Jonathan Schofield on a Northern Quarter building that might be a blueprint for development
It’s just good manners to take heed of those around you, be polite and listen as much as you talk.
We may fail completely at times, and I should know, but that’s the ambition.
A lesson in how to build an unmistakably modern building respectful of context and location
As it is with civil society so it is with buildings and cities. Architectural etiquette can let other buildings breathe. The Northern Quarter has gained a peach of an example of good manners at 25-27 Dale Street. This is a model for future development here and might allay some of the fears of the march of the tall tower into that well-known and distinctive district between Shudehill and Ducie Street.
Tall tower sweats have been felt by self-appointed Northern Quarter commentators and sundry councillors because of Salboy’s 18-storey commercial development called Glassworks. This project designed by Manc-practice Jon Matthews Architects is a bit naughty geographically (a bit) because it’s on the Northern Quarter side of Shudehill and looms over the Georgian-period Lower Turks Head pub almost as rudely as the ridiculous Apex Tower could do over the Britons Protection.
There’s some mitigation for Glassworks however because of its location. It sits directly over the road from the arse-wall of the Manchester Arndale multi-storey car park. Architecturally it's bedlam here. The other side of Shudehill, particularly, is a jumble of buildings of different heights and different massing including a large vacant plot. So while Glassworks doesn't give too much of an 18 storey finger to the established street pattern of the Northern Quarter it must be a case of thus far and no further for the encroachment of towers into the area.
Transmission House - 'a proper lump'
Firmly within the Northern Quarter itself is a building completed during lockdown. This is Transmission House with 183 apartments for sale or rent, again from Salboy, designed by Coventry-based IDP Architects. This sits between the Unicorn pub and Afflecks on Church Street and is a proper lump. Ok, it matches both the old Debenhams on Market Street behind the site and the original element of The Light Building next door so it plays at having good architectural manners but then it all goes wrong.
Transmission House presents a horribly unsubtle, uninteresting and overbearing front to both Church Street and Tib Street. The ground floor and the first floor which include space for retail and food and drink (prestigious German piano-makers Bechstein have moved in already) are grimly treated in black but at least provide some variety to the main elevation because above that, climbing another seven storeys, is an absolute nothing structure of brick cladding. The rusty old Tib Street Horn that used to stand on site, gently corroding, was a bit rubbish and Steptoe & Son but at least it had some character, this building lacks any.
In effect, Transmission House delivers the opposite of architectural good manners. It has mugged the neighbouring streets and creates threatening canyons on the south and west on Bridgewater Place and Joiner Street. Appropriately, it has a blood brother, separated by 50 years, squatting across Church Street in the form of a gruesome and disastrous seventies multi-storey car park.
As an aside it was a little unfortunate that Transmission House, which no doubt references the Joy Division track of the same name (hey, this is Manchester you know and Joy Division came from here), started admitting residents just as Hapless Johnson was announcing the 2020 lockdown for Covid-19. Transmission House, not the best timing for that title.
25-27 Dale Street - 'the most polite recent building in Manchester'
From Transmission House, Church Street becomes Dale Street and everything changes with the new architecture at 25-27. This building is by a Liverpool practice (they have a Manchester office) called Falconer Chester Hall (FCH). At once this is the most polite recent building in Manchester city centre, unmistakeably modern and unmistakeably an addition. This is architectural etiquette at its very finest.
Previously on the site was a classic 1880s textile warehouse in the Renaissance "palazzo" style probably from the practice of prolific Manc architects Clegg & Knowles. Then in 2007, it went up in flames, the building became unsafe and for twelve years we had first a brickfield surrounded by hoardings then a surface car park.
Now FCH architects have restored this gap-toothed section of Dale Street to a full smile. The building is commercial (which admittedly is a different kettle of fish to an apartment block) with space for a bar, restaurant, coffee shop or retail on the ground floor and basement. There are five floors of office accommodation above and a roof-terrace. The client was Kamani Commercial Property, part of the vast Manchester-based Boohoo. Boohoo and all its off-shoots are known for many things but never restraint so the way 25-27 Dale Street has worked out is perhaps a surprise.
Take a look at some of the proportions here. Get a ruler out and hold it against the cornice line of the building in the foreground and run it down the north side of Dale Street. It’s like a perspective drawing class with all the cornices of the different buildings aligned including the stylised new one. Put the rule down the street on the string course between the ground and first floors and the trick is repeated.
Now note how the treatment on the ground floor changes from that of the next five floors above and note how that is the same with the older neighbours. Note, again, how the retained entrance from the former building, despite being utterly different in style, has been married to the new building by FCH. Nor does 25-27 jump forward or back from the former building line either, breaking the rhythm of the street, it joins the party and holds hands with its neighbours. Remember, the buildings on either side were by different architectures and owners from different periods over 30 years yet applied the architectural etiquette principle.
Of course, the façade treatment of 25-27 Dale Street is totally different from its companions. It's clad in Cor-ten steel, that should fade to orange suiting the city’s frequently noted red-brick "look". As I’ve written before when scaled correctly as with Stephenson Hamilton Risley’s gorgeous Halle St Peter’s extension Cor-Ten is splendid. The juries out on towers clad in Cor-Ten panels such as River Street tower by Simpson Haugh Architects. This and buildings such as Oxid House on Great Ancoats Street (again IDP Architects) are perhaps taking things too far and look very forbidding.
You could perhaps complain FCH have made their building pastiche and used too many materials with elements such as the white cladding on Little Lever Street. You'd be wrong. It’s not pastiche, it's clever, playing with the accepted late nineteenth and early twentieth-century practice down narrow side streets in Manchester’s warehouse districts of using white glazed bricks in an attempt to add light.
David George of FCH has said: “We were aware of the sensitivity of the site as it is part of the Stevenson Square Conservation Area and we wanted to bring forward a scheme that was respectful of its local context.”
FCH have more than achieved that. Well done to them. The building is a fine model for future development in the Northern Quarter. Just as the bizarre sculptured head above the old entrance. It sticks a tongue out at those who fail to work with the story of a site in an old location.
Finally, and speaking of models of development.
There’s a very well-known empty plot of land sporting a large Blue Tit mural just round the corner on Newton Street. There are others scattered across the city. Let 25-27 Dale Street be the measure by which we judge redevelopment on these other sites both in and outside the Northern Quarter.
As art historian John Archer wrote in Art and Architecture in Victorian Manchester from Manchester University Press (1985): "Many buildings had a common purpose with similar characteristics, a standard height of approximately sixty or seventy feet (18-21m), a common range of materials and a related vocabulary of well-executed detail. All this made for coherence, but the influence of highly talented designers cannot be ignored."
25-27 Dale Street underscores those points in the 21st Century. This building is a lesson in how to build an ummistakeably modern building, in terms of aesthetic and scale, while being respectful of context and street coherence.
Jonathan Schofield will be conducting a guided tour of the Northern Quarter, its architecture and its stories on Sunday 26 June at 1pm. He will be including this building.
Read next: 'Life is better by the water': a tour of the Rochdale Canal Art Trail
Read again: Battle for The Britons Protection: individuality v the bland
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