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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Axis and neon

Jonathan Schofield dreams electric dreams as plans for the largest LED screen are set to brighten Manchester

Written by . Published on February 19th 2010.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Axis and neon

Category: Brilliant – literally

What and who?
A 75m (246ft) tower called Axis, being built by German, Italian and Japanese architects. Only joking. It’s actually being built by the Manchester office of the Irish architects, HKR. It follows their smart glass wrap 60m (197m) Chancery Place scheme on Booth Street – which is almost complete. The new place will open in 2009 and sits on a preposterous site.

Preposterous. Why?
If you know Sugar Lounge on Deansgate Locks, then you might know there’s an area of land between the bar, Albion Street and the Rochdale Canal in which you can just about park a mini. This is where the £17 million, 18 storey, 70,000 sq ft commercial office will be built. To make sure the floors aren’t too skinny and are lettable the building will sail out from its narrow base over the canal.

Lots of engineers and constructional commentators (yes they exist) are getting excited by the fact that the difficult site means that there will only be one concrete core for stairs, lifts and loos in the building. This means Axis will have the tallest single core and escape stair office block in the UK.

Is that exciting?
Well yes, to them it is. But for the rest of us the big news will be a boost to our neon dreams. On the city side, we’re getting the largest LED screen (capital letters please) IN THE WORLD. This will be 50m (165ft) high, in other words double and more of that on Piccadilly Approach. As Paul Norbury of HKR told Confidential, “The screen does a number of things, it masks the solid wall behind the loos, animates the building to the north – the city side – and provides interest to people leaving the city on their way out to Princess Parkway and also to passengers on the trams going south.”

What’s it going to show?
Well apparently it’s a bit of fancy but one with a commercial function. The idea of some kind of special illumination was HKR’s but the client, the Property Alliance Group suggested this should pay for itself, hence the idea of the LED screen. This will run traditional ads, but also feature creative art-led lighting schemes and also be used by the Council to advertise events for free. It also raises an interesting question about neon in the city generally.

You want more neon, don’t you?
You bet. I remember my kids’ faces when they saw Time Square in New York for the first time. That amount of pulsing, flashing glamour was very thrilling. It shouted success through a megaphone at us. In Manchester all we’ve got is a few illuminated signs on the Printworks and that screen on Piccadilly Approach, plus maybe the low-key lighting on the big wheel.

City buzz is increased by the nightly glow of neon. My good mate Tony Cross of Manchester Astronomical Society won’t like me for this, he’ll mutter about light pollution, but I say let’s make this town shine. After the two words Big City, the two words Bright Lights fit very naturally.

Who would pay the electricity bill?
Nobody probably, that’s why it won’t happen. We don’t have the bustle, the numbers of people, to make it commercially viable. There aren’t enough pairs of eyes passing by in, say, Exchange Square.

Has it been tried before in Manchester?
It has. I dimly recall half-hearted attempts in the seventies and eighties to put ads on the side of what is now City Tower in Piccadilly. I seem to remember these were too few and too small to make an impact. And I feel they were switched off at 6pm. I’m not sure that Bruntwood would want their splendidly white and pristine City Tower covered in neon any way. But at Confidential we think it’s good to dream dreams about our city. We’ve even mocked up a view of Piccadilly in a thousand glittering sparkling colours to give an idea of how Manchester might brighten up. There is one area of the city which already shows how exciting this can be.

Am I getting a whiff of curry?
Yep, let’s talk Rusholme. During the day this place is drab, at night it comes alive. The neon on the restaurants and the jewellers pulls you in, gives a lift to the bus journey home. It’s Blackpool Illuminations without the slog of getting there, it puts the city centre’s feeble Christmas lighting schemes to shame. And it works commercially and is paid for privately. Maybe HKR’s massive LED scheme on Axis will encourage others in the city centre to follow suit. Maybe Hilton Tower could get one that’s sound sync-ed with that charming hum.

This article was first posted 30/7/2008 and has been re-edited for the new Manchester Confidential.

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