Manchester’s Urbanism: from Valette to Vertical City with Visions for the Future

Manchester loves a great French Impressionist painter who is strangely obscure in France. The search results for ‘Adolphe Valette’ in the French language Wikipedia rank his modest entry just above a re-direct to Adolph Hitler. Born in Saint Étienne, Valette moved to Manchester in 1907. His dream-like paintings recorded the built environment and life of the the world’s first industrial metropolis, and captured the eternal twilight of the damp, dirty atmosphere.

Adolphe Valette, Oxford Road – 1910 ; York Street To Charles Street – 1913. Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

He returned to France in 1928, long before Manchester become a broken post-war city, an expanse of wastelands sandwiched between closed down red brick factories and grim modular social housing. For decades, only football, then bands such as The Smiths or Oasis, continued to remind the world of Manchester. 

Nowadays Manchester’s air is clear (although it rains a lot), and the city has bounced back from post-industrial decline to become England’s most vibrant after London. Its inner city, at the heart of a conurbation of 2.5 million, is young and expanding, and business and creatives are migrating from the south. Manchester University’s science and technology is world-class, and the city is landing on the international cultural map. All these factors drive new architecture. So, what are architects designing in Manchester? 

Deansgate Square from First Street photo @Herbert Wright

Most visible, like in many cities, is an explosion of high-rise residential towers. Sadly, most are generic orthogonal boxes. There are many more under construction, and proposed parliamentary legislation favouring developers at the cost of public consultation mean more will follow. Manchester seems to be following London, driven by the buy-to-let market and failing on affordable housing. But speaking to random Mancunians (as the natives are called) reveals that many are excited by the rise of mini-Dubai clusters on their skyline, especially Deansgate Square, four new towers designed by SimpsonHaugh. The highest is 201m, far higher than anywhere else in the UK except London. At least these towers have cool shapes, their square-plan corners extending out so that their shiny facades are concave. Architect Ian Simpson also points out there is no ‘poor door’, or separate entrance for cheaper flats. Deansgate Square brings a new terraced granite plaza, dotted with decorative Corten steel screens and served by chic designer catering, all overlooking a stream that has been cleared of trash and now attracts biodiversity. Other car-free refuges are emerging across Manchester. Yet, as in curated, upmarket developments anywhere, a certain sterility haunts such places. 

Manchester’s unplanned, bohemian Northern Quarter is the opposite to all that. A dense low-rent district of old buildings, some still abandoned, and car parks, it is gritty and edgy and packed with so much street life that the rents are rising and independent businesses now feel the pressure. Nevertheless, such urban villages, with their human scale, texture, diversity and surprise, have a vibrancy and emotionalism that eludes architects and planners. At least repurposing old buildings incorporates the city’s memory, as well as saving a lot of carbon emissions. Manchester has plenty of solid old industrial building to repurpose into loft apartments, and already has revived an entire neighbourhood called Ancoats as an über-trendy loft-lifestyle hotspot. Even more central in the city, Dutch architects Mecanoo mix old and new in their design of Kampus. Massive mid-rise apartment blocks under zig-zag skylines cluster up against old warehouses and alleys, and a public garden and bar faces Manchester’s thriving Gay Village across a canal. 

The University of Manchester has a student population of over 40,000, and with other universities in the city, it drives demand for architecture to house them. Manchester was quick to build student residence towers, a recent architectural typology, with a 2012 107m-high tower by Hodder and Partners (led by ex-RIBA president Stephen Hodder). It stands at the downtown end of the Oxford Road academic corridor, where SimpsonHaugh have added a second student tower. They will be joined by highest yet, the super-slim Hulme Street tower by Glenn Howells, 168m high but just 14.8m wide. Detractors call it ‘the tombstone’, which is unfair because it will be clad in brick, Manchester’s vernacular material.

Height stands out but some enjoy the thrills of length. That brings us to academic buildings and Manchester’s longest new project, the Manchester Engineering Campus Development, another Mecanoo project completing this year. In an ensemble which includes repurposed historic buildings. The main building is the publicly-accessible 238m-long MEC Hall, an eight-storey box of Miesian dark glass and steel. It’s the longest building built in Manchester since industrial times. Yet, running behind old buildings, it is virtually invisible from Oxford Road and is packed with atria, classrooms, high-tech labs and two great auditoria. Manchester’s engineering changed the world, and here, it should do so again.

MECD and Manchester’s southern skyline courtesy Andy Haslam Photography/Balfour

What of Manchester’s cultural revival? So far it has already produced Hallé St Peters by Stephenson Hamilton Risley Studio, a substantial concert venue extension to an old church in Ancoats, and First Street, a colourful creative zone including HOME (another by Mecanoo) and a statue of Friedrich Engels, who researched Manchester’s working class conditions and then wrote the Communist manifesto with Karl Marx. First Street is just metres away from the tragically demolished Hacienda club (1982) in which Ben Kelly created the urban-industrial interior aesthetic that would spread to Berlin clubs and the world. Manchester’s next cultural addition will be the OMA-designed Factory, a flagship venue under construction. A riverside angular volume like an amplified version of their Casa de Musica in Porto adjoins an even bigger box-shaped volume. It’s too early to judge, but one young radio journalist I talked to already dismissed it as ‘alien’. Maybe – but not as much as OMA’s  Performing Arts Center in Taipei! 

What does Manchester’s new cityscape tell us? Saving old buildings can generate future urban environments as dynamic as any high rise, and investment in the architecture of education and research is crucial. The confidence of Manchester’s architecture tells us that despite Brexit, this city’s future is big. Valette would find contemporary Manchester staggering, but he may not be entirely surprised. He painted a city that never stopped to rest.

@Herbert Wright, July 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in July 2021. It was entitled: Manchester, pour les architectes, un théâtre des reves

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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