Alsop: Make every building as interesting as possible

Jessica Middleton-Pugh

As he returns to Manchester for his first project in the city since 2009, architect Will Alsop talks to Place North West about the vision for the Great Northern warehouse, his views on his increasingly “conservative” profession, and the “potential nightmare” of expanding cities.

Alsop has gained a reputation as a maverick of architecture, on the back of striking modernist designs and counter-cultural ideas. He is engaged on large-scale projects across the world, and last year was appointed as the architect to lead on the mixed-use redevelopment of the Great Northern warehouse in Manchester.

The project includes the restoration and conversion of the listed warehouse into flats, the construction of an 85,000 sq ft office at the corner of the site on Peter Street, and the potential for a 200,000 sq ft tower on Watson Street in a later phase.

The public space in front of the warehouse will be retained, and is a priority for Alsop.

Great Northern January 2016 (2)

Alsop is working on the redevelopment of the Great Northern site in Manchester city centre for Peterson Group and Trilogy

“In the square in front of Great Northern, there’s a triangular building and clock tower that degrades the whole area, and a ‘conversation pit’ where no one has had a conversation in their entire lives,” he said. “We want to open up the eye-line from across Peter Street, and create a high-level building with views through it on ground level. I’d also like a retractable roof over the square from Great Northern and the new office to allow for a rigorous performance and event programme, because let’s face it, it does rain a lot in Manchester.”

In 2002 Alsop famously designed the Cloud, a diamond-like 10-storey globe which would have been a new addition to the Liverpool waterfront, but was scrapped in 2004 when the public sector agencies behind the plan said it would cost too much money. With his precedent for such adventurous proposals, can Manchester expect something similarly eyebrow-raising at Great Northern?

“I don’t know if the scheme should be a shock, it’s not always appropriate to do that,” said Alsop. “But some people will find what I’m doing surprising.”

When asked if he experienced difficulties getting his more innovative designs through the planning process, Alsop said that “I’ve had no real difficulties getting planning permission to do what’s appropriate.”

The only Alsop design in Manchester is the Chips building in New Islington, which was completed for Urban Splash in 2009.

“I enjoyed doing Chips very much,” said Alsop. “There were no planning problems, and we worked with the community, which gave it strength. Community engagement was easier there than at Great Northern as people were already living in and around New Islington.

“I believe the average man and woman on the street are up for interesting buildings, but they’re generally not asked at the right time. They see the designs once they’ve been watered down and then they don’t like them.”

Chips exterior

Alsop’s last project in Manchester, the Chips building for Urban Splash, opened in 2009

Those familiar with Alsop’s research into a ‘super city’ from Liverpool to Hull, published in 2004, will be feeling déjà vu when it comes to the Government’s latest pet project, the creation of a Northern Powerhouse.

“I’m just delighted people are paying attention to the idea,” Alsop asserted. “It doesn’t matter whether that’s because of the zeitgeist, the Government, or local authorities driving the idea.

“I do worry about Greater Manchester and its conurbations though. We don’t want there to be buildings on green fields, we need to increase densities in cities and town centres rather than extending the boundaries.

“I fear the potential nightmare that one day there will be non-stop buildings between Liverpool and Hull, with no sense of identity. I’ve never advocated urban sprawl, in fact the exact opposite. And if we need to build entirely new towns or villages, these can be new places with their own distinct identity.

“Mass housebuilders like nothing more than a nice green field that’s untouched, then off they go. It’s been like that since the 1930s, with the same little two-bed houses and gardens at the back that are largely ignored anyway.”

According to Alsop, it is the UK’s current procurement system for projects, following European Union regulations, that is the main issue affecting the development of high-quality, innovative buildings.

“When someone wins a project on price alone, and let’s be honest, that’s the main criteria, they can’t afford to do the job properly. It’ll just be the path of least resistance.

