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ARCHITECTURE: North Tower/Highland House

Jonathan Schofield's The Good, The Standard, The Ugly

Written by . Published on March 2nd 2015.

ARCHITECTURE: North Tower/Highland House

Category: Ugly and mad

Highland House as it was and now North Tower, just over the river in Salford from Manchester Cathedral.


Leach Rhodes Walker, the prolific architects who have re-imagined Manchester city centre across five decades in a manner that is three parts bad, one part good. Terrible this building and others such as Heron House in Albert Square, tolerable St Andrew's House (now Manchester One) on Portland Street, good, their own offices on New Bailey Street a short walk from Highland House. Bless 'em.

Cheap metal, dreadful colour, where the recent refurbishment people a bit thick

Cheap metal, dreadful colour, were the recent refurbishment people a bit thick? Did think this was acceptable for opposite the Cathedral?

Why’ve you picked this building? 

It needs to go. Let's sing Salford's unofficial anthem from Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town: 'I'm going to make me a good sharp axe/ Shining steel tempered in the fire/ Will chop you down like an old dead tree.' This slob of a sixties building lurks over a fundamental part of the city like a dirty old man in a mac. It shames the area.

After the Romans departed Castlefield, the site of Manchester Cathedral is where the Saxons settled. So this area is where Manchester and Salford really came into being, this is where they first kissed and where they eventually spanned the Irwell with a bridge. It's where doomed Royalists fought with Parliamentarians, it's where Bonnie Prince Charlie crossed into Manchester and where a famous nineteenth century market was held. It's the place from where all modern Manchester and Salford spread and now it's an area undergoing huge improvements. 

But back in the sixties Highland House/North Tower was built. Idiots. 

Nice positioning. The Cathedral Tower knackered by Highland House/ North Tower

Nice positioning. The Cathedral Tower knackered by Highland House/ North Tower

Describe it more

It's 23 floors over a podium, it was once Inland Revenue offices, now it's half Premier Inn and half apartments, with the hotel in the lower part. It's construction was innovative if nothing else.

As the Manchester Modernists state on their website: 'for Highland House, a central core was made with a continuously climbing shutter (sliding shutters which rise at 15-38 cm per hour while concrete is poured and reinforcements are put in place) whilst pre-cast concrete cladding panels made off site were lifted into position by tower crane. this brand new technique with its absence of scaffolding was cost effective and uber speedy, enabling clients to actually move in to lower floors whilst the upper floors were still being constructed.' (If you wonder why there are no capital letters at the begining of sentences in this quotation it's because that's how our new Manchester Modernists wrote the paragraph. It must be a Modernist thing - those crazy radicals.)

The distinctive feature of the building are the sticky-out portholes all the way up the building. The funny thing about these is that the original steel versions blew out during a storm and scattered themselves about the nearby Salford Bus Station (now Greengate Square) fortunately missing the good citizens beneath. 

The Manchester Modernist's also say: 'in 2004 the president of RIBA declared (Highland House) ‘dreadful’, adding that it should be demolished, but to our mind this is a little slice of space age futurism bridging that imagined frontier between Salford and Manchester. long may it prosper…'

This surprises me

Because you think it's bobbins?

Yes. It's worse than bobbins, it's in such a shocking position with reference to the Cathedral its almost as though Salford planners were aiming a deliberate insult at Manchester - cocking-a-snoop as they say in the pubs of Lower Broughton.

But if in 1966 it was all wrong, now it's ten times worse. The two tone of the original has become a dirty white, the service shaft has been painted Premier Inn's favourite shade of purple and faded to a muddy lilac and become masked behind corrugated iron which might have cost as much as £17.25. The entrance to the hotel looks like it belongs to an STD clinic tucked down a back alley if you forgive the expression. Leach Rhodes Walkers' dodgy building of 1966 is an unmitigated horror at present.  

 Highland House


Highland House in the sixties

Are you joking with this piece of asinine crap for an entrance?Are you joking with this piece of asinine crap for an entrance?

So why do people such as the Modernists like it? 

