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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Chips

Jonathan Schofield has a chat to architect Will Alsop on a day-brightening addition to Ancoats

Written by . Published on August 5th 2009.


The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Chips

Category: Excellent

What and when?
Chips. 2009. A 100m-long, nine-storey building developed by Urban Splash. There is a mix of 142 one, two and three bedroom flats and space for a generous restaurant or bar on the ground floor.

Who?
Will Alsop, that generously proportioned dreamer of dreams. The architect of Peckham Library. The architect who scared Liverpool after his Cloud building was accepted and then rejected on the Pierhead.

Description please
Chips stands out. It’s New Islington’s and Ancoats’ showstopper at the moment. Three long horizontals, in pale yellow, bronze and sort of purplish. Recessed balconies are picked out in bright and fun colours, pink, green, yellow. We also get words and letters, big ones, featuring the names of the artificial and natural watercourses in these parts. Personally I love a good font on a building. The best element of the dull MEN building on Hardman Street in Spinningfields is the quotes from ex-Guardian editor C.P. Scott painted on the wall of the vestibule and visible from the street. Chips is better though, because the big bold Times New Roman font is on the outside. The whole structure which follows the line of the neighbouring Ashton Canal, brings joy and a lightness of touch to what was an area of heavy industry and worker housing. When you catch sight of it from a distance it makes you smile. It’s a very public building. This is exactly what Alsop wanted.

How do you know?
I asked him. Alsop is the most approachable of UK architects with an international profile. I called his office early in the week and asked to speak to someone about the building. Twenty minutes later Alsop himself called back. He says: “I wanted the public to be very aware of Chips and enjoy it. We’re in an exciting period in architecture. I love the diversity that can be delivered. I want to embrace that freedom we have as designers and my way is to engage with people, hopefully give them something to talk about and also something they might want to live in.”

Did you ask him how he tested that public reaction?
He has a great answer. He says, “I talk to people of course but I love the Flickr test - see how many times people photograph the building and post it on the internet.” I also asked whether he cares about the comments of other architects and professional commentators who don’t often care for his ‘pop’ approach to design. Alsop says, “I’m not interested in what other architects think about what I do. Many architects don’t want to have that freedom I just mentioned. They want rules, possibly this lets them off applying their imagination.”

What’s the building like on the inside?
The public areas are airy and fun, filled with bright colours, interesting patterns and so forth. They lift the spirit. The apartments have similar character as well. Not sure all the floor plans work to maximum effect, but they are fairly generously proportioned. The apartment ceilings are interesting, left as plain concrete, which could be a challenge for some people but are intended to make the flats feel solid not flimsy. There’s a problem though.

Go on.
The finish is poor, ill-fitting skirting boards for instance or slipped exterior panels exposing inner workings. Alsop seems, as he would be, unhappy about this, “We were economically challenged there. As a result there are some little glitches in the details. I hope these can be resolved.”

And that little shed on the roof, what’s that about?
It’s part of Alsop’s playfulness. The shed covers engineering plant in an accessible area of the roof for residents. Originally Alsop wanted a wooden house in fluorescent paint popped incongruously on top of that second big horizontal. “In the end I had to settle for a garden shed,” he says. “It’s a very ordinary structure. It’s remarkable how many men spend time in a shed.” It's clever this: a moment of pleasing absurdity. Suddenly on this very modern, very large building, you are faced with something as humdrum as a shed. It’s farcical but splendid too. Then came a mini- revelation.

We like revelations...of any size. What was this about?
It was about the name. I hate the name Chips. It’s that whole depressing play on working class Northernness, as though that’s the only species of northerner around. Are there any buildings in once deprived areas of London built for boho incomers called Saveloys? I doubt it. Maybe New Islington (when finished) should be full of structures called Flat Cap or Clog. As a bookish middle class lad growing up in Rochdale, that northern milltown myth had nothing to do with me apart from my accent, the physical backdrop of moors and a love of my mum’s Lancashire cooking. The mills were all closed or closing. I swear I’ve never once said, “By eck, lass, I’d love it if you could fettle me some chips.” Worse there are only three chips here, stacked gastro-pub style. Who’s ever heard of a proper Northern chippy selling a portion of just three chips? By eck, lad, there’d be a reet to-do.

