With Manchester building more skyscrapers than any other UK city outside London, could Ian Simpson’s ‘inverted cone’ concept help regulate the city’s transformation? Colin Marrs reports
Manchester is building more tall buildings than any other city in the country, outside the capital. Of the 45 tallest skyscrapers under construction in the UK, seven are in Manchester, with the rest in London. In Manchester city centre there are a further 10 or so towers of 30 storeys or more which have received, or are about to receive, planning.
Among them is Hodder + Partners’ contentious St Michael’s skyscraper for footballers-turned-developers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. The practice is currently putting the final touches on its design – a headline-grabbing replacement for a much-criticised twin tower scheme by Make.
But though the city has embraced high-rise living, the saga surrounding the project, with its centrepiece 134.5m-high tower close to Manchester’s Neo-gothic town hall, has prompted a lively debate about the city’s increasingly vertical skyline, and how to protect its Victorian core.
If you want the city to be seen as truly international then you have to have tall buildings there
The designs have prompted ‘Mr Skyscraper’ Ian Simpson to question where these high-rises should be built. As founding partner at SimpsonHaugh and Partners, responsible for some of the city’s highest towers including the 169m-tall Beetham Tower, it is perhaps surprising that Simpson believes Hodder’s scheme raises some hard questions about whether a new approach is needed to guide the assessment and location of skyscraper proposals.
What’s more, he has drawn up his own massing guidelines, which in essence set a higher threshold for anyone wanting to build tall within the city core.
His vision is of an imaginary ‘inverted cone’ which sees future skyscrapers clustered on the city fringe around the inner ring road. But how useful is the concept, how formalised could it be, and is there actually anything wrong with Manchester’s current planning approach?
Neville giggs tower cgi
Although the St Michael’s proposal is the catalyst, demographic pressures mean the debate goes much wider. The population of Manchester’s city centre ward grew from 6,975 in 2001 to 23,825 in 2016 according to the Office for National Statistics.
And the attraction of city-centre living shows no sign of waning, according to Simon Bedford, partner at property consultant Deloitte. ‘Last year, for the first time,’ he says, ‘the city became a net importer of graduates at the end of their studies.’
Contrary to popular belief, Manchester does have a tall buildings policy embedded in planning documents. But unlike some cities, including London’s traditional financial district, it does not define geographical clusters to which skyscraper construction is restricted. ‘Manchester city centre is the size of the City of London,’ says Simpson. ‘You can’t really zone it.’
Greg Jones, project lead on Child Graddon Lewis’s Trinity Island development, which includes one tower of 67 storeys, agrees: ‘There aren’t strategic views like those to St Paul’s Cathedral that have to be considered in Manchester.’
However, the city council’s core strategy for development, adopted in 2012, does provide pointers as to the areas of the city where tall buildings are considered acceptable. Suitable locations, it says, ‘will include sites within and immediately adjacent to the city centre with particular encouragement given to non-conservation areas and sites which can easily be served by public transport nodes’. Towers ‘will be supported’, it continues, if they are well-designed, contribute to sustainability and place-making and bring significant regeneration benefits.
Invertedcone looking east
On this last aim, the city council’s approach – one that has fuelled the city centre’s regeneration over the past 20 years – involves harnessing the opportunity tall buildings present to improve surrounding areas. ‘Usually the suggestion of a tall building is the catalysing proposition that makes people think: do we look in this zone a bit more cleverly,’ says Nick Lee, managing director at planning consultancy NJL Consulting.
A number of regeneration frameworks have emerged via this route, all of which create a suitable massing framework to guide building heights. In addition, the frameworks provide a ‘shopping list’ of benefits which developers will be expected to help pay for. ‘If you are going to go tall you have got to give something back,’ says Tim Groom, director at Tim Groom Architects.
For instance, a masterplan for the former Mayfield depot next to Piccadilly Station, to which Studio Egret West was appointed last year, is being shaped by a detailed 2013 framework document. It permits a number of tall buildings rising up to 50 storeys, but also requires the creation of a 2.2ha park, which it calls ‘the last opportunity in the city centre to provide a green space on this scale’.
But this approach can be messy, says Lee. The allocation of one site for tall buildings can create a new context for neighbouring land, making it easier to justify buildings next door. He points to the Great Jackson Street framework, revised in 2015 to allow much taller buildings. ‘[SimpsonHaugh’s] neighbouring Beetham Tower created a context in which it was easier to allow more tall buildings nearby,’ he says.
5plus angel meadow
In August, 5plus Architects won permission for a cluster of four buildings of up to 41 storeys close to Victoria station. The development was possible partially thanks to the 2015 extension of the North Manchester (NOMA) masterplan to incorporate land at Angel Meadow. The justification for the extension was to ‘better connect it to the further regeneration opportunity areas to the north’ – namely the emerging Northern Gateway development, on which Farrells was appointed masterplanner in November.
