Jonathan Schofield and the classic f**k you building

One architectural practice, one triumph, one abject failure. Glenn Howells Architects have a hobby in Manchester. The Birmingham based company loves building opposite Manchester’s libraries.

At One St Peter Square they produced a huge yet elegant building that is top quality from all angles: a master class of commercial verve and muscle; a clean lined, contemporary, building that improves St Peter’s Square. So while it is more than twice as high as the key heritage building nearby, Central Library from 1934, it doesn’t feel it. The choice of materials and the width of the square mean the old and new complement each other. 

The lack of respect for the older structures on the street is astounding.

Meanwhile down on Deansgate, a disaster from the same company is unfolding. Here a twelve story structure is rising far too close to the Grade I listed John Rylands Library. Thus, the last great national flowering of Victorian Gothic is being crushed by an oppressive ill-conceived monster.

2018 12 19 2018 12 19 125 Deansgate Main Picture
One Two Five Deansgate vs John Rylands

Glenn Howells Architects on their website say of their new building: ‘The building (has) a finely articulated facade of bespoke terracotta. Designed with a contemporary yet strikingly calm approach, (it) echoes the industrial character of Deansgate and the centrepiece Grade I listed John Rylands Library that sits opposite the site.’

In this instance, the company clearly has no idea of the history of the site and doesn't want to respect the streetscape. Deansgate has never been industrial around here, certainly not for the last 150 years. The colour and scale of the new building might echo (rather than match) the dark red stone of John Rylands opposite but by doing so diminishes the greater building, turning it into an errant and tiny clubber being shown the door by a tall and bulky bull-necked bouncer.

The lack of respect for the older structures on the street is alarming. 

170502 One St Peters Square
One St Peters Square - huge yet elegant

Stand outside House of Fraser/Kendals and move your eye down the east side of Deansgate from Waterstones south. You could almost put a ruler down the cornice height of the nineteenth century buildings all the way to Beetham Tower. 

The sixties and seventies architects generally gave heed to the typical four storey scale too, so that the spectacularly dull Centurion House by Leach Rhodes and Walker from 1977 is set back from the building line to prevent it overwhelming the street. In the nineties the Holford Associates building, 201 Deansgate, might break the height but was given a strong string course in line with the older cornice heights, to preserve that impression of architectural consistency. 

2018 12 19 125 Deansgate Cornice Heights Part One
Deansgate cornice heights (part one)
2018 12 19 125 Deansgate Cornice Heights
Deansgate cornice heights (part two)

John Rylands Library was designed by Basil Champneys and was completed in 1899. It was paid for by the first woman in Manchester to be given the freedom of the city, Enriqueta Rylands, in memory of her husband. It remains one of Manchester’s truly monumental buildings in all senses, inside and out. Yet Champneys, it appears, also respected the scale of Deansgate architecture by stepping the building back.

The previous building on the site of One Two Five Deansgate also showed respect. Lincoln House, by Holford Associates, from the eighties was a light, glazed structure, which knew its place in the streetscape. Again it stepped back from Deansgate to give the more important landmark opposite due deference. 

2018 12 19 Lincoln House
Deansgate Lincoln House

The building presently rising by Glenn Howells Architects does no such thing. It is in some ways, One St Peter Square's smaller brother, but its straight-up vertical facade seems close up, to almost lean towards John Rylands Library. This is a well-known optical illusion, a trick of the human eye, that should have been considered by both the architects and the Manchester’s planning department. 

Speaking of which, this is what the city’s own conservation area document says on ‘improvement and enhancement’ for this part of the city. ‘Where redevelopment proposals are put forward, the City Council will seek designs which are consistent with the character of surrounding buildings.’

2018 12 19 125 Deansgate John Rylands Library In All Its Glory
Deansgate John Rylands Library in all its glory

This building fails this measure on all counts. Individually it has the merit of many Glenn Howells’ buildings. As with One St Peter Square it has a good heft and solidity. The problem is that on Deansgate it is in the wrong place, in the wrong colour and at the wrong scale.

Of course One Two Five Deansgate isn’t finished yet, but there is enough in place to realise that when it is it will only look heavier. There’s an architectural car crash happening on Deansgate and the architects and planning department have let down themselves, the city and wonderful philanthropy of Enriqueta. 

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