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One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

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James Mclachlan finds a big building overshadowing its rivals when it comes to placemaking

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • FIT-OUT STRATEGY • RELATED PROJECTS IN THE AJ BUILDINGS LIBRARY

There are ghosts in St Peter’s Square. It was here, in the heart of Manchester, that one of the most dramatic and bloody steps towards universal suffrage was taken. The 1819 Peterloo massacre began as a demonstration for democratic rights but descended into chaos after the British Cavalry charged the crowd, many of whom were army veterans who had fought at Waterloo four years previously.

Today, the sole acknowledgement of this watershed moment is a blue plaque on the side of the nearby Radisson Hotel. More prominent is Edwin Lutyens’ politically mute (and therefore safer) Manchester Cenotaph, but this has shifted location slightly as part of the square’s £180 million overhaul, which is pedestrianising the current tangle of roads and tramlines. Lutyens’ solemn monument has been uprooted from its spot facing Manchester Central Library to sit outside the town hall extension.

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

The western facade tracks the curve of Oxford Street

More significant to the city’s immediate fortunes is the plan’s catalyst – a £50 million speculative office development designed by Glenn Howells Architects and funded by a joint venture between Argent and the Greater Manchester Property Venture Fund. One St Peter’s Square is twice as high as Elizabeth House, the 1960s office it replaces. Project architect Davinder Bansal says the target audience is international business relocating from the capital, though the fact that a number of long leases in Manchester were ending (including DLA Piper and KPMG, both of whom have moved in) was no accident. Argent’s research is nothing if not thorough.

Given that it faces the Neo-classical Central Library and Grade-II listed town hall extension, the building needed to perform the role of a landmark civic scheme with a gravitas not normally required from a speculative office. So, has the practice succeeded in elevating this by-the-numbers typology into something fittingly grand? For the most part, yes. Wisely taking cues from the nearby assemblage of Neo-classical, Gothic revivalism and Edwardian Baroque, Howells opted for a Classical tripartite hierarchical structure. The building begins with a ground-floor triple-height colonnade, continues with a regimented mid-section and finishes with a glass box on top that references the lead mansard roof of the town hall extension.

A major concern was that the building should define the public space it edges

In material terms, ‘civic’ generally translates as stone or, in this case, reconstituted stone – 8m precast slabs of which clad the building’s concrete frame. It is an architectural sleight of hand. The material, concocted to order from concrete and aggregate, then sandblasted to reveal the texture, has the necessary heft to convey longevity but is more flexible and less expensive than traditional masonry. Howells has deployed it skillfully, creating double-height windows with deep reveals and chamfered edges to coax in as much natural light as possible while shielding from the sun. Each pilaster is 600mm wide and sits on a strict 3m structural grid. Razor-thin steel mullions intersperse the triple-height glazing on the top three floors at 750mm intervals, lending the building a strong vertical presence.

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

Sketch of scheme

Bansal says a major concern was that the building should help define the public space it edges, and the impressive colonnade does successfully blend into the square. Running the boundary of the old building, it is a significant concession to the city. Similarly, the western facade tracks the gentle crescent of Oxford Street, framing the Central Library, and is the building’s best moment. In keeping to its rigid format, however, the north-west return, which juts out 600mm, betrays the building’s componential nature. Bansal explains that this move was adopted to avoid a squared-off ‘goalpost’ effect. Howells sliced off the corner where Oxford Street and George Street meet to establish a clear entrance for the ground-floor Fumo restaurant. However, there is no escaping that this is a big, big building. It transpires that during the design process Howells and Argent discovered the site was originally populated by low-rise townhouses. Consequently, the arrival of the Midlands Hotel in 1903 followed by the library and town hall extension in the 1930s must have been equally controversial, and One St Peter’s Square’s 14-storey mass equates to a type of progression. Manchester’s planning department and English Heritage bought the argument, but if one follows the same logic the next building could feasibly be even bigger. One would hope not, as Howells’ effort feels as though it may overwhelm its venerable neighbours. Nevertheless, Argent was so confident about filling its 25,000m2 space that it began on site with only 22 per cent of the building pre-let. The anchor tenant, KPMG, has taken the top four floors.

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

Main reception

Inside, it is easy to identify where the money went, with limestone columns, Portuguese granite floors and rich walnut panelling conveying a high-quality building. But despite this, the architect has strained to avoid an intimidating experience. Positioning the reception desk far to the left of the entrance, for example, created an acquiescent space allowing the main stair to become the focal point, perfectly aligned with the Central Library’s portico. According to Bansal, the practice was trying to imbue the space with the same welcoming feeling as London’s Royal Festival Hall. Adjacent to the reception, the words ‘Live the Life that you Imagine’ are emblazoned in shiny, layered acrylic. Another piece by the lifts says ‘Dream after Dream’. They are artworks by Mark Titchner, quoting Henry David Thoreau and a Peterloo pamphleteer, but ironically serve equally well as corporate boosterisms.