The incremental creep of skyscrapers on such out-of-centre sites does not lose Simpson too much sleep. ‘A ring of brownfield development is developing around the city core and that seems a natural place for growth,’ he says. However, his ‘inverted cone’ concept addresses concerns that issues of creep encouraged by the piecemeal, regeneration framework approach may be harmful within the Victorian city centre core.
Explaining his vision, Simpson says: ‘Imagine a cone rising from Albert Square to the periphery of the city centre. If you use some of the taller buildings built in the 1980s to help define the shape of the cone, then you can use it to demonstrate what would be suitable for all sites in the city centre.’
Only a couple of buildings now standing would poke through the cone, including Hodder’s proposal for Neville and Giggs. This leads Simpson to describe his cone as an ‘opportunity to do a crude assessment that puts existing perceptions of what is suitable into black and white’.
Ian simpson crop
The suggestion of a more strategic approach to the location of tall buildings is one that appeals to Catherine Dewar, North West planning director at Historic England – an organisation that took a strong stance against Make’s St Michael’s proposals.
‘We are not precious about tall buildings,’ she says. ‘We have objected to some but not to most others. We would rather a strategic approach was taken setting out where tall buildings can go and where we should be more careful. More guidance is better.’
Perhaps understandably, Hodder + Partners chairman Stephen Hodder is less enthusiastic about Simpson’s idea.
‘On the face of it, it seems a very simplistic way of establishing a tall buildings policy,’ he says. ‘The notion is interesting, but any evaluation of appropriateness or otherwise has to be generated from a much deeper consideration. This is one of the reasons the city has always put forward for not having a prescriptive policy.’
There is an issue about height, and at the moment we are just using guesswork guided by flattering CGIs
Dangers, he says, could arise from creating what he describes as a ‘necklace’ approach. ‘If you look at Sheffield or Birmingham, they recognise the richness of any city is about mixed use in the city core,’ Hodder says. ‘If you want the city to be seen as truly international then you have to have tall buildings there. Why consign homes or a major hotel to the periphery? It could lead to economic stagnation.’
Other doubts about the practicalities of keeping skyscrapers out of the city centre are raised by Gordon Tero, director at Stride Treglown’s Manchester office. ‘I can see some merits in having an overriding understanding of how the city moves forward,’ he says, ‘ but this seems to depart a bit from accepted ideas about animating city centres. If you push people out to the edge then are they going to want to walk 25 minutes to work each day? If you are not putting them right in the city centre then why not on a transport node a bit further out?’
Owen street towers, manchester simpsonhaugh
And echoing Hodder’s words, city council leader Richard Leese indicates that Simpson’s idea is unlikely to be taken up by his planners any time soon. ‘I think the notion of an inverted cone would be rather too simplistic,’ he says. ‘We have to distinguish between uses. It might work if all the buildings in the core of the city were residential but not if they are going to be commercial buildings. Commercial buildings are more likely to be situated close to the retail heart and major transport nodes.’
He adds: ‘If you put high rise around the edge, you can still be putting it next to large areas of low rise. That is not necessarily a bad thing but that context also has to be considered. The inverted cone would end up being over-prescriptive. Manchester’s city centre is not an enormous area and it requires a bit more flexibility.’
But how about just a blanket restriction on tall buildings? Why does the city need so many towers anyway? The driver for the boom in building upward is, it seems, down to cost.
‘It is easy to be cynical about viability studies but I have seen the figures,’ says Greg Jones. ‘The price you sell for in Manchester is not the same as in London, but the price of steel and glass is.’
Cgl trinity islands
Phil Doyle, director at 5plus Architects, says: ‘These are not all vanity projects – there is a big build cost that Manchester is dealing with.’
For Doyle, the issue of where the tall buildings go should not distract from what he says is the more pressing issue: their design.
‘We should be talking about how you generate a distinctly Mancunian type of tall building,’ he says. The Cheesegrater and the Gherkin in London have become icons – that is our challenge. How do we use our tall buildings to make the city feel unique?’
Simpson himself is less concerned about his inverted cone becoming planning policy than it providing a new yardstick for judging tower-block proposals.
‘These are just ideas that can be layered into our thinking,’ he says. ‘We all support development and I would support the St Michael’s scheme. I just think there is an issue about height, and at the moment we are just using guesswork guided by flattering CGIs.’
The reception to Hodder’s revised city core scheme, and whether – like London’s Gherkin – it helps create a precedent for others to follow – could ultimately dictate whether Simpson’s concept has any traction.
This article was first published in the AJ Architecture Awards issue