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Back to our roots

Phil Griffin dissects Manchester’s last standing 18th Century Warehouse

Published on February 6th 2008.

Back to our roots

Marketing Manchester has moved out of the Tootal building on Oxford Street and hopped up the Rochdale canal to Dale Street and Piccadilly Basin.

I guess the move is partly spiritual. Closer to the roots of the thing. The Manchester mills, I mean. Drew Stokes and his marketing team are in the lowest two floors of Carver’s Warehouse, which is a Manchester equivalence of William the Conqueror’s White Tower in the Tower of London, having been commissioned and built by Yorkshire men. Carver’s is stone, cast iron and timber warehousing built by William Crossley, the Rochdale Canal Company’s engineer in 1806, ten years before the Battle of Waterloo and 24 years before the Railway Age kicked off in Manchester. Built out of Yorkshire millstone grit, Carver’s is altogether alien amongst the Manchester brick. Its stolid, brooding presence is unably reminiscent of isolated moorland farms.

The Yorkshire men have held their ground. Two hundred years on, their big stone building has a chic new annex and bright new tenants. Appropriately the new owner and developer is Leeds based Town Centre Securities. Their Piccadilly Basin is hanging together nicely, around a master plan by Ian Simpson Architects. On Great Ancoats Street there’s ILVA furniture store; as handsome a retail shed as you’ll find anywhere. There are Conran designed apartments, nicely converted warehouses, and a showy new HQ building for architects BDP that dips its toes in the canal. There are some stinkers too, but that’s cities for you. Carver’s closest neighbours are three former warehouse buildings, including a smart white faience number from the 1930’s that Maghull Property Developers is converting to apartments.

Carver’s used to have a plumber’s merchant and bathroom supplier on the first floor. It was chaotic and what you could probably describe as under-utilised. When areas get “improved” improvised businesses such as this move on. At this stage in the Northern Quarter cycle there is still a rough mix of tenants and residents that gives the area an identity unlike any other in the city.

Marketing Manchester was invited to the building by Martin Stockley, the structural engineer who was involved in early work at Piccadilly Basin. Stockley moves his business to the top two floors of Carver’s and actively promotes other creative businesses to join the community.

And there is a quite genuine community around these narrow streets and warehouses. The Dale Street / Hilton Street axis is a proper bit of evolving city and it’s happening at a pace that allows at least some small businesses to keep up.

Carver’s never had a presence on Dale Street. It has now. The new bit adds atrium space off the street, lifts and a stair rising through the building and connecting via sloping bridges to the variety of floor heights in the old building, through original goods handling slots. There’s half a dozen full height stone-faced fins that rise up the front of the building to the left of the door. The gaps between them are glazed. To me they are fussy and over-detailed. I don’t think this is bad architecture, but it seems at odds with its immediate, weighty environment. This street-facing box also has a glass lid, a clerestory bringing light in to the building. In order to achieve this the big steel truss that holds the building together at the top is cut with large holes. The detail isn’t comfortable.

Marketing Manchester’s basement is divided by monolithic stone pillars. They feel pre-industrial, almost monastic. Whatever the resonance for the people who work here, it is a space of great character, which has to be a bonus. Martin Stockley and Stan Broster, the architect who has completed the scheme, must have been on a bit of a voyage of discovery. I don’t think all their solutions are entirely comfortable, but I’m pretty sure they are pragmatic. In the end recycling old buildings is cost-effective. They’re the grain of the city, the interesting bits. They put the story on to the pages. Marketing Manchester has the job of promoting the city world-wide. They can present the shiny new bits and quote the square metres of prime commercial space. And they can invite people to the office and tell the story of mills, canals and warehouses, and the early assimilation of Scotsmen, Yorkshire men, and all-comers who came to make money in the city and ended up being part of it.

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