Allford Hall Monaghan Morris was set up by Simon Allford, Jonathan Hall, Paul Monaghan and Peter Morris in 1989 and now employs 34 architects at its office in London. Key projects include CASPAR in Birmingham (AJ 11.05.00), Walsall Bus Station (AJ 31.05.01), and Raines Court in London, all of which won RIBA Awards.
Can tall buildings be allowed in cities undergoing regeneration?
This question often arises in Europe, where market forces have to learn to live within the constraints of city-planning policies.
A consensus is emerging which protects monuments - implicitly defined as any stone-faced building over four-storeys tall that appears in photographs taken in the 1950s. This consensus suggests that tall buildings should be grouped together, preferably near a train station, and that only occasionally should one exceed a height of 30 storeys. What the consensus circumvents is any set of aesthetic architectural criteria that might be applied to tall buildings. It assumes that most towers will be ugly but that grouping ugly things together can magically achieve a titanic beauty. Contrast this with the New York zoning regulations that allow building within a virtual envelope which is defined by daylighting angles, or the Chicago regulations that are more to do with use and, according to a source, have never really been exceeded by any building there. Is there a logical flaw here?
Critics of globalisation, such as David Harvey or Frederic Jameson, argue that the similarity of all city skylines proves the power of capitalism to ignore local conditions in pursuit of profit.
Neither Harvey nor Jameson employs aesthetic criteria, which is a relief as one is a geographer and the other a literary critic. But in Europe tall buildings promise a return on land costs that offsets their high construction costs and, as in the case of the Unity building, can capitalise on land purchased over a decade ago.
In her book, Form Follows Finance, Carol Willis has persuasively argued that skyscrapers have a vernacular of their own, as befits any truly formal type. For American architect and 'father of Modernism' Louis Sullivan, skyscrapers should be based on the natural order demonstrated by the Classical column - each tall building should have a top (capital), a middle (the shaft) and a base. The vernacular in the North West of England appears to favour straight-up-and-down towers and towers with a slice:
Simpson's Manchester triangles merely formalise the nod to context that truncated stepping offers to insecure planners.
In Liverpool, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris offers both solutions in one project - the Unity building - which comprises one tower capped by a cantilevered penthouse pod, connected to a shorter tower that steps back three times in deference to the Thistle Hotel, formerly the Atlantic. The buildings are joined around a sun-trapping open space that is to be filled by a butterfly-friendly paradise designed by muf. Fortunately, this project sits beyond the hallowed penumbra of the Liver Building and adjacent to one of the most interesting streets in Liverpool - Old Hall Street - which is a kind of wild North West where planners have allowed surreal juxtapositions some freedom.
The Unity towers add to the emerging skyline of Liverpool, currently undergoing great urban regeneration. The building's penthouse pod identifies the city from the sandstone ridge and from the riverside highways. From some angles this tower appears to multiply into a series of yet smaller ones - a trick that I put down to clever use of the Terragni frame on the balconies. The parallax view is reinforced by the patterning of the facade. Different on each side and complex enough to defy easy decoding, the return of this kind of decoration makes the building hugely ambiguous. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has alighted on this territory before, but never with such confidence.
There is great ambition present in this scheme - the firm's first tower. It is possible that too much is crammed in - too many ideas - but it is, above all, a youthful building, its facade syncopated like a piece by the composer John Adams. These ideas are similar in some ways to the hospital facades that John Weeks built in Birmingham and Harrow, and are therefore traceable to those Fibonacci corridors at La Tourette which gather up the monks for prayer. But here at the Unity building they have an energy, like the pulsing overlays of John Adams' work, that is essentially happy.
The towers are commercial and residential, and the sectional clash between different oor levels just happens. The office building is framed and the residential building tunnel-form.
This makes the offices exible and the apartments inexible, but the tunnel-form construction might account for the penthouse - a tube set against the grain of the structure whose side windows are perhaps a little too surveyor-like in a nod to transparency.
