment below. The whole house ventilation system vents through the balcony soffit to avoid peppering the façade with grilles. 

The towers are clad with white Corium, a brick tile cladding system manufactured by Wienerberger. The purpose-made brick tiles clip into support rails that are fixed back to an infill steel framing system. The joints between tiles are pointed with a pump-applied, prebagged Parex Historic KL light-grey mortar mix. Corner tiles were preformed, rather than ‘cut and stuck’, to ensure a consistency of finish across the project. The fixings for the preformed corners are hand-applied in the factory, and Renaker worked closely with the manufacturer to ensure tile tolerances were sufficient to maintain the consistency of the joints elsewhere. The brick tile system proposed by Renaker provided a speedy and consistent quality across the façade, which achieves the desired intent of the development as an assembly of sculpted forms. 

Tom Goldthorpe, associate director, Hodder + Partners 

This building study was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy 


Readers' comments (2)

  • Memo to Author: Contact the marketing department

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  • Geoff Williams

    The danger of fire in high rise structures is always imminent although we like to think they are a rare occurrence. Fighting fire in congested City locations and fighting fires internally above 7 floors is a distinct hazard. Maintenance of the electrical supply is paramount. Experts in Germany maintain that up to 40% of fires Worldwide have an electrical cable origin. The use of a 2hour fire rated cable, preferably MICC, should be mandatory.
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