Which of the new Manchester buildings delivers the killer visual punch? Could it be Urbis, the Imperial War Museum North, the Lowry or Beetham Tower?
Arguably none of the above. Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall are putting the finishing touches to a building which could trump them all: The Civil Justice Centre. This is bold in form and striking in silhouette. Standing just off Bridge Street and set back from the river, it gives the west of the city centre huge architectural excitement.
And huge is the right word. This is a monster structure, 81m (266ft) tall on 15 levels over 34,000 sq m with 47 courtrooms (Technical, Family, County, Civil and High), 4 tribunal courts, 75 consultation rooms plus office and support space. It’s the biggest court complex to be built in the UK since 1882 and the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
The most eye-catching parts of the building are the protruding glass rooms floating one over the other. They look like the old Pearl and Dean cinema adverts crystallized in air. These contain the working courts and offices, and as described by Denton Corker Marshall themselves, ‘establish a dynamic and distinctive building profile; a powerful sculptural interplay of light and shade, depth and complexity. The architectural implication is that the courts are not forbidding or concealed, but open and accessible.’
That’s how architects talk about buildings by the way. Dinner parties are a ball. Still, we know what they mean.
There are a couple of niggles. The building scarcely has room to breathe at ground level, packed as it is amongst other buildings. That has always been a problem in our very constricted city centre, where maximum values are squeezed from every square centimetre of land.
A bigger concern is the grim grill on the eastern - city - side of the building. This is a ‘filtering screen’ which incorporates ‘openable windows’ (how very innovative), ventilation bits and bobs and sunlight controls, whatever they are. But it’s clumsy, so let‘s be thankful that the wow factor façade with the glazed front and the side projections, as shown on our photograph, is the one that hits first and stays longest.
In the winning entry for the international competition with which Denton Corker Marshall won this commission, they stated that they wanted their building to be neither ‘intimidating’ nor ‘monumental ’but to convey ‘human scale’. Yuck, contemporary touchy feely wimpage of the worst kind. Fortunately they were having a laugh or the judges were daft, because the Civil Justice Centre is nothing if not monumental.
This is just as it should be. Major civic buildings need to have presence, they should dominate their area, proclaim themselves. Manchester Town Hall has that in abundance: this is exactly what the present Crown Courts from the sixties, and round the corner from the Civil Justice Centre, fails to provide. Does anybody who doesn’t work there, even remember what the Crown Courts look like?
The Civil Justice Centre also takes us back with pretty symmetry to one of the first major civic structures of the Victorian age in the city. This was the Manchester Assize Courts - the law courts - designed by the architect of Manchester Town Hall, Alfred Waterhouse. Opened close to Strangeways Prison in 1864, it was demolished after Second World War damage. Now we have a modern building to stand comparison to the ambition and verve that classic of its age displayed. The Civil Justice Centre is a real beaut as those crazy Aussies might say.
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