Jonathan Schofield likes the new Deansgate giant but is it off the peg?
Smashing the 700ft ceiling
Remember when we thought Beetham Tower was tall at 169m (554ft)? Then we thought South Tower at Deansgate Square was huge at 201m (659ft). Surely that was the limit in Manchester?
No one architect has dominated a city since Wren with his London churches 300 years ago
Not a bit of it, other leviathans are planned or under construction, including a 213m (699ft) monster adjacent to Deansgate Square in Crown Square, called Lighthouse.
Now Salboy are building a near neighbour of Beetham Tower that will out-Goliath even Lighthouse. This is Viadux Phase Two and will have 76-storeys and jump to around 230m (750ft) to be among possibly the top five tallest towers in the country.
It may climb even higher, as it all depends on how high public and communal areas are arranged. That view from the moors into the city will look even more striking if it goes ahead.
The Jack and the Beanstalk model of development
There will be two new towers on the site. Viadux Phase Two will contain in its 76-storeys around 780 flats, while a relatively smaller tower, Viadux Phase Three, will be of 23-storeys and sit awkwardly between the almost completed Viadux Phase One and Beetham Tower. It will have 130 flats described in that rather nebulous way as ‘affordable’.
There will be some commercial space and a new public realm. The latter to the east at Albion Street will be very welcome. With all those towers it will no doubt be a lot more blowy around Castlefield/Deansgate Station although Salboy say there will be mitigations modelled on a study of 'the microclimate'.
This is all a far cry from the initial proposals for Salboy’s Viadux project after they’d taken over the development site from Ask Real Estate. Originally the site was earmarked for an office block 61-storeys shorter than the new plan at just 15-storeys. This is the Jack and the Beanstalk model of city development
The former railway viaduct acts as a sort of podium for the three towers. More of the cavernous viaduct along Great Bridgewater Street will be demolished which will bring light to what is a gloomy litter-strewn tunnel. The demolition will enable people to look into the vaulted nineteenth century commercial spaces on the south side which is already starting to shape up handsomely.
As for the neighbours of Viadux, well, Axis Tower, with its big screen, will look like a small boy carrying an illuminated iPad and being taken for a walk by its 76-storey neighbour. Beetham Tower will look properly grumpy, for a decade it ruled the Manchester skies, now it's just a tower with clamps holding its windows in place. In high winds we'll hearing it moaning its lost status.
The smallest tower in the plans below, the one with 'affordable homes' seems far too close to Beetham Tower. Helpfully it has been designed to 'sit beneath the Beetham Tower Cloud 23 bar, ensuring that views from the residential apartments above are uninterrupted.' Sweet. Isn't that where Ian Simpson lives of SimpsonHaugh?
A dominant and single architectural vision?
So, who are the architects I hear you cry.
Why, SimpsonHaugh of course, didn't you guess? And Deloitte is the planning consultant. With towers in the south of the city centre you could repeat that mantra with your eyes closed each time you hear a proposal has come through.
If all the SimpsonHaugh proposals for a great curve of the city from the banks of the Irwell sweeping round through Deansgate Square to Viadux Phase Two are constructed than this part of the city will boast ten towers that are the tallest ten towers in the UK outside London presently: all have ‘SimpsonHaugh as the design practice and Deloitte as the planning consultant’.
There is nothing wrong with the designs of SimpsonHaugh’s towers of course, they deliver elegant profiles, catch the light wonderfully and they chat to the ground levels politely enough, Victoria Tower especially so. SimpsonHaugh are clearly a safe pair of hands, they deliver and they’re a business, so why wouldn't they take the work?
Yet, there's a nag in the back of the mind: is it healthy to have such dominant city structures all flowing from the vision of a single architectural practice?
Is there another city anywhere where one firm dominates the skyline as completely as SimpsonHaugh? There certainly isn’t in Britain.
The last time this happened was probably in London with Christopher Wren’s church spires and towers three hundred years ago. There's a difference though, history tells us those churches were going to be inevitably overtaken on the skyline by other designs in subsequent generations. Given the scale of the SimpsonHaugh towers in Manchester this seems unlikely here.
I'll see you and raise you
One architectural firm, two developers.
There are lots of fine developers in Manchester as there are lots of fine architects but there seem to be two engaged in a race to the top, almost as a competition, Renaker Build and Salboy. Renaker is way ahead at the moment with Deansgate Square and the Greengate Cluster in Salford but Salboy are beginning to make an impression.
