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21 Jul 2015

Glenn Howells' office block with curved elevation

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Glenn Howells Architects has created a dynamic commercial design that sits comfortably within Manchester’s historic public realm

Category: Architecture
  • Architect: Glenn Howells
  • Client: Argent, Greater Manchester Property Venture Fund
  • Location: Manchester, UK
  • Cost: £50m
  • Duration: Sept 2008 - Sept 2014
  • Floor Space: 25,175sq m

Forming a weighty slice of one of Manchester’s most important public realms – St Peter’s Square – and standing opposite two of its best-known municipal buildings, Glenn Howells Architects’ new 14-storey office building has a civic duty to hold up. On the far side of the square sits the neoclassical Manchester Central Library, next to the Town Hall extension – a contemporary Gothic interpretation – both Grade-II listed. In keeping with its place, while still mindful of providing tip-top office space, Glenn Howells’ One St Peter’s Square is handsome and grand in scale, yet understated in decoration; it is carefully sewn into the city fabric.

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“It was about creating a sense of heritage and gravitas, working with the surroundings to create a modern classic,” says practice director Davinder Bansal. “There are a lot of shouty trophy buildings, architectural statements that have no relationship to their setting. This is not too brash or blingy, it’s quiet and composed. It has a civic quality.”

The structure is predominantly a simple cuboid except for its western side, which curves to follow the arc of the road. Up close, this means the vast facade falls in line with the ground-level cityscape. From across the square, the view is broken up by this subtle change in perspective, a softer, convex plane, which gives the building a distinct identity.

Originally the exterior was intended to be uniformly clad in stone, but this evolved to become a three-tiered structure – “with a definite bottom, middle and top,” describes Bansal – to break up the block. The base section sports an impressive triple-storey colonnade to announce the building’s presence on the square, and shield the entrance from Mancunian weather.

The middle (and largest) chunk is clad in Portland-coloured reconstituted stone – drawing inspiration from its context, with a modern spin – with huge double-height windows and deep reveals. These are chamfered in varying ways to provide shade and bring in light. As Bansal explains, this is also a technique to try to avoid the “moustache” effect of water staining on standard windows.

“The biggest challenge with stone buildings is maintaining the quality over time, so everything was scrutinised to such detail. It was about getting the simple things right, so in 10-15 years’ time it doesn’t look tired.”

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On top is a recessed, triple-storey glass box, designed to give the illusion of a smaller building, without compromising on lettable space. More stone is used on the east, west and south facades than the front elevation, which carries more glazing. This manages solar gain, a major box-tick in the building’s Breeam Excellent rating, and opens up the broadest side to views across the square and wider Manchester.

York stone exterior flooring on the building’s apron will eventually extend out across the square, which is currently being pedestrianised and landscaped, creating a seamless plot.

“We’re more influenced by places that are designed together and work together,” says Bansal, referring to the architects’ endeavour to create an inherently public building at the base of this commercial workplace. Glenn Howells and its clients, Argent and the Greater Manchester Property Venture Fund, see the building as a catalyst for the £180m refurbishment of St Peter’s Square. As such, the ground floor could not become an unapproachable entrance lobby. It had to be a welcoming public space, says Bansal, that had a dialogue with the square.

Glenn Howells took cues from the Royal Festival Hall and hotel receptions, aiming to create a lively space that attracted the public and wasn’t intimidating, yet still induced pride in its esteemed tenants. “Unless it’s a public building, you don’t tend to walk in, but this will be more open and relaxed,” says James Heather, partner at Argent.

It is voluminous, yes, but pared back in decoration with robust, refined materials. The floor is speckled granite and the walls are clad in matt limestone, with touches of slatted walnut panels adding warmth and a luxurious flair. Noticeably devoid of a statement chandelier, instead it’s lit by recessed strip lights and domestic-scale standing lamps.

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The reception desk is tucked away under a lower ceiling and is modest, compared to the size of the space, so the focus is firmly on the public space. This is largely dominated by a restaurant, Fumo, which spreads out across a large portion of the lobby with its orange and brown leather lounge chairs.

“In other offices, you go through the entrance, up to your office, and it’s sterile,” says Bansal. “This is human in scale, and the restaurant brings activity, life and noise.”

Next to reception is a remarkable artwork by Mark Titchner, depicting a Henry David Thoreau quote “Live The Life That You Imagine” in layers of gold and silver acrylic. It is at once reminiscent of mechanical cogs and floral decorative motifs, plucking inspiration for its shapes from neighbouring buildings. Aptly, says Bansal, it’s relevant to what’s here and engages with its locality. As if to drive the point home, it is referred to as “public” not “corporate” art.

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Upstairs, the rest of the building is planned around a central core with lifts and toilets. This means the space can be designated to one tenant, or split into two or four separate offices.

The workspace has huge floor-to-ceiling windows, letting in plenty of light. With suspended ceilings the room height reaches 2.8m, slightly more than the norm, but if tenants specify chilled beams instead of air-conditioning and choose to expose the ceiling, this reaches 3.8m.

KPMG has already moved in, its colourful ID:SR-designed workspace making use of open floorplates with an array of flexible meeting and working areas. At 6,804sq m spread over the top four floors, its offices are big, but what probably sold it was the roof terrace. Here, on the highest floors, the tenants are afforded truly awesome vistas of Manchester, which will continue to transform before their eyes.

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