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Architects with cojones

Phil Griffin celebrates MBLC’s work in Hulme and Ancoats

Published on December 21st 2007.

Architects with cojones

Ancoats and Hulme may not be the most salubrious districts of the city, nor the best heeled. But they have history and virtue. Without Ancoats, no Cottonopolis. Without Hulme, no Rolls Royce. Fine buildings too; Crowther’s beautiful spire of St Mary’s, AW Pugin’s St Wilfrid’s, and the Zion Institute on either side of Hulme Park. In Ancoats, Sir Owen Williams’s black glass building, St Peter’s church and Victoria Square. Hulme had the stuffing knocked out of it by jerry builders and careless housing policy. Ancoats got stripped of jobs and lead, and torched. They are back, of course. They were bound to be.

These are prolific architects who fight to work on interesting and varied projects, and who partner with gutsy clients. They appear to treat every scheme as a new challenge.

There’s a good argument for dating Manchester’s last renaissance from 1993, the year the City Council adopted the Design Guidelines for Hulme. This was a key moment because it sealed the relationship between the Council, the chief executive’s office and a consensus group of Manchester’s designers and architects. Prominent among the authors of the design guide were George Mills and Ian Beaumont of architects MBLA. George went on to lead the consultation that resulted in Homes for Change. MBLA wears its heart on its sleeve. Committed architects who look for opportunities in areas where others would rather not stray. Such as Ancoats and Hulme.

Not everything in Hulme has turned out like an Architecture Expo. Some volume house builders have put up mediocre stuff. That said, I would guess that people like living in most of the places that aren’t about to pick up Royal Institute of British Architects awards. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if George Mills and his colleagues pick up plenty for phase four of the Life building on Hulme High Street. These are 100 one and two bed apartments and maisonettes for developer David Lloyd of City South. City South has also been the development partner on 41 Bengal Street, Ancoats. Here MBLA has designed 48 apartments in 5 storeys, above their own new studio and car park. Neither of these new buildings is what you might call shy. Neither is making any attempt to merge, quietly, into its surroundings. The elevation that looks onto the ASDA car park in Hulme is patterned in a cryptic barcode that actually does say ‘Life’. It is topped with a broad orange stripe that runs the length of the building. In red brick Ancoats 41 Bengal Street is beautiful dark brown brick to second floor, beneath five floors of white render. Stick that in your eye.

Mills and Beaumont and their partners play a difficult game. They will not make architecturally polite, discreet buildings. Their relationships with various planning authorities have been colourful. Their first signature building was the all-white Siemen’s HQ on Princess Parkway. White is a bit of a theme. It’s repeated in the Aytoun Library for MMU, and unsubtley blended with orange glass at Lock apartments on Whitworth Street. There’s a yellow thing going on at the Powerhouse in Moss Side, a gorgeous flourish of red in their new extension to the Royal Northern College of Music on Oxford Road. These are prolific architects who fight to work on interesting and varied projects, and who partner with gutsy clients. They appear to treat every scheme as a new challenge, and go for broke. Variety is their chief characteristic.

Life building is in four phases. The latest building is 5 storeys above car parking and commercial lets. It is essentially two blocks on either side of an open court, which is topped with a triple canopy tent structure. This is reminiscent of the roof piece on the Abito building (architects BDP) in Greengate, Salford. They both work well, despite being a bit of an architectural cliché. Moving round the building, inside and out, is a clear enough indication that it has flair and originality. Not many developers, including Urban Splash, will support this amount of eye-catching detail, from the German off-white brick to the orange rendered penthouses.

At 41 Bengal Street the sort of architectural flourish you don’t see every day. There’s a hole straight through the building. Most balconies in modern apartments are utterly useless for anything other than storing punctured mountain bikes. There are four apartments here with deep balconies that project into the void that runs front to back through the building. They are protected from rain and gales even though they are suspended in open air. This inside outside space is lined in dark timber. The building has great character. It needs to have, sitting as it does amongst some of the hardest, most reticent industrial architecture in the world. Not many architects would be prepared to make this sort of commitment to the regeneration of Ancoats. Not many architects would pull off their HQ and apartments with such flair.

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GSDecember 21st 2007.

I used to attempt to find a bit of tranquility in one of the nearby flats when Life was being built. The pile-driver used to disturb things with its incessant thump. Good times though. Glad the building turned out spectacular. MBLC should win lots of awards for it, despite it being too bland on the ASDA car park side.

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