KPMG moved in early this year and its offices are off limits, so we head to the untenanted ninth floor. It is first-class, flexible office space. At 3.8m the ceilings are generous and the floorplate can be sub-divided into four parts off the central core if needed with either chilled beams or a traditional suspended ceiling depending on your preference. Even on an overcast day, the office space is wonderfully bright thanks to the size of the windows. From this vantage point the domed roof of the Central Library can be fully appreciated and therein lies the rub. Although both architect and developer have made what feels like a genuine attempt to revive one of Manchester’s most pivotal and overlooked public spaces, their building casts a shadow over it.

On a deeper level, however, One St Peter’s calls into question whether cities should demand more from speculative office buildings. Typically, they go up in a jiffy and are subject to too little scrutiny of how they contribute to placemaking. In this regard at least, One St Peter’s Square is ahead of the curve.

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

Ground floor plan

The brief

The brief was to redevelop this extremely restricted, historically sensitive site to deliver high quality Grade A workspace within a building of significant architectural merit. It needed to address the challenges of the local context while also offering large open-plan accommodation that allowed flexibility and adaptability for either a single occupier or multiple tenants.

The building was required to respect the principles of sustainable development and achieve a BREEAM ‘excellent’ rating. There was also a desire to create a ground floor that would provide a vibrant mix of uses in addition to the workspace, helping to establish a strong dialogue with the civic square and Manchester’s best new business address.

Davinder Bansal, director, Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

Section AA

Architect’s view

One St Peter’s Square acts as a catalyst for the ongoing transformation of St Peter’s Square, which will see the public areas liberated of traffic, decluttered and opened up to create a generous urban setting. The new square will provide an exemplary setting for the family of civic buildings, which comprises the revival of the Manchester Town Hall extension, the Central Library and Library Walk. It was vital that this project built upon and reinforced the character of St Peter’s Square, forming part of a cohesive urban composition within central Manchester.

The design of One St Peter’s Square is a contemporary take on its historic setting. Standing at 14 storeys, this civic-scale office building is shaped to frame views of the Central Library while deep reveals within the vertically proportioned, recon stone facade echo the surrounding aesthetic. It is also environmentally efficient and this was achieved by developing an intelligent and responsive facade that varies depending on its solar orientation.

It was the desire to create a building that would stand the test of time – a modern classic – and an intention to deliver a ground floor that provided a vibrant mix of uses, with cultural space for exhibitions, and was also an open, civic space for its users and the general public.

Inside, large open-plan offices are bathed in natural light and enjoy generous ceiling heights throughout, offering a sense of additional space. This Grade A BREEAM ‘excellent’ office is not only sustainable, its interior spaces are designed to allow flexibility and adaptability to provide accommodation for either a single occupier or multiple tenants.

One St Peter’s Square is designed to offer quality, gravitas and permanence to its occupiers and the wider city. It stands tall through the quality of its design, in the heart of the city centre, setting the standard for new office buildings.

Davinder Bansal, director, Glenn Howells Architects

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

One St Peter’s Square by Glenn Howells

Fit-out strategy

The six-year design and consultation process with global professional services supplier KPMG culminated in the move to the ID:SR-designed offices in January 2015. Working with KPMG, we carried out a rigorous due diligence and building selection process. This reconfigured the base-build offer and realigned structural columns to provide an efficient, future-proofed floor plate.

The 6,500m2 fit-out is one of the largest to be completed in the region and marked a sea change in KPMG’s working environment, embracing its ‘Cutting Through Complexity’ strapline. The activity-driven design provides a range of work settings and flexible spaces, which break down hierarchies and create a cohesive working environment, accommodating mobile working styles.

The dedicated client reception, with adjacent restaurant and café space, provides a breadth of working environments and creates a multifunctional space that can be opened up for corporate events on the terrace.

Typical floors have video conference and project rooms as well as non-bookable pods, which provide the flexibility required for a business with a maximum occupancy of 52 per cent at any one time. The shared desking with adjacent lockers allows staff from other offices to work in a seamless integrated way in an environment designed to retain and attract the brightest staff in the region.

Andrew German, director of practice, Sheppard Robson, on the design of KMPG’s offices at St Peter’s Square,carried out by the practice’s interior design group ID:SR

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  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • Beautiful concept sketch, a grate pity that the building doubled in scale with respect to the same.

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  • It looks as if the designer has symbolised the developer's push for maximum floor space by exploiting the apparent weakness of the planning authority and extruding three more floors out of the top of this building, literally 'lifting the lid' on it.
    These architects are capable of much better than this.

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