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Showstopper Architecture

Jonathan Schofield wonders if this is the most exciting new building in Manchester

Written by . Published on April 16th 2007.


Showstopper Architecture

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

GazApril 16th 2007.

Jose says, "...I think it is a fine example of a good looking building from the sixties...". I hadn't realised there were any. Try visiting a city like Oxford which has spectacular architecture from each of the last seven centuries and try saying with honesty that eye-sore sixties architecture and design doesn't stand out - every time - for all the wrong reasons.As a lawyer I think the new building is really quite spectacular, too.

RobApril 16th 2007.

I think the building looks striking, I've been driving past it on my way to work for what seems like years and it great to see it looking so great. I've always been a fan of shiny buildings since first clapping my eyes on the opening credits for Dallas.The picture in the article really doesn't do it justice (no pun intended!)

citizen saneApril 16th 2007.

It's beautiful, brave and exciting. Has guts too. Beetham Tower was neither stunning nore ugly. It was boring. Ugly with time can be considered beautiful. Boring is always boring. This however is stunning. Nice one.

Jonathan SchofieldApril 16th 2007.

Gordo, a funcation is a type of dance music emanating from the Asian subcontinent.

RichardApril 16th 2007.

It's an eyesore - I am normally a fan of modern architecture but the court building looks grim. Is the architect an alcoholic?

Jonathan SchofieldApril 16th 2007.

I do like to enjoy myself. The city's a great big playground after all. Was that 22 hours a month?

ChrisApril 16th 2007.

This article is typical hogwash written by Manchester Confidential. Standards are slipping chaps. The article is clearly written by somebody that does not understand buildings or there funcation or brief. Where is the objective opinoin from someone "in the know"??

AnonymousApril 16th 2007.

And in turn Sunlight House blocks your view of the town hall.

pat karneyApril 16th 2007.

Not one of my favorites. Amazing how you make up your mind in five seconds and then it sticks. And another thing how do you get a job at your place --everywhere I go I see Mr Jonathan enjoying himself. We work 22 hr days here at the council.

Steve JohnsonApril 16th 2007.

Don't forget the music, thanks for that too. On the building, it looks like the inside of a computer, really not sure about it but hey, at least it's different.

StephanieApril 16th 2007.

I think this building is horrible. It is one of the main views from my home and has blotted out what was a nice building to look at - Sunlight House. Also they must be very busy getting it finished as the lights blaze all night. Well, I hope that's the reason and they are not just adding more to the light pollution in Manchester.

steveApril 16th 2007.

It looks ace!!

LozzApril 16th 2007.

Its Amazing, and awesome I Absolutely love it. I aggree with Jose about the Open Spaces.

AnonymousApril 16th 2007.

I wouldn't get too hung up about it, there's plenty other builds coming. I too wondered what the other side was about, looks almost like they can do a 'lockdown' but no. Perhaps it means windows can open without people falling out! I am impressed by the building, at night it looks awesome, must be one of the largest uninterupted illuminated facades in the country, maybe the biggest. Buildings like the one on St. Mary's Axe have pillars blocking the light. This building claims major respect, as a court building should.

Phil TaylorApril 16th 2007.

It looks like a filing cabinet with the drawers left out.Is that the building that a part blew off onto a pedestrian during the extreme high winds?

DavidosApril 16th 2007.

It has to be one of the ugliest buildings I've seen for a long time - the front looks as though it was damaged by the bomb and hasn't been repaired yet!

JoseApril 16th 2007.

I am a fan of Jonathan Schofield articles and his incredible good eye to talk about this city and its buildings, but for once I have to disagree with him. I don't work at the old courts, and I remember them very well. I think it is a fine example of a good looking building from the sixties . I love the wide entrance with the canopy and the old-fashion communist look which I find has a charm that not many other buildings from the era have in Manchester... really reminiscent of Brazilia or some of the work of Le Courbusier in Chandîgarh (India).... However I agree that the new courts building in Manchester is quite striking... I just wished that instead of Spinninfields (which is not becoming bad looking) we would have had a wide boulevard descending from the town hall up to the courts, like in one of the post-war urban designs for the city... This place needs open spaces, and the council should grab the opportunities when they come around.... Thanks for your articles, Jonathan.

JamesApril 16th 2007.

Anonymous, bland and far too shiny.

GordoApril 16th 2007.

Chris, Gordo loves it when you guys spank the upstart Schofield, keep at it. BTW, what the **** is a funcation? C'mon Schofield, we should know.

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