“Oh yeah, I know it mate. You can’t miss it, it’s flippin’ massive!” onoffice is in Manchester to see the Co-operative Group’s glittering new headquarters, and our request to the taxi driver for 1 Angel Square was initially met with a blank look. Though the building’s amorphous form has penetrated the city’s consciousness, its address apparently hasn’t.
In banking hierarchy, the Co-operative has always been more Captain Mainwaring than Gordon Gekko. When the air was finally let out of the balloon economy, rather than running round shouting a Corporal Jones-esque “Don’t panic!”, it plugged along unperturbed. Perhaps this conservative reputation accounts for the collective jaw dropping at CABE when the organisation, whose interests stretch way further than banking, presented designs for its new Manchester headquarters.
In reality, CABE had no reason to be surprised. Prior to a period of stagnation that set in during the gloomy 1970s, the organisation fostered a reputation for commissioning cutting-edge architecture. The Co-operative estate (which lies on the opposite side of Miller Street to the new building) is an architectural journey, rocketing through Victorian, Edwardian and Dutch Dudok periods, concluding with the CIS Tower, Manchester’s own surprisingly good interpretation of Chicago modernism. The Co-op’s home since 1962, the CIS’s stacked layout was hindering progress of an organisation forged in radicalism; 1 Angel Square is a £110m effort to rediscover its esprit de corps.
Swirling like a walnut whip (albeit one with its top nibbled off), the new building could not be more different from its angular predecessor. It was designed by the Manchester-based wing of global architects 3D Reid and squats at the heart of the NOMA masterplan to transform a fading area of Manchester into a business and retail hub. “This building is a statement of intent about where the Co-op wants to see itself,” explains project architect Mike Hitchmough. “They wanted to excel.” Being the Co-op, sustainability was crucial, but this was allied to a need to inject some coherence into a 3,500-strong workforce formerly spread over eight different buildings. These dual desires help to explain the building’s considerable girth as well as the glassy facade: “We were going for BREEAM Outstanding so we knew we had to maximise daylight. The floorplates had to be 24,000sq ft [2,330sq m] and no desk should be more than seven metres from a window.”
Mathematics dictates that to achieve this with a conventional box would have resulted in a office floor about 130 metres long, but “that isn’t very collaborative and neither would it fit on the site”. Hitchmough and team designed a curved building reportedly inspired by old-fashioned beehives, which featured on the Co-op’s original logo to illustrate the strength of the many versus the few. As far as sustainability is concerned, mass glazing on a south-facing building is generally a no-no. Hitchmough disputes this: “Lets face it, Manchester is not Marbella. We want to grab every kilojoule of free energy. This building has acres of concrete in it, which act like a thermal sponge feeding the heat out throughout the day.”
Contravening another aphorism, the building is not ventilated by openable windows. Instead air is sucked in by chimney-like structures, passed through underground pipes (which heat or cool, depending on the time of year) and finally pumped into the building. Excess heat is expunged through vents on the atrium roof. The double-skinned facade, hung on a subtle yet rich bronze and white aluminium frame, insulates the building like a duvet, while blades on the back of the mullions shield the sun’s rays from the inner glass wall.
The building’s money shot is a tremendous atrium, which feels as wide as a ballroom on the ground floor and soars to the 14-storey summit. 3D Reid has vastly improved on standard-issue corporate atria, which overwhelm you with glass and steel, by using a mixture of timber (to hide the cores) and bright white concrete that ricochets sunbeams around the building (another passive measure to reduce reliance on artificial lighting). Overlooking the atrium on all sides are workspaces, which encourage views of their direct neighbours as well as those residing below and above. Hitchmough says the atrium is “the glue that binds it all together”.
The ground floor is flanked by a canteen and a mezzanine business lounge, accessed by a slightly awkward spiral stair. Take the lift to the upper floors and the view immerses you in the theatricality of the Pennines to the east, and the rest of the city to the south. The building is set back on floors 9-14 to create outdoor terraces, topped off with weird eyelid-like canopies.
This is a thoroughly democratic workplace. Traditional hierarchical symbols, like the corner office, are wiped out thanks to the building’s bulbous form. The restaurant, stuffed in the basement in the CIS building, is now on the eighth floor so everyone from the mightiest director to the lowliest intern can enjoy the view. The open-plan offices are figuratively divided up into zones, with no hard and fast rules about which desks people sit at. Through analysis of its own working patterns, the Co-op determined that 2,860 workstations, supported by a breakout spaces and private meeting rooms, would be sufficient for 3,500 staff. “If we had one person per desk we would have needed to put another three storeys on the building,” says Hitchmough. One hopes its calculations are correct. If not, then organisation has an ace up its sleeve: 3D Reid has sliced out rectangular sections in each of the building’s corners to create mezzanine floors, which can easily be filled in to provide an extra 3,700sq m of offices. Indeed, the architects’ future-proofing is exemplary – in case of climate change, the space is designed to cope with a possible 3-5 degree temperature increase in the summer and 30% more rainfall in winter. Tapping into the Co-op’s principles of local sourcing and sustainability, the building is powered by CHP plant fuelled by rapeseed grown on the Co-op’s Northamptonshire farms. Any excess energy will eventually be fed back to the grid and used by the forthcoming NOMA development.
While there is no doubt this building will be a marvellous place to work, architecturally it is a struggle. Inevitably, something this unusual needs a context to absorb it, and the hope must be that the masterplan will soften its impact. Hitchmough describes the relationship between the CIS Tower and 1 Angel Square as a conversation between siblings, one with straight hair and one with curls, but it seems more like a contest between a straight line and a barrel. The Co-op is betting a substantial amount on the barrel’s triumph.