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Elisabeth House re-invented

Jonathan Schofield on the pros and cons of the most prominent new building in Manchester for a decade?

Written by . Published on October 7th 2009.

Elisabeth House re-invented

Grim stained crappy 1960s Elisabeth House is to be replaced by a shiny sheen of Modernism from Glenn Howells Architects.

The project, known as One St Peter’s Square, was won in competition ahead of FLACQ, Stanton Williams and Austin-Smith:Lord. It sits in a hugely important position opposite Central Library.

Glenn Howells, the architect, described the project in the Architects Journal: “as probably the most significant building north of Birmingham.” Shy lad our Mr Howells.

Here are the hard facts.

The new building will be a commercial office scheme overlooking St Peter’s Square for the Greater Manchester Property Venture Fund and Argent. It will house a ‘mix of uses’ including a gallery, restaurant and shops at street level. It will be 14 storeys high and will provide a vast 350,000sq ft of commercial space with a completion date of 2012.

Glenn Howells, the architect, described the project in the Architects Journal: “as probably the most significant building north of Birmingham.” Shy lad our Mr Howells.

He went on to say: “We want to create an elegant building, with a long life and that will not look like it was built in 2012. We want to make it look effortless. We also thought it was inappropriate for it to be louder than the other buildings around it.”

He’s achieved three things here.

First off, the building has elegance. It looks lighter than it is with stone-clad vertical columns heavy on the lower floors turning narrow beyond that, and then recessed upper floors with the square on shape continued by corner piers to the crest of the building. A bit of trickery involving heavier horizontals every couple of floors deceives the viewer into thinking the building is not as tall as it otherwise might appear.

Secondly, the building isn’t ‘louder’ than the three classic older structures here, the Midland Hotel, the Central Library and the Town Hall Extension. It has architectural good manners and defers to the flamboyance or grandeur of the others. It also sort of matches in shade with Peter House on the one side and Century House (although it crushes the latter in scale) on the other and Central Library across the Square. There’s a slight echo of the Library portico in that lower floor as well.

Thirdly Glenn Howells is right it doesn't 'look like it was built in 2012'. It looks like it might have been built in 1959 instead. This is a very International Modern design.

A downside is the sheer bulk of the structure. In the imaging it looks light, but will something far taller than Central Library feel like that in reality? Its bulk as it turns into Oxford Street is even more of a problem especially as here it seems to lose the finesse of the St Peter's Square facade.

A further doubt lies over its subtlety - except in scale. The Midland, Central Library and the Town Hall Extension are all 'me, me, me' buildings and they are all more or less on one side of St Peter's Square. Maybe something more demonstrative was necessary on this side of the space to deliver exuberant balance. Let's just hope the restrained nature of the design wasn't deemed necessary to try and ease its passage through planning.That would have been cowardice.

The scheme is out for public consultation and is due to be submitted for planning before Christmas.

The Confidential verdict is generally a thumbs up.

Glenn Howells Architects is a top practice: a quick look at Timber Wharf, a class piece of work in Castlefield-cum-St Georges-cum-Hulme (wherever it is now) will underline this. The only concerns are about the building's sheer bulk and whether being so polite in tone is right for such a key location.

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

DaveOctober 7th 2009.

It does quite complement the style of the 1950s ABC TV building which is opposite the Midland on the other side of the library from St Peters Sq (the one with Starbucks on the ground floor), as well as Peter House IMO. Certainly a big improvement on Margaret House (although that was originally supposed to have been clad in Portland stone but the developer ran out of money and left it as bare concrete).

NitaOctober 7th 2009.

Ali, when I say it's dull I mean that they've used the same format and combination of materials that every other new building seems to have. It's like no one can think of anything new to bring to the table. Definitely agree with the 'Barratt Homes' theory...they've got no character and no individuality, just like the modern architecture that just keeps on springing up.There's just no thought being put into what our city is going to look like in 20 years time. Just cheap-looking stone and grimy looking glass.

crispy40October 7th 2009.

It could certainly look more interesting than it does, but i think it is important to be sympathetic to its surroundings as well, we don't need another needless tower to massage some town planners' ego... "Origin" on princess st is a perfect example of an innapropriate tower being squeezed into a site with no consideration for its surroundings (hopefully that one's ground to a halt permanently now...?)

