Blackpool’s glory days are well behind it, but AHR’s council building sets out to reverse the decline, writes Owen Pritchard. Photography by Daniel Hopkinson
‘We always felt that this building was a bit like a spaceship has landed,’ says Dominic Manfredi, a director at AHR architects, which has just completed offices for Blackpool Council. ‘The town is pretty run down. They wanted a game changer. This is the kickstarter.’
It’s clear that Manfredi and his client, have their work cut out. On a sunny Monday morning, just after the BBC crew for Strictly Come Dancing has packed up its kit and headed back to Manchester and London, the town feels empty. The Pleasure Beach is shut. The lights in the windows of the guesthouses and hotels flash ‘Vacancy’. Every pier is bolted. The tower is closed for maintenance. The pubs are empty and the trams smell of weed. Blackpool is enduring the hangover of the summer season, waiting to rouse itself when its lifeblood – coachloads of bingo-playing pensioners and pissed-up stag and hen parties – returns.
The problems run deep. The 2013 Centre for Social Justice report Turning the Tide: Social Justice in Five Seaside Towns identified Blackpool as one of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the country (AJ 15.08.13). The ghosts of its heyday are the once-grand hotels now plastered in vinyl signage offering rooms for £11 a night. The ballrooms are now nightclubs and karaoke bars offering cheap shots – less foxtrotting and more drunken twerking. The Grade II-listed Odeon cinema by Robert Bullivant now offers cabaret.
In recent years, a number of out-of-town architects and designers have been drafted in to build along the promenade: dRMM’s visitor centre-cum-wedding chapel-cum-bistro (AJ 13.09.12) is clad in garish gold; the £2.6 million Comedy Carpet by Gordon Young and Why Not Associates, unveiled in 2011, celebrates (or denigrates, depending on your point of view) the talent of those who plied their trade in the town during its glory years. Elsewhere there are bizarre sculptures and ‘interventions’, including a giant glitter ball called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by artist Michael Trainor. It certainly catches the eye.
How do you solve a problem like Blackpool?
So how do you solve a problem like Blackpool now all the lottery money has dried up? After its existing piecemeal attempts to sort out the promenade, the hard-up council isn’t going to get a Chipperfield gallery, as at Margate, or Folkestone’s triennale. The reality is that Blackpool’s problems stretch far beyond the seasonal malaise so evident on the day I visited.
Facing such a massive task, in terms of its social and urban struggle, the council has, quite rightly, decided to lead by example. Outside Blackpool North station, the town’s main terminal, a new development aims to act as a catalyst for urban renewal. Phase one of Talbot Gateway consists of a massive new Sainsbury’s, which has created 300 jobs, a refurbished multistorey car park, and the new council offices, which bring together seven departments previously scattered across the town.
AHR was appointed to design the building in 2008 after RTKL had drawn up a 10ha masterplan, approved by the council and Muse, the developer. After a drop in funding, an initial idea to create a new town hall was dropped in favour of retaining the public functions at the existing building. AHR was given a plot in which to create a flexible office space, housing 1,000 council workers.
The resulting four-storey building sits on prefabricated Y-shaped steel columns at ground floor. These, says the architect, are a nod to Blackpool’s key landmarks: the exposed structures of the tower; the piers and rollercoasters at the Pleasure Beach. The ground floor is given over to retail and a gym, the 900mm drop across the site allows for generous floor-to-ceiling heights in the internal shop spaces.
Inside, each floor is supported by a 15m clear-span structure with meeting rooms pushed up against the edge of the building so the activity within can animate the facade. The glass is fritted with a simple linear design to reduce the amount of light in the space and provide a degree of privacy for the staff.
AHR arranged the plan around the exterior of its assigned plot. As a consequence, the building has three facades, facing north, south-east and south-west, arranged around a deep central courtyard. The north facade faces the station and the architect has alternated the rhythm of the glass fritting to disrupt the monotony of the planar surface. The entrance is slightly recessed and the western side of the building is pulled forward slightly, to clearly designate where to enter. It’s a simple tactic that distinguishes the council building from the huge glass sweep that adorns the front of the adjacent supermarket.
The south-east and south-west facades are fitted with fins that taper up the side of the building to reduce solar gain and glare. The southernmost point of the building has a naturally ventilated double skin. AHR has used simple, well-tested techniques to articulate the facades, each of which works to make the council office a superior building to its neighbours.
The internal courtyard has seating for staff, and a subtly designated area for guide dogs to relieve themselves. The fritted glass remains a constant, but recycled glass panels cover ancillary areas. ‘There’s quite a lot of broken glass in Blackpool,’ says AHR’s Manfredi. ‘The council wanted to use entirely recycled glass, but it wasn’t possible.’
We stare out from the largest meeting room to the tower before us. Manfredi points out the buildings that are scheduled for demolition. A new four-star, 130-room hotel will sit in front of the council offices. The council is looking to borrow more than £10 million to fund it, but there are no images of what it might look like.
The first phase of Talbot Gateway may not be perfect but, of the three completed buildings, the council office is the best of the bunch. Most importantly, two of the three buildings have created jobs. Talbot Gateway is not a grand statement of intent by the council, but it is an entirely necessary one. For Blackpool, the really hard work has just started.