I suspect they're a bit evangelical, a bit religious. Or maybe utopians, thinking there is a lost country of righteousness to which we need to find our way home. Certainly it seems these post-Modernism Modernists feel the decades of concrete addiction must be defended at all points in all their 'white heat of technology' glory.

That dogma cannot be diluted even here when Highland House/North Tower is so obviously sited in the wrong place and is now so debased it looks like a place zombies might love to lurk come World War Z.

Of course there is excellent concrete work around the city, so let's not get all Prince Charles here. The former UMIST campus gets a big thumbs up, City Tower likewise, as well as Mitchell's crazy 'totem' sculptures at Salford Uni's Frederick Road campus, but there's also heaps of stuff that's had its day.  (You can read all about Mitchell's monsters and other lumpy concrete art here on Confidential.)

Mitchell's perfect concrete sculptures, totems of a middle-class art construct that thought itself so very democratic was genuinely positive about a new direction in art.


Mitchell's perfect concrete sculptures, totems of a middle-class art construct that thought itself so very democratic but was genuinely positive about a new direction in art.

I love this quote from Malcolm MacEwan in Crisis in Architecture from 1974. 

'Concrete caught on, in part, because it seemed to be a cheap and very plastic material. But in fact, to produce high quality and durable concrete finishes has proved to be both difficult and costly, and it called for a practical design skill and knowledge of the material that most architects lacked. The innummerable buildings with drab, grey, begrimmed, streaky, cracked finishes, designed with little understanding of drips and weathering, or designed to be covered with paint that the client cannot afford, are silent witnesses to the technological inadequacy of the architectural profession, which was carried away by images that could not be realised within the limits of its skill, the resources of industry and the cash available. The use and abuse of concrete perhaps more than anything else, account for the hostility to many recent buildings and to the architects who are rightly held responsible for them.'

As the pompous ass with his hands steepled will say when his own views are vindicated: "Quite."

It's all something for the Elected Mayor in 2017.

What about the Elected Mayor?

So when the Elected Mayor, a person who of course should have the good grace to accord with all I personally desire, ascends to the throne of Greater Manchester and - unlike the Manchester Modernists, let's capitalise these words - assumes Supreme Planning Powers and makes Strategic Decisions, I say let her/him decide to smash this foolish building to motorway aggregate. Beautification should be part of the Elected Mayor's remit. Along with efficient bureaucracies, let their be beautification, so that sites like this can be cleared and landscaped to allow room to breathe for the historic heart of the twin cities.

You can always hope, can't you?

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+ 

Very lovelyVery lovely

Here come the zombiesHere come the zombies

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25 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

Great article JS. Hopefully the concrete grot alongside the Mancunian Way that the UoM have taken on will ceremoniously be demolished soon. The asbestos is already being removed from one where the new Graphene building will be.

4 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldMarch 3rd 2015.

Now steady on the Cruickshank and Seward stuff down there can be marvellous

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

The Faraday Building really needs to go. The old Maths & Social Sciences building is having a temporary new lease of life with the materials school whilst the their existing building and the student halls next to it are being demolished in advcne of the North Capus relocation.

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

Renold building must stay.

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

Renold, M&SS, Chandos, George Begg and the student resi block above it with that crazy james bond style angled flourish all must stay.

SquirrelitoMarch 3rd 2015.

Its a giant slum, but with so many tenants and a Premier Inn, that must be almost always full (why build another 5 in town otherwise?), It would cost a fortune in CPOs to demolish. It'll sit there grotting up Greengate for some time. Maybe when CitySuites, 101 Embankment and 1 Greengate spring up they might break out the masonry paint, through abject shame. I reckon that's the best we can hope for.

MichaelMarch 3rd 2015.

It wouldn't look half as bad if it was re-painted. A nice grey like this one on Deansgate maybe - www.google.co.uk/…/17757-lettings-at-39-deansgate.html&h=268&w=402&tbnid=e1BdGQ3OEcY7QM:&zoom=1&docid=y7FoyKpHlj-eAM&ei=0Zz1VLaxBcf8UN6RgsAK&tbm=isch&ved=0CCMQMygEMAQ…

1 Response: Reply To This...
MichaelMarch 3rd 2015.

Apologies for extra long link..

