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.
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.
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.
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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