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

As most people here say this is a dreadful proposal considering its position and presented is a way which is designed to mislead on the basis of the pictures here.I understood that their was supposed to be a Master Plan for the area which of course needs to consider the proposal for the Odeon building (a tower) as well.I cannot understand why we should have modernist retro on tis site.... so early 60's. Why is it trying to say apart from the fact that is cheap, letable and can be dismantled in 2040.If people are really opposed to this they need to get together (with some quotes on involving the community from the Cameroon) and suggest a way beyond this disgraceful proposal for the Square. and the areaSince this is a conservation area there is plenty in the planning guidance for objections to this and people should tell English Hertitage (Cabe are useless) and Manchesters Conservation Advisory Committee to do their duty as well as submitting reasoned objection. But the first thing is to tell the developer it is not worthy of Manchester (Go away to Leeds?)

benOctober 7th 2009.

missed opportunity - absolute prime site for something special - DOH!!!!!

Peter RivendellOctober 7th 2009.

I rather like it - but let's add about twenty storeys...

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

I agree with The Whalley Ranger,this is so boring,I think Glenn Howells meant the most BLAND building north of birmingham...no vision whatsoever whoever deemed this as the competition winner needs replacing fast,there is no iconic builds being built in Manchester at all.this is a huge opportunity missed again!!!

TigerOctober 7th 2009.

Will the Dutch Pancake House be coming back?

JonOctober 7th 2009.

This looks almost exactly the same as every other new non-glass building in Manchester. The planners, council, and architects really need a kick up their bums to stop Manchester sliding back into ubiquity and monotony. I hardly believe they needed an architect for this design - I think that Manchester is being formed from a City-scale variant on the Barrat homes house-architecture-by-numbers folios. It's a cheap, and very limited, choice: do you want style number 1 or number 2 for your new project in Manchester?

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

It has to be said this looks very similar to 1 Piccadilly Gardens by the same developers, Argent. Although St Peter's Square promises to be much the better building there are too many similarities in terms of style character and profile - fronting as they do onto key public spaces. Manchester therefore risks being perceived as homogenous having its public spaces dominated by two largely similar and in many ways unsatisfactory buildings. Can't be an the best for Argent's profile either.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

A missed opportunity for a fantastic site... Very dull and pedestrian. It offers nothing to what should be a vibrant square, particularly as plans are afoot to utilise the library crescent. Poor effort.

The Whalley RangerOctober 7th 2009.

Let's be clear. This site could have housed Manchester's 'gherkin'. Maximising a public ground level would have compensated for extra height. Instead, we are getting neither a low rise, nor a tall building which this site could have accommodated easily. Has the current financial climate resuted in a reduction of the the brief and ambition? The references to eaves levels of the surrounding buildings are poor and should have either been adhered to or completely ignored. I fear this design demonstrates how a compromise is not always the best architectural solution.

PlahOctober 7th 2009.

I can never muster up any enthusiasm for moderm building whatsoever. We churn out variations of the office block, sharp, square and bland, when there were a number of architectural eras which provided so much beauty and inspiring character. Yes it doesn't look like 2012, yes it looks more like 1959, why haven't we moved on from this format (alright, I know money and building deadlines are a big factor, but still).

tombatwombatOctober 7th 2009.

While I'm on I just like to add my voice to the 'Bring Back The Dutch Pancake House' campaign!

SteOctober 7th 2009.

I'm just glad its not the sadly ubiquitous red brick clad (1 Piccadilly!) It is indeed elegant, is sympathetic to its surroundings and I like it. But I do agree with the above, its hardly at world beater!

gordonisamoronOctober 7th 2009.

I tend to agree. Inoffensive. Which is of course an improvement on Elizabeth House but it's hardly "probably the most significant building north of Birmingham.”

Ali McGowanOctober 7th 2009.

Nita, I disagree... lots of the newer buildings are pretty much all glass on the outside or glass and cheap-looking cladding. This is very retro in its approach, but I really quite like it. The stone complements stuff around it and it's not just glass glass glass. I think it's entirely appropriate for the setting and not too showy to as detract from some of the other lovely buildings nearby. The sooner we are rid of Lizzie House the better.

marieOctober 7th 2009.

