David Rudlin confesses he finds Manchester’s controversial skyline thrilling

David Rudlin

Shock news from Manchester this week: the planning committee actually refused a tower. Well it wasn’t quite a refusal: they were “minded” to refuse, and this only on the casting vote of the chair.

SimpsonHaugh’s proposed 35-storey tower, promoted by Logik, the developer fronted by the former cricketer Freddy Flintoff, was admittedly virtually in the grounds of the grade II* St George’s Church as well as being in a conservation area. But to be honest such considerations have not noticeably concerned the city’s planners in the past.

If Manchester has a tall buildings policy it would appear to run to just two words – “yes please”. As the graphic of Manchester’s changing skyline by Savills demonstrates, there are seven towers taller than the Logik tower currently under construction in Manchester including SimpsonHaugh’s Owen Street B which, as it tops out at 64 storeys, is already dwarfing the practice’s nearby Beetham Tower which has dominated the city’s skyline since its completion in 2006. However before long this too will be exceeded by the 67-storey Trinity Island scheme by Child Graddon Lewis architects and joined by 11 further towers that have been consented in the city. More are planned in neighbouring Salford.

My guilty secret is that I’m quite excited by Manchester’s burgeoning skyline. It has a thrill that reminds me of Chicago and is actually quite in keeping with Mancunians’ brash, self-confident, fuck-you attitude. There, I said it out loud, I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself.

But from an urbanist’s perspective, are towers so wrong? Sure there are many good arguments against them. Some relate to a feeling of unease at the excess that they represent. This is particularly true of the luxury apartment towers in London bought as investment and left unoccupied.

But the Manchester towers on the whole are PRS (private rented apartments funded by pension funds) mixed with a few hotels so that this is less of an issue. Property colleagues fret about the glut of housing coming on to the market and the unwritten rule that the building of towers presages a property crash. This is a very real concern but it relates to the volume rather than form of development.

There are also strong sustainability arguments about tall buildings using more energy, and the effect that they have on local microclimate – as I notice every evening as I am buffeted by sudden gusts of wind on my cycle ride home.

Then, of course, there are arguments over conservation although these, as we say, have never really troubled Manchester except perhaps for Ian Simpson’s proposal for an upturned dome to limit building heights around the town hall.

From an urbanist perspective we can turn, as always, to Jan Gehl who argues that any property above the 6th floor of a building has no relationship with the street and might as well be in a far-flung suburb. But is that really true? It is a long time since people sitting on their balconies below the 6th floor held conversations across the street. People in towers will exit via the foyer at some point (even if many of the PRS schemes include their own communal lounges, gyms and cafes).

Would the streets of New York or Chicago be livelier if all the towers were cropped at six storeys? The reality, as Gehl has also pointed out, is that places like his home city of Copenhagen were full of life 100 years ago because its apartments were crammed with families of up to 10 people.

The same properties today are occupied by single people, couples and small families so that the density of occupation is maybe a quarter of what it was. What is more, all this private internal space means that people can live their lives indoors, rather than out on the street, as they were forced to do in the overcrowded past. So maybe we need to build higher if we want really lively streets?

The key point in determining whether towers add to or detract from the city is their design. Modern towers will only contribute to the city if they hit the street like those of Chicago rather than those of Dubai. If they rise from the pavement, have active frontages and disgorge their activity into the life of the street then they can be a force for good.

Compared to this the towers of Dubai and elsewhere rise from shopping and leisure podia, built over underground car parks and set within landscape so that their life is internalised. This is not a lesson entirely learnt by the architects of Manchester’s towers.

Some, like the Beetham Tower, relate very well to the street with the bar and reception of the Hilton Hotel visible behind floor-to-ceiling glazing and generating a constant buzz of activity. But some of Manchester’s other planned towers are, I fear, more Dubai than Chicago. We should stop worrying about the top of these buildings and focus instead on the bottom.