So what was the revelation?
Look through the many published articles about Chips and there'll be a comment like this from the Architects’ Journal: ‘According to Alsop, (the building) was inspired ‘by three fat chips piled on top of one another’’. The revelation is that this is wrong. The name Chips wasn’t dreamt up by Will Alsop. Like everybody on the New Islington project he did the public consultation thing, talked to the locals, and then came up with the design, his design but not the title. “The name wasn’t mine though,” says Alsop. “They (Urban Splash) called it Chips. I didn’t have it in mind. I just came up with what I thought was the best design for the site. The name was visited upon it later.” I find it comforting that Alsop didn't think of the name and then design and build something to match it. I find it comforting that Chips, the title, turns out to just be marketing.

So you still like the building?
I love it. It’s marvellous. Shame about the finish in certain areas but Chips doesn’t half brighten your day as you pass. Alsop’s pleased too. “I’m very proud of it,” he says. “I think it works very well there, but that’s not for me to judge is it?” It isn't Mr Alsop, but most people seem to heartily approve of the structure especially when compared to much of the apartment tat Manchester’s been burdened with in recent years.Well done to Urban Splash as well for having the balls to comission him, now all we need is for Chips to gain some neighbours and for the rest of the New Islington redevelopment to proceed.

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

Ali McGowanAugust 5th 2009.

Well, matt w, you really don't like it, do you? And you can't spell very well either, but that aside, I think you're missing many points. The developer would have had a huge say in the number of and size of apartments. Why does the building not have regard for the site or its context (physical and historical)? It's deliberately placed next to the canal. It's not overly high. It's really quite a simple, charming design. As for 'historical' - what would you do? Build a brand new block of flats made to look like an old mill? Also, what's wrong with three blocks on top of each other? What should it be instead? Your comments are very negative, without proposing anything better. I happen to think that this is a fantastic piece of architecture - stricking, bold, funny and different. Compare with the other new-build crap flats (rabbit hutches) in Ancoats, at least it's something interesting to look at. Only time will tell how it ages. Cost cutting by the developer might mean it looks poo in 20 years. But I hope not - it's cool! Oh and I agree with Cat - I feel exactly the same about the Beetham Tower :)

foxoAugust 5th 2009.

why's it got TRENT on it? excuse my ignorance if this is obvious.

BiscuitAugust 5th 2009.

Does anyone know what the stalin-soviet-grey building is that's to the left of chips as you look from the Rochdale canal side. I'm currently in one of the mills opposite and I'm sure the developers have forgotten it exists.

AndyAugust 5th 2009.

I have to agree with many of the postings here. I love Chips - it looks great. But to live in it? It strikes me the same way as Abito - a bolt-hole, or a place to stay for a couple of years, but not a home. But who knows, perhaps the uniqueness of the building could garner a sense of community? *Shrug*

CatAugust 5th 2009.

I’m no expert, but I do know what I like and Chips makes me feel cheery inside. It’s a delightful bit of whimsy, which as the writer points out is severely lacking in the instantly forgettable structures that we’ve been subjected to over the last decade. I don’t think it’s all about the visual either. I love the Beatham Tower despite the aesthetics not being my cup of tea at all. When I’m driving into town up the M602 and I see it come looming into view; stately and imposing, it makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy. I think it’s because it reminds me of coming home (queue the Lassie theme tune). The very scale and constancy of it makes me nostalgic for home - go figure! I appreciate that the Beetham Tower doesn’t make everyone feel like this, but my point - which I’m slowly meandering to - is that it’s not always about what a building looks like or how the skirting boards are finished, it’s more about what it means to you personally.

JoseAugust 5th 2009.

I like the building... it's fun and nicely placed alongside the canal... much more interesting the the building opposite... however the finish looks so cheap (not 'chip') like a really bad veneer, that ain't going to age well... whose fault is that, the architect, the developer or both?

AnonymousAugust 5th 2009.

It would be nice to have a floor plan with some dimensions and a interior pic. I've lovely ceilings in timber but if that was all I would not expect to get a tenant

blue or red pillAugust 5th 2009.

The disneyfication of today's cityscapes by pretentious lunatics should not be confused with modern architecture. Let us not forget: Alsop is nothing more than a bumptious upstart - we wish him all the best quitting architecture and going back to painting (and decorating)...

LouAugust 5th 2009.

As with most new build flats, what will it look like in 50/75/100 years time? At the prices these flats command you would like to think that you will be able to pass somehting on to the next generation which they can live in.Someone suggested that when they start to deteriorate they will become the slums of tomorrow.Its something I worry about.

El CroquisAugust 5th 2009.

Andreas, for the record: you should move to Spain if you want to see progressive architecture, or Austria for progressive residential. Alsop is all facade and no content. That is British, you are right...

