In the North West, development has reached a crossroads where for the majority of projects, the architect seems to have gone AWOL, writes Nick Moss.
Spinningfields in Manchester is the prime example, with anonymous glass box after glass box, whereby the architect's role has been reduced to a cladding package. A world of non-identity with ever so slightly different striped glazing and brise soleil in a desperate bid to give identity and interest.
This approach to renewal seems to strip any character from an area, each place becoming more and more homogenous. Most people can accept places like Spinningfields have a position in the corporate marketplace, which has recently been softened by a vibrant leisure approach. However looking at the new developments at First Street and the redevelopment of the old Granada Studios, it would seem this approach is spreading to both residential and cultural projects.
For when we viewed the recent development proposals for the redevelopment of the Granada Studios site, it became clear this was a further sprawl of Spinningfields, sadly at the expense of the old Coronation Street set. Another development leading to yet another anonymous area, marketed with the term 'quarter' to somehow give an area superficial identity.
With this in mind, SixTwo applied for the listing of the Coronation Street set. Sadly, English Heritage turned down our application, citing technicalities. But other than ITV playing hardball, we couldn't understand why anyone would allow such an important asset to Manchester, the North and the nation be extinguished, even if it has been rebuilt down the road. The retention of the Street and cobbles would have given a heart and soul to the whole development, even if built out in a corporate language. Too much of Manchester's heritage has been lost already, let alone an internationally recognised icon of Manchester.
However as we emerge from the worst recession in living memory, it would seem there are signs that development is changing and the market is moving. This is not all out revolution, but a shift from the previous methods of the noughties boom. A new type of developer seems to be emerging. A prime example of this is our client Capital & Centric. A savvier developer who understands it is actually more of a risk to follow the crowd. A philosophy that won them Developer of the Year at the 2014 Insider Awards.
Perhaps hungrier, or simply getting more bang for their buck, these developers are using a new breed of creative architects to reconsider how we look at our urban centres with considered, crafted spaces.
This might be out of necessity more than choice as many of these developers don't have the budget to even consider most of the skins/materials used in Spinningfields or St Peter's Square, and so crave creative solutions to bridge the budget gap. An understanding that in a saturated market, they need to stand out.
At SixTwo Architects, we see identity, character and personality as pivotal to all our work as we stretch often limited budgets. These aspects then drive the economic and intangible benefits of any scheme, be that higher lease values or greater marketing potential.
Yet we are not looking for anonymity to be replaced with all singing and dancing, 'look at me' projects. Too many schemes in the boom times of the noughties were built with this aspiration, to stand out from the crowd. A problem exemplified now in London as its skyline is trashed with ever increasing 'signature' towers.
As Manchester City Council begins to permit more and more high-rise buildings, it will be interesting to see whether developers and architects will aspire for a less fragmented, less gestural city, whereby place-making comes before the striped glass, and identity comes before anonymity.
Nick Moss is director and co-founder of SixTwo Architects in Manchester.