Glenn Howells. EDITORIAL: sorry got that wrong in a couple of places didn't we? Repaired now.

Baron Rogers of RiversideOctober 7th 2009.

Peter House is a carefully crafted sculpture with low elements facilitating a good street presence and the tall 'shard' in respectful distance to the square, hardly comparable to the 'umphhh' bulkiness of the new proposal. ABC TV has no presence on the square and is an irrelevantly mediocre complex which should be brightly lit in the event of a future air raid...

tombatwombatOctober 7th 2009.

While this site isn't appropriate for Manchester's Gerkin, where is Manchester's Gerkin? A building of that stature and quality in Manchester would be a positive addition to the city. Not a copy of the London building of course, but something with that building's spirit and wow factor. It's certainly become an icon for London, I even noticed it in an wooden Early Learning Centre 'build your own London' set for the under 5s! Maybe on one of the few remaining sites in Spinningfields or at the end of Deansgate near the Hilton Tower? As for this one on St Peter's Square, it is inoffensive but it hardly sets the pulse racing does it?

martinOctober 7th 2009.

Just a thought....has anyone considered the fact that this building is on the South side of St Peter's Square? A taller building than the one that's already there will seriously reduce the amount and quality of the light there. Manchester has always struggled with the concept of open urban space. With the possible exceptions of Albert and St Ann's Squares, the rest are embarrassments. St Peters is an opportunity that won't come along again for a long time if this is messed up.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

It would be worth adding a few storeys if it could be 'pulled back' from StPeter's Square a good few metres. This would add to a sense of space and would open up a full view of the Library when approaching from Oxford Road. However, this is already a huge amount of commercial floor space to add to an already over supplied market. Is there a pre-let (?) because otherwise it's going to be tough to finance it on a purely speculative basis.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2009.

This proposal would sit pretty well in St Peters......burg. It is similar to a lot of the communist era architecture found still crushing the souls of many poor eastern European cities. It's a big burly brute that the post war 'visionaries' in MCC might have built as their new HQ having knocked down our beloved 'proper' Town Hall.I do worry about Argent. The Piccadilly Gardens building is just the usual cheap red brick; this new proposal appears to be a 'bulked up on steroids' version with cladding instead of the bricks. Parts of their Picc Place scheme, specifically the cheap looking brick building that houses GMPTE, leave much to desire. They have been allowed to get away with banality in two high profile locations, let's not make it three.

DanOctober 7th 2009.

What a tragically missed opportunity. This site sits at the end of a key gateway into the city, close to some of the most architectually significant buildings in the estate. I agree whole-heartedly with The Whalley Ranger - this site could have hosted Manchester's Gherkin. A dominant building is necessary to hold position and challenge the existing architecture within the square - yes, it needs to be sympathetically designed to ensure it doesn't clash, but that doesn't mean it should not be great.A tall tower on this site could be leveraged to improve the public realm, with a little imagination, traffic, even trams, could be diverted behind the site to create a truly world class square for the city's residents and visitors to marvel at the excellent buildings.

Sir AlanOctober 7th 2009.

Glenn Howells - you're fired. (Tiger - you're hired)

NitaOctober 7th 2009.

It's just so....dull. Nothing interesting about it at all. I'd almost prefer them to just clean up the existing building!All the newer buildings in Manchester at the moment just feel incredibly samey, and will most likely date far too quickly. Such a shame.

marieOctober 7th 2009.

Glenn Howells

Not for the tourists...October 7th 2009.

It's certainly tasteful, restrained and inoffensive... The Boddingtons of buildings...Where's the ambition though?

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 20th 2010.

Just a thought....has anyone considered the fact that this building is on the South side of St Peter's Square? A taller building than the one that's already there will seriously reduce the amount and quality of the light there. Manchester has always struggled with the concept of open urban space. With the possible exceptions of Albert and St Ann's Squares, the rest are embarrassments. St Peters is an opportunity that won't come along again for a long time if this is messed up.”

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