My cut on the ambition is that this is a form of city block, thereby an implied model for future buildings and a miniature city. The blocks focus in plan upon the yet-to-be-made buttery garden, the stripes of the Thistle Hotel and the River Mersey.
Views out from every oor of the towers, whether by chance or design, are unexpected, and give a feeling of ownership over the city that the new urban bourgeoisie will pay six figures for.
Older Modernists will ask the question: 'Why not just one tower?' One riposte is the urban block, the way this scheme acknowledges it and the implied criticism of the tower on the podium - an idea that Bunshaft introduced with New York's Lever House in 1952. And why does the office building look like residential? Is this a contradiction of the type (in the Venturi sense) in that the stepped building with terraces is for offices while the tower with the knob on top is residential? If a building can ask questions, then Unity - named in homage to Le Corbusier's Marseilles block - might approach that condition. Whereas Le Corbusier's building demonstrated the potential of reinforced concrete left as it came from the mould, the Unity building's facade is a homage to the Building Regulations - a standardised skin made unusual by black panels protuding 15cm and a colour pattern that the architect claims was generated by 'chaos theory'.
The separate factors that made up the Unity project did not originally seem promising: a site owned for a considerable number of years which already had an outline permission designed by other architects; a wavering market not open to risks; and a Design and Build contract. The form of the contract particularly has limited Allford Hall Monaghan Morris' ability to control detail, and has led to some unhappy results in very public places.
Liverpool has still not made it into the league of cities which can demand high-quality detailing from its developers.
What makes it worse in this case is the fact that the North West Development Agency sponsored this scheme to the tune of several million pounds from the public purse, but has consistently failed to insist on high-quality design. This would seem to signify the agency's lack of respect for serious architecture, and unwillingness to seek any serious advice on the matter.
The Unity project stands as an emblem of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris' success within such a complex context. Of all the urban regeneration problems that Liverpool suffers from, none is more easily remedied than the quality of its architecture. The city has not won any architectural prizes since the early 1990s, yet there are cranes here - more construction projects are waiting to get under way than there is labour force to undertake them.
Fundamentally, Liverpool has to show that it has the will, the clients and the ability to import the architecture that will turn it into a city of culture, and the Unity project shows the way.
As built costs based on gross external area of commmercial and residential; 36,470m 2ENABLING WORKS £23.65/m 2SUBSTRUCTURE £130.37/m 2Contiguous piles forming retaining walls, column-base piles and ground-bearing slabs SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame and floors £195.80/m 2Office building: reinforced-concrete frame with post-tensioned 250mm-deep slabs; residential building: reinforced-concrete 'tunnel-form' frame Roofing and waterproofing £13.39/m 2Typically 'Decothane' membrane by Liquid Plastics, liquid applied directly to roof slab; inverted roof build-up with 120mm rigid insulation above slab and paving slab or pebble ballast; waterproofing of basement areas using a Fosroc liquid-applied membrane and blockwork lining Stairs £10.67/m 2Precast concrete stairs to office and common parts of residential building, with galvanised or powder-coated balustrades and stainless-steel handrails; prefabricated steel stairs within apartments clad with HW boards External walls, windows and doors £338.70/m 2Office building: aluminium 'stick-system' curtain walling, powder-coated finish; black powder-coated rainscreen panels add depth to facade; residential: aluminium rainscreen semiunitised cladding, powder-coated finish; low-level cladding:
glazed terracotta rainscreen panels Internal walls, windows and partitioning £52.91/m 2Typically either drylined concrete 'tunnel-form' walls or metal stud partitions (variety of specification types); painted blockwork walls to basement and ground-floor areas Internal doors £30.05/m 2Residential building: oak-veneered solid-core doorsets; office building: dark-grey melamine-veneered solid-core doorsets Bricks and blocks £7.11/m 2140mm medium-density block INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £38.09/m 2Ceramic 50 x 50mm mosaic tile to bathrooms and WCs;