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Ian Simpson: 'Manchester's skyscrapers are markers for ambition, pride and confidence'

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Ian Simpson says Manchester’s increasingly high-rise skyline will not be blighted by the ’mediocre and formulaic’ towers forced on London

Ask a child to draw a city and they will sketch a cluster of towers, surrounded by houses and fields: a high-density core sitting within the countryside. Cities are defined by their skyline. Manchester, the capital of the Northern Powerhouse, is surrounded by the greenery of the Pennines and the Peak District.

William Wylde painted Manchester in 1852 as a city of rising spires, ecclesiastical and industrial; 100 years or so later, most of these landmarks had disappeared. The city merged with suburbia, becoming indistinct and tired. The city centre was home to just 400 people, most of them caretakers, a few pubs and dingy nightclubs, empty buildings, derelict historic structures and horrendous traffic.

Bbc picture arndale centre after 1996 bomb

BBC picture arndale centre after 1996 bomb

Source: BBC

The Arndale Centre after the IRA bomb of 1996

A bus station was located on Cannon Street; a soulless internal-facing shopping mall had been dropped into the retail core with no relationship to the street and plastered in yellow tiles reminiscent of a public toilet; large surface car parks took up old bomb sites and the north/south divide stretched along Market Street. The picture was one of wealth to the south and poverty to the north, extending into Cheshire and Lancashire. A 9-to-5 culture of work and retreat to the suburbs, a place to escape from… that was Manchester at the end of May 1996.

The bombing of Manchester on 15 June 1996 created an opportunity for the city centre to reinvent itself and accelerate change, restoring confidence in it as a place to work, play and, in particular, live. There are now 20,000 people living in the city core and there is an ambition to increase that to 200,000. Through the reuse of brownfield sites, high-density, high-rise living can reinforce a sense of place, redefine the skyline and maintain the countryside.

The Beetham Tower is now 10 years old. It used to be the tallest residential building in Western Europe. A landmark and a recognisable silhouette, the building has stood as a solitary beacon throughout the recession. Over the next two or three years, Manchester will see a new cluster of residential towers breaking the skyline, ranging in height between 34 and 64 floors, marking the new neighbourhoods of St John’s and Great Jackson Street/Owen Street.

Manchester does not have a written tall buildings policy – it assesses each proposal on its own merits. Investment, job creation and new homes are embraced and welcomed by the city council. The planning emphasis is on ensuring quality of design, quality of place and deliverability. Building tall buildings in any provincial city is challenging; while the process is welcomed and rewarding, the constraints of cost and value are debilitating, allowing construction to only occur at the very crest of the economic cycle.

Beetham Tower


Source: Daniel Hopkinson

Beetham Tower

In London however, cost and value are not constraints to development but the process is invariably drawn out and often antagonistic, resulting in disaffection and frustration for all parties. The Beetham Tower took less than four years from inception through to completion, while our similarly scaled No 1 Blackfriars in London will have taken almost 16 years by the time it is complete.

The issue should not be about the principle of tall buildings in our cities but one of appropriateness and quality, and unfortunately many of the tall buildings currently proposed for London, for example, are both mediocre and formulaic. Tall buildings are part of the mix of building typologies required to meet the needs of a growing city such as Manchester. They are a highly sustainable use of brownfield land, they reinforce the city grain and act as markers for ambition, pride and confidence.

Tall buildings help to change the perception of a place and signal a city in transition, one embracing change and open for business. As architects, our role is to create beautiful buildings, public spaces and purposeful accommodation. We support and assist the city council in its competitive search for investment, jobs and people. We can help Manchester position itself positively for the 21st century.

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