Viadux Phase One is 136m (446ft) and the St Michael’s development is taking shape which will include the W Hotel & Residences at 144m (443ft). If everything goes well Viadux Phase Two will snatch the title of the 'King of Manchester Towers' for Salboy and Fred Done.
May we expect Renaker to announce in the not too distant future a tower of 90 storeys?
Your move Mr Whittaker.
Let’s see who’s got the biggest.
Site context: horse has bolted in Manchester
It's fashionable to talk about context with new developments. Buildings should respect their site, its history and its place within the nearby area while also taking heed of its older neighbours.
In Manchester with towers that debate was lost years ago, especially in these southern central areas. The culmination of this disregard for what was next-door came with the crazy proposal in 2021 for a 26-storey tower jumping all over a 220-year-old listed pub, the Briton’s Protection, in a site very close to Viadux.
With a stretch of credibility and a leap of the imagination you might say the 76-storey Viadux does reflect earlier glazing styles in the city.
The promo material says: ‘The building will create an elegant silhouette. The inclined faces of the façade will catch light differently, creating a dynamic response to changes in light conditions resulting from the time of day/year, weather conditions or viewer’s perspective.’ This is a trick the Deansgate Square towers already perform well.
That stepped glazing recalls buildings such as the demolished York House by Harry S Fairhurst from 1911 and pointlessly demolished in 1974 (the site is still a surface car park). That gorgeously functional design was to help light get into a textile warehouse down a narrow street rather than as a feature to show-off. There are still a few examples around the city.
Of course the Viadux Phase Two doesn't lean back like York House because the one is residential and the other was commercial.
I told you it was a stretch. A real stretch.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of the Viadux design, as can be seen with the Phase One building, is the way the cat’s cradle of Y-trusses lift the buildings over the existing brick viaducts and also engage with terra firma through the mighty railway arches. That species of 21st century powerhouse civil engineering reflects the epic nature of Victorian railway engineering. It's really good to see. This has become part of the style palette for SimpsonHaugh starting with No1 Deansgate in 2002.
SimpsonHaugh inspiring SimpsonHaugh?
The proposed design of the Viadux Phase Two seemed familiar. A friend reminded me of another SimpsonHaugh project from fifteen years ago.
This was for the 36-storey Dollar Bay scheme in Canary Wharf.
The resemblance on the main elevations is uncanny between the two projects with the in-and-out aspect of the glass walls.
There are clear differences, of course, especially with the way the two buildings hit the ground, and, after all, both are glass towers which might imply a certain degree of automatic relationship but there is much about them that carries an identikit feel. Indeed an image is used of the facade of Dollar Bay in the Manchester consultation document to show how our tower might look.
It's almost as if the massive new Manchester tower seems to have been hooked off the peg from the SimpsonHaugh one-stop shop.
Is that good enough for Manchester. Does it represent the city's individuality? We're back to context, or rather it's irrelevance. We're reaching back to the International Modern movement here in some ways. Viadux Phase Two is saying it could be in London, Manchester, Sunderland, Dubai and the location doesn't matter.
What do they say about variety?
The Manchester design will be much much taller and more elegant than Dollar Bay. It will be much taller than anything else around it. In five or so years Manchester will have a higher average skyline than almost all European cities, away from some capitals and financial centres.
Last summer I was at Beeston Castle 31 miles away as the crow flies. I was looking north east and the sun suddenly flashed off a structure in the distance. I squinted to focus and realised I was looking at the towers of Deansgate Square glistening in the late afternoon light.
If Viadux Phase Two is delivered Manchester's dominance of the regional landscape will be reinforced. More towers are planned. As with so many people and commentators I like them, although the rate of construction and the glass wall design of so many might play havoc with the city's 2038 zero carbon commitment.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that on purely aesthetic grounds it would be good if there were more architects with other ideas involved. And more than two developers ruling the skyscraper roost.
What do people say about variety? They say variety is the spice of life.
You can read the full consultation document here with a feedback form. There's a drop-in consultation on Monday 4 December 2023 at 4pm to 7pm in 53two, Arch 19 Watson St, Manchester, M3 4LP.
Otherwise the consultation on the proposals for Viadux Phase Two will be open from Monday 27 November to Friday 22 December 2023. You can also email: email@example.com
'Once the consultation has closed, the project team will consider all of the feedback received before finalising the proposals and submitting a planning application next year. Subject to planning approval, we are looking to start work on the site in 2024.'
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