“How we implement OJEU rules in the UK is painful. This country applies the rules more rigidly than any of our EU mainland partners. There are a lot of jobsworth people around just covering their arses.”

Alsop was despondent when asked who else in the architecture professions was pushing the boundaries of building design.

“There aren’t many practices these days that raise their heads above the parapet, and a lot of the more interesting architects leave the industry,” he said.

“However, there are quite a lot that are still good, but the good ones don’t get enough work.”

Hear, hear, Place North West can hear architects across the region reply.

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I like Alsop but if he thinks the housing crisis can be solved by developing brownfield sites only he is severely deluded. Brownfield has problems and requires heavy infrastructure investment and in situ pump priming to overcome viability issues. And who says people in cities don’t need open spaces and just want more and more density? When was the last truly genuine urban park built in this country? What is the use of a ‘green field’ anyway. Perhaps it’s nice when you’re driving over the M62 to see ‘green fields’ …but really, what odds?? Does Alsop know that the British are crammed onto well under 6% of the available land in this country already?

Turning to OJEU procurement. I doubt whether this has an impact on architectural quality. OJEU procurement doesn’t apply to private projects only public. Is Alsop saying the only way to innovate is through public sector projects? Quite damning of private sector if so …but then we have seen a lot of extremely average architecture in Manchester’s commercial sector and in the NW in general. Public procurement through OJEU can be a pain but unfortunately, if anyone challenges procurement the EU can knock out a contract at a stroke if its been done wrongly. So it’s usually not about ‘arse covering’. More about protecting public proposals from nimby (or other) challenges which can delay or knock out proposals. There’s also no reason why quality considerations can’t play a part in an OJEU process – through competitive dialogue route or other quality/cost award mechanism allowable through OJEU.

By Sceptic

Yes, just what we need. To be patronised by the inexplicably lauded Mr. Alsop. It’s as if he thinks we get up in the morning with the intention of being boring.

By Gene Walker

I think Mr Alsop needs to spend a week living in Chips and see what he thinks about “interesting” then

By Dan

He’s back……client’s beware……

By Lilt

This is the man who, not ironically, suggested revamping Barnsley in the style of a ‘Tuscan Hilltop Village’.
God help the Great Northern warehouse.

By Flat Cap Chap

I will give him a chance. I like Chips it is a great building,but not sure on a retractable roof.That could be tacky if not discreet and could be another Library walk horror in the making.Great Northern is a truly awesome structure and needs sensitivity.A new tower to complement Beetham is a good idea,but where?

By Elephant

The article on Mr Alsop says “The only Alsop design in Manchester is the Chips building in New Islington, which was completed for Urban Splash in 2009.

“I enjoyed doing Chips very much,” said Alsop. “There were no planning problems, and we worked with the community, which gave it strength. Community engagement was easier there than at Great Northern as people were already living in and around New Islington.”

Community engagement will be possible here too. There are many people already living in and around the area of the Great Northern Square, as well as many hotel rooms: Great Northern Tower (257 apartments), Beetham Tower (253 apartments), and St John’s Gardens plus the Radisson (260+ rooms) and Hilton (230+ rooms) hotels. Many more apartments and hotel rooms are proposed in future, at Bootle Street/Jackson’s Row (two tall towers, one residential, one hotel) and at the south end of the Great Northern Warehouse site itself.

The noise from the the GNW operators events to date in the square has already been a big problem for many of them. Seeing the small public space maintained and enhanced rather than put to work to “allow for a rigorous performance and event programme, could well be a local preference.

By Lesley


By ernshki

The prospect of a large building on Peter Street looming over the GN and the square imakes me nervous. It is just not needed.

By Gravy

Very much agree with Lesley. There are people living there already. Will, please get in touch. Residents would love to speak to you.

Oh and by the way, there are conversations every day in the amphitheatre. Workers lunch there and residents take their toddler grandchildren for a stroll on the grass. Music and dance has been performed there, though only occasionally.

By Cllr Joan Davies