Forthright designer Jon Matthews talks about the building people love or loathe

There are always a few of these in any city, in any age.

When Manchester’s Town Hall Extension neared completion in 1938, one commentator called it ‘a million-pound waste of money’. Now, many people think of it as one of the great twentieth century buildings of the city. 

Modern architects and commentators take themselves far too seriously, I’ve seen some of the negative comments online and you’d think the sky had fallen in

JMA’s Axis tower, on the corner of Albion Street and Whitworth Street West, is just such a building. Everybody’s got an opinion on the thing, and at 305ft with 28 floors, you can’t blame them. It occupies a prominent position on the main road in and out of the city centre from the airport, behind the nationally familiar Manchester Central, and close to the Bridgewater Hall.

Anybody visiting HOME arts centre can’t miss it. Even those famous architectural critics grabbing 2 for 1 deals at Deansgate Locks have probably noticed it, in their peripheral vision.

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Diagonals and height: Axis in the sunshine

We like  Axis with its 168, one, two, three bedroom apartments. Others really, really can't stand it. A typical comment came with a Twitter spat we had. One Alex Rich saying: ‘For me, it’s hideous. The colour scheme is vile and don’t get me started on that advertising screen. The Deansgate Square development looks phenomenal but Axis is a real blight on the surrounding area.’ There were many more of the same angry ilk in that exchange.

Let’s deal with the location first. 

Here’s Jon Matthews, of JMA, and the designer of the building. He says: “Most sites have some sort of immediate context to bounce off. With this bonkers location, only one building typology would work and that’s a tall building. The building is intentionally provocative - it has to be on that site.”

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A tram, Axis, that screen, and Deansgate Square behind

Matthews is here referring to the tiny patch of land the building occupies and how it has had to be cantilevered over Rochdale Canal to create its own room. 

“I think,” the Bolton lad continues, “cities can take one or two buildings like Axis when they occupy a specific vista, public square or highly visible site. At the same time, Axis is a reflection of the personality of the client, and the team who designed it. 

"The brief was to design a unique building. I have to say, I chuckled to myself when I realised it was actually getting built as we knew the building would divide opinion. Different sites need different solutions. So for example, we designed 10-12 Whitworth Street as a cool piece of modernism. Whitworth Street is a different building on a different site with a different brief, so the building is different.”

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Axis, at the lower left, from Deansgate Square

The facades, with their diagonals, buff/bronze colour scheme including the odd dash of pink, not to mention the advertising screen to the north east, have especially irritated some people. 

Matthews is unrepentant.

“It’s an expensive building both in engineering and detail,” he says. “The angled cladding was chosen because we were bored with regular up and down modular systems. We wanted the facade to fizz and to defy convention. It’s fun and confident and, I think, Mancunian.” 

He follows that with, “Modern architects and commentators take themselves far too seriously, I’ve seen some of the negative comments online and you’d think the sky had fallen in. It seems some people just don’t like change, progress and tellies on buildings. I’m pleased the building is generating opinion. The advertising screen on the back has become a local landmark and we are really proud of the way the building has turned out. It’s been delivered exactly to the planning drawings and to the details that we supplied to Russell Construction.”

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Axis, graceful and powerful from Rochdale Canal

Matthews invites people to look more closely.

“If you actually step back,” he says, “and look at the detail, the joints on the soffits, the prefabricated corner cladding pieces, no visible fixings, the quality of the concrete, the parallel opening vents, the structural integrity, its tripartite separation of bottom, middle and top, you might discover a building of remarkable sophistication. The colour and texture of the envelope is spot on.”

He concludes equally confidently, “it was just what we hoped for after months of mock-ups and samples, and a fourteen-year delivery plan.” 

You have got to love Matthews for his certainty, and therefore clarity, about his design. In an age of mealy-mouthed dithering and worrying about doing the right thing, with all the attendant sickly virtue signalling, his forthright rebuffal of critics is refreshing. 

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A weak tower at the other end of Manchester Central from Axis: Great Northern Tower from 2004

We think he's right in what he says.

One of the most relentless criticisms levelled at Manchester’s new tall buildings is they are boring. In fact, the criticism itself has been repeated so often it’s become, by turn, equally tedious. Some of the towers are, it’s hard to disagree, very dull, although the dullest of all Manchester’s tall buildings tend to be from the noughties.

Great Northern Tower, with its weak detailing, and awful battle-ship grey shading, is a proper shocker from 2004.  Similarly, the big ignorant lump of Tempus Tower on Mirabel Street is an eyesore, as is just about every building in The Green Quarter, and the ludicrous Red Ba Skyline Central on Rochdale Road.

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Axis: the remarkable engineering over Rochdale Canal

Conversely, statement sixties buildings such as City Tower in Piccadilly with its circuit-board decoration running down almost three hundred feet, has with care, come up trumps. 

Perhaps for many Axis tower will move, in time, through the process of dislike to tolerance to affection. After all, the civil engineering over the Rochdale Canal is remarkable, as is the view end-on, down the same canal, with the handsome black wall. It really does look an exciting structure from that angle. Meanwhile, the screen, if nothing, adds light to a city that can be very dark when the sun sinks. It certainly cannot be dismissed as boring.

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The rediscovered beauty of a sixties statement building, City Tower, Piccadilly

Not that we get the name, Axis. 

The marketing idea that it is at the centre of city centre action, the axis point, seems forced, erroneous and reminds us of the name of the baddies in World War Two; Germany and Italy, the Axis Powers.

Matthews laughs at that, but says: The justification may be nuts but Axis, I think, does suit the building. Of course, we have nothing to do with the naming of it, and, I agree the naming of buildings is becoming more and more bizarre. Marketing companies get involved and come up with something which sounds like spaceships in Flash Gordon.

“Personally, I like a good old-fashioned address on our buildings like 10-12 Whitworth Street,” he continues. “The bizarre naming ritual reminds me of a story I was once told by a senior person who worked with Carillion, the contractor. Apparently, Tarmac (the company who renamed themselves Carillion) paid zillions for a marketing company to come up with a new name. So, they conjured Carillion, which means absolutely nothing in any language. The idea was that the name wouldn’t offend anyone anywhere in the world - except of course all the poor subcontractors and suppliers who they didn’t pay when they went bust.”

That's something else to agree with Matthews over.