ShuttyMarch 3rd 2015.

I wonder whether the strategy is more to absord this building amidst other mid-rises and talls? Whilst I am no great fan of this building and nodded (inside) through much of this article, for me the biggest sin of this building has to be the abject failure to interact with anything at street level- right down to the crappy annexed mini-multi-storey car park. Going back just a couple of years and still today, despite the obvious improvements and promise of suchmore in this part of the Salford border with Manchester, you could argue that this building was merely matching the thoughtless and appalling street-scape that existed on all corners. Should this building survive and to contribute to this regenerating and eminently central area of the 'city centre', than the ground floor and lower level contribution and amalgamation with the pedestrian experience must be improved and it goes without saying that the building as a whole must at the very least get an external paint job.

Howard BamforthMarch 3rd 2015.

Jonathan Schofield......You are, without a doubt, my first choice for Lord Mayor! :-)

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

North Tower is an interesting building but badky sited such that it sonehow had a really bad visual relationship with everything around it. I wouldn't mourn it if it went.

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

its a lot more pleasant than 1 Piccadilly Gardens - that should be number one in the demolition list. At least it does not mess with a key public space, just sits unloved on the edge of it. Your photos are deliberately constructed to make it look bad but in the right light or photographed Rodchenko style (looking vertical from base) it can look quite beautiful

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

It does ruin that space though being placed at a really odd angle. As horrible as 1 Picc Gardens is, at least it addresses the open space and street well, helping to better define both and making them more comfortable places. North tower does the opposite. I like its windows though.

AnonymousMarch 3rd 2015.

its worth adding - it seems to owe something to the 60s Archigram movement, which is in its favour, and more innovative, in this respect, than many more bland contemporaries - See eg here akosic.wordpress.com/…

James SmithMarch 3rd 2015.

This article makes your support of knocking down century house for the modern day equivalent in 2 St peters square even more bizarre.

6 Responses: Reply To This...
Shit BiscuitMarch 3rd 2015.

You might argue that 2 St Peter's Square is bland, inoffensive and boring, but if you think it's equivalent to the hulking monstrosity that is North Tower, you've clearly failed to understand any of the above.

James SmithMarch 3rd 2015.

Arguably a bland, inoffensive and boring building is worse than that this was seen to be at the time, which was at least challenging and contemporary. And goes a way towards explaining why the modernists society still discuss it. 2 St peters square is crap now, can't imagine that being included on many tours in 4 years time never mind 40.

Shit BiscuitMarch 3rd 2015.

You can argue that if you like, but we're not 'at the time', so it's irrelevant.

James SmithMarch 6th 2015.

"we're not 'at the time',? Sorry you've lost me again, when was 2 St Peters Square built? Seriously shit biscuit, are you alright or do you need some help?

Shit BiscuitMarch 6th 2015.

We're not 'at the time' that North Tower was seen to be challenging and contemporary. Do you need some help with understanding your own sentences? 2 St Peter's Square has not been built yet.

James SmithMarch 6th 2015.

I'm basically saying that 2 peters square is set to be an equivalent North tower. But at least that was something when it was built, 2 isn't even that. That's my point. Is it so difficult to understand? I mean really?

Mark ButterworthMarch 4th 2015.

The stepped proposal for St. John's looks nice and I know economics have something to do with it but why should so many buildings going up be the matchbox on end boring rectangle. The NOMA building shows it can be done, not the straightlines (yawn) everywhere, dull as ditchwater - Cotton Building, Axis Building et al, so yesterday. Where is Mcr's Gherkin or Shard - landmarks?

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousMarch 4th 2015.

It has good height and could be done up with a new fascia. Like what they do to the council flats around both cities. The ones at Seven Sisters in Hulme now look like luxury apartments and the ones on Rochdale road Collyhurst are looking nice. Get Premier Inn to invest.

AnonymousMarch 5th 2015.

The ones on Rochdale road are awful! Should have knocked them down instead of adding fascias to them - you should see inside them too!

AnonymousMarch 6th 2015.

I think they have done a good job on Rochdale road. You can't polish a turd folks.

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