Ali McGowanAugust 5th 2009.

Jose: I would usually blame the developer - or their contractor for saying 'hey, swap this for that and it'll save you LOADS... the architect has over specc'd that bit!!. Usually the architect then ends up with putting his/her name to something that looks a bit crapper than they intended. They can protest but the developer is paying, so is free to change materials/designs if they wish. I can sympathise with Mr Alsop for whatever 'value engineering' AKA cost-cutting that is prevalent in the industry.

AnonymousAugust 5th 2009.

Ugly. I like the graphics and the shed but would I could I live there? Noooooo...... And its the wrong side of that big scary road..

ChimneyPotParkAugust 5th 2009.

I'm a house at Chimney Pot Park – an Urban Splash development in Salford. My owner was walking past this development the other week and a local called it a travesty! I just hope it doesn’t leak. I leak and my owners are really fed up with me. Urban Splash hasn’t been able to resolve the problem. It’s been 18 months now… Not sure why not… can’t get hold of anyone to ask… Happy to take your money off you, not so quick to resolve any latent defects… My owners say they’d advise anyone planning on buying from Urban Splash to think very carefully.

andreasAugust 5th 2009.

Hi foxo! The Trent name wraps around three sides of the top 'chip' and spells Trent & Mersey for the canal which runs from the River Mersey, near Runcorn to the River Trent in Derbyshire. For the record, all the names printed on the building recall shipping waterways of the Northwest. Also for the record: I think, Will Alsop is the most courageous and talented Architect in the UK, and the only shame is that the building industry in this country doesn't seem to appreciate him...

matt wAugust 5th 2009.

I'm also amazed that Jonathan (whom I normally agree whole-heartedly with on matters design), or anyone else likes this building! Alsopp's approach to this, as with the vast majority of his projects, has had little or no regard for the site or it' context (physical and historical), other than the lip-service of the writing on the side. How many public comments did he recieve asking for 3 oblong atop each other? How many asked for yet more tiny flats for transient tenants and greedy, absent buy-to-letters? His approach, universally, is to be wacky and creative for its own sake - like me discarding my work suit in preference for a tutu and insisting that is somehow right and good and makes me beautiful - it doesn't. I'm all for creative solutions to real problems - and let not kid ourselves, ancoats and Beswick next door has plenty of those - but this achieves nothing in that respect. What is the rationale for the building, in terms of its use, scale, materials? Evidently none. As for putting a smile on my face, reverting to the old trick with social housing of using splashes of primary colours certainly isn't going to do that. (It hasn't worked in Hulme where you can easily spot the housing association developments by looking for the brightly coloured window frames etc.) Overall, dismal this development.

Chris GibsonAugust 5th 2009.

Interesting point by John. The building itself does look a bit different, which is no bad thing. I'm sure the public areas are "airy and fun". However, does anything set the flats apart from the literally thousands of other tiny, poor quality flats that have been built over the past two years in the City Centre? More to the point, how much are these flats expected to sell for?

Darren ScottAugust 5th 2009.

Terrible example of architecture, design and typography. An absolute eyesore on the landscape. This could be the worst building ever to be built in the city. I am a massive fan of modern architecture and pushing the boundaries with innovative buildings, but this is just a massive failure on all fronts.

not convincedAugust 5th 2009.

Looks cheap and nasty to me. Cheap as Chips?

AnonymousAugust 5th 2009.

I think it is absolutely hideous and am amazed that there seems to be quite a lot of people who like it.

OAugust 5th 2009.

give it 12 months... if that, when half the flats are unoccupied and they go to the DSS and are filled with dossers and families of 20... like at Sportcity, that other beacon of East Manchester's 'regeneration'.

smartiemcrAugust 5th 2009.

I'm looking forward to moving in on Friday!

jimjamAugust 5th 2009.

That area needs a lot more investment to give it any sense of being/becoming a prime 'city living' area, and times as they are, that's not going to be easy.Such a shame because it's a really cool project, but I don't think there's anything around there to complement it, nor will there be.What's the deal with the abandoned skeletal apartment projects further along ancoats? They need taking down before they fall down.

John WareAugust 5th 2009.

Had a view of one of the flats a couple weeks ago. This is all about design and not about living - architecture for a transient population. "Where is the storage space?" I asked. "There is none" came the reply, "But you can get a wardrobe". I suppose you could live here for a year or two. But it could never be a home.

Happy JackAugust 5th 2009.

I love Chips. Simple as that. As the writer says it brightens up your day. Puts a smile on your face.

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