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.
“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.”
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.