Jonathan Schofield sings a lament for a doomed symbol of its age
We're reviving a popular Manchester column from some years ago and taking a critical look at the region's architecture and planning.
Albert Bridge House
Category: Good... but a dead building standing
Who, what, when?
The designer of this externally fine modernist building was EH Banks of the Ministry of Works. It was completed in 1959 as the Manchester HQ for the Inland Revenue. That was then. It could be gone by the end of 2023.
Why is it a good building?
Let's quote The Buildings of England series from Manchester by Hartwell, Hyde and Pevsner. 'One of the first and best big post-war buildings in the city. Eighteen storeys high with Portland stone cladding and low blocks coming forward to make a group.'
It's a neat ensemble this one, elegant, and very tightly grouped together to provide a satisfying whole. Especially when viewed from the river walk on the western side of the Irwell in Salford. There are some of those curvy bits (distinctive of the period) that could be from an airport and a curvy timber rooftop element that's lightly suggestive of Le Corbusier.
Cladding the building in stone is classy, and the carved relief of crown, monarch and opening date is boldly delivered, although stained by pollution. The detailing is all very sharp. The way the Portland stone is applied ensures the building doesn't deliver a simple blank wall but has a bit of articulation. Some of the typography is good too, and again of its period.
Anybody else like it?
Loads of people. Jack Hale of Manchester Modernist Society told Confidentials: "This is a rare and handsome survivor from the 1950s, from a time when very few buildings were constructed in Central Manchester, even the letter boxes at its base speak of a now distant post-war era. To demolish such an attractive and surely re-usable building will be a detriment not only to the mid-century architectural heritage of the city but also to the environment. Surely adaptive reuse of this building is the most sensible and environmentally preferable option."
You would probably expect the Manchester Modernist Society to say that, wouldn't you?
What do others say?
Well, when we asked on Twitter we got a mixed response. Some really wanted it to stay citing its 'grace and elegance'.
What did others say?
They hated it. One comment was: 'It’s diabolical and decrepit beyond refurbishment. It’s riddled with asbestos, corrosion and concrete rot, making it extremely difficult to replace the electrics/plumbing (which failed weekly). The inadequate 3 lifts don’t serve the top floor.'
Another comment said: 'Demolish! It's not an Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Frank Lloyd Wright?' The funniest comment came from Janine Watson: 'It should come down. Anagram is “real shit Uber-bodge”. Obvs Spending too long on my hols doing crosswords haha.'
Even ardent admirers acknowledge the site and building does have its problems.
Something about the shape of the building turns the area into a Force Ten gale when a strong breeze blows. The way the building talks to Bridge Street is poor. The piecemeal refurbishments really haven’t helped. The site is hermetically sealed off from the city, as effectively fenced as most of Piccadilly Gardens.
A lack of foresight at the time of construction meant there was no public access placed along the riverside. Of course, the River Irwell was a little smellier then. The cul-de-sac public garden here came along in about 1982 and was more or less abandoned by the council seventeen minutes later.
What are the plans for the building?
It's sayonara. The building is almost certainly doomed, whatever the fans of crisp modernism hope. The site is owned by Oval Developments who say: "At Oval, we are committed to renovating and retrofitting old buildings. While that is always our starting point, Albert Bridge House doesn’t offer the potential for a successful renovation."
They go on to say the building was at 'the end of its logical lifespan' with a 'layout and design no longer (meeting) modern office occupier requirements'.
With architects Studio Egret West, the plans are to deliver two buildings - one a 45-storey residential tower and one a sort of 19-storey green ziggurat. The design looks good too, although most of the visuals seem to come from a children's book titled Hey kids, let's make a cuddly green building.
The cunning plan for the residential building is to have 'three conjoined hexagonal towers, stepping from 34 to 40 to 45 storeys. The shape of the floor plan created by this design allows for dual-aspect homes that provide panoramic views in all directions and a communal lift lobby which would enjoy natural daylight'. That sounds all right, let's deal with the height a little later.
It looks like there's a lot of greenery around the building. Much more than the 1959 version.
There is, and that is a real bonus. Oval is talking about another 1.2 acres of 'outdoor amenity space' with ground floors brought to life with the addition of retail and food and drink outlets.
A really big positive is that the abandoned, neglected, and very odd little public garden (mentioned above) just to the north of Albert Bridge would be remodelled and pushed North to Trinity Bridge, giving Mancunians a river walk on both sides of the Irwell. There would also be new and landscaped access between the buildings and the river.
Meanwhile, the buildings will tick all the required and expected boxes when it comes to sustainability. Oval says it wants the new Albert Bridge House to be a ‘best in class sustainable development, with the office building targeting net zero in line with the Council’s 2038 target, and the residential building delivering a raft of sustainability features.
It goes on to say that this will be achieved 'by integrating a range of design features to ensure the buildings are as energy efficient as possible while promoting the health, wellbeing and comfort of occupiers and residents.' Let's hope this isn't marketing persiflage and let’s hope all architects (in this case), councils, institutions and companies you stop endlessly repeating the noun ‘well-being’ - you’re all making it meaningless, a box-ticking nonsense.
Ooh, it sounds like you might have come around to the demolition and new proposals.
Grudgingly so, yes.
Looking over the river to Albert Bridge House on a sunny day with the white stone shining and the eloquent assemblage of buildings can be uplifting.
It's also flummoxing why the new residential building has to be so tall. 45 storeys is very high, probably 130m (430ft), taller than City Tower in Piccadilly Gardens. Is that the only way the economics of this site will literally stack up? What is clear is that this corner of Bridge Street is going to be windier than ever.
At the same time, I prefer to see 50s and 60s buildings of this type recycled for two reasons. It seems appropriate to the mood of the times to retain rather than chuck away, but also within cities it is good to have an urban landscape that is a lexicon of architecture, one that captures the way the city has developed, rather like growth rings on trees.
Yet, the engagement with that side of the river the Oval Development plans will allow is tempting. The way the new developments will have so many other elements that will engage at ground level, better than the walled-off enclosure of Albert Bridge House, is another bonus. Although it wouldn't be beyond the wit of an architect to deliver something similar for the present complex.
On balance then, while Albert Bridge House is good, the Studio Egret West designs for Oval Developments are probably more desirable than retention given what they offer the city going forward, especially with regard to the desperate shortage of residential units in the central areas.
Read next: The Visit: Working Class Movement Library
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