19 Sep 2005
For a man that admits to suffering from vertigo, he has a strong relationship with tall buildings. As a youth he spent his summer holidays working in the family business, demolishing old mill chimneys; today he is building Manchester’s tallest tower.
When completed, it will be 156 metres tall and Simpson plans to live at the top of it. Ian Simpson Architects was set up just 18 years ago with partner Rachel Haugh and is currently engaged in building a number of the tallest buildings in the UK. Beetham Tower, at Holloway Circus in Birmingham, has 40 storeys, is 120 metres high and is nearing completion. Work is under way on Criterion Place in Leeds, a twin tower development, the tallest of which is 160 metres high, and Brunswick Quay, a 158-metre-high tower in Liverpool with 50 floors, will go ahead – if the planners allow it. The practice recently won a commission to build a 70-storey tower in Blackfriars, London and was even named as a semi-finalist, alongside Bernard Tschumi and Santiago Calatrava, in the competition for Ground Zero. “We are in a stage of transition and in the next 60 years we will see a different scale of development,“ says Simpson confidently.
When you look at the 47 storeys of Beetham Tower in Manchester, the building seems to dwarf everything around it, but even in its semi-clad state it doesn’t look out of place. It has a strong slim section that cantilevers out halfway up the building, at the point that the hotel becomes a residential block, and an emphatic podium that sits robustly in the townscape. Even the most ardent neoclassicist could be moved by the drama of the beast. It represents a major jump in scale and seems to say, ‘look, here is Manchester heading up the league table in the global city rankings’ without being a ‘landmark’ one-liner.
Beetham’s towers and the other tall projects need to be looked at with a sense of perspective. We are not talking Petronas Towers (450 metres), in fact, although Simpson’s new towers are twice the size of New York’s Flatiron building (1903) and a few metres taller than the 1925 Tribune Tower in Chicago, at about 50 storeys these towers form part of a new European phenomenon of city centre residential blocks. Working with developer Beetham, Simpson has developed a formula for a mixed-use tower that combines residential and hotel space that makes sense commercially and appeals to the planners.
For much of the past 18 years in practice, Simpson and Haugh were also a couple. It is a measure of their dedication to the practice that they continue to work effectively and amicably together despite the fact that they have gone their separate ways in their private lives. Like many architectural partnerships, they complement each other.
The influences that Haugh cites on her work confirm an engagement with detail. She admires Kahn “for the quality of detail and the depth of thought” and Jacobsen and Alto for similar reasons. Among their contemporaries she says she enjoyed the Herzog and De Meuron exhibition at the Tate, particularly the way in which you could see the development of their work through models and the way in which each project influences their other work and informs their research.
“I am more influenced by other things than architects, I hate architecture exhibitions,” says Simpson. He has a large collection of modern glass and a particular interest in Scandinavian glass and furniture from the post-war period. He is fascinated by the structural qualities of glass and the relationship between form and structure in the furniture and he would like to spend more time on research projects. When they are describing their partnership, it’s hard to avoid some parallel association with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South; Simpson, the sharp and industrious Northerner, meets the bright and polite Haugh from the south. Except, of course, we are talking north and south Manchester rather than Britain.
Simpson was born in Bury, north of Manchester, the eldest of six, with four brothers. He describes the area that he lived – Heywood, a small town between Rochdale and Oldham – as the poor side of Manchester. He was head boy at the local school and then went to Liverpool Polytechnic, where Ken Martin ran the school and was, according to Simpson, a bit of a TV personality at the time.
Haugh was born and brought up in south Manchester and became interested in architecture through her parents. Her mother used to send her into libraries to find books about famous architects that she needed to prepare lessons for an adult education course. Her father worked in textiles and travelled around Europe and the Middle East, and Haugh sometimes accompanied him on visits to textile artists’ studios. In the late Seventies she left a rather demoralised Manchester to study architecture at Bath. The course linked engineering and architecture and was led by Michael Brawne and Ted Happold, with Peter Smithson as a visiting tutor. After university she went to work in Warrington with ASL.
When Simpson graduated at the end of the Seventies he went to work for Foster in London for three years and then did freelance work for BDP and then ASL. At ASL he met Haugh and they started doing competitions together. Having won a trip to Yugoslavia and £2,000 in a competition on his year out Simpson admits to being “hooked on competitions”. “Through competitions you could open yourself up to briefs and clients that you would never normally come across,” he recalls. “And it helped us learn about presentation, deadlines and time management,” adds Haugh.
In 1987 they decided to set up practice after coming second in a competition for Alliance and Leicester. Haugh left ASL to run the practice even though they had no commissions, while Simpson took up a full-time teaching post at Manchester University under Roger Stonehouse, one of the last tenured positions at the university. While the practice was still young they won a competition to design low-energy housing in Milton Keynes and the Architecture Foundation’s First Foyer competition for a hostel in Birmingham. They used the £2,000 prize money from the First Foyer on their first computers.
“Our partnership is complementary. We have always worked well together, and we major on our individual strengths. Ian’s skills are rapid response; the division of labour has become more emphasised over time, but we are both designers. Ian is the public face of the partnership, but we are 50/50 partners,” says Haugh. “I was younger than Ian and I have a surname that is unpronounceable which is why the practice took Ian’s name. Ian is involved in the early stages of the design work and tends to be the clients’ point of contact. I work in details and the delivery of the project,” she adds. “I use Rachel as a sounding board. I can have lots of ideas very quickly, so there is a balance, Rachel is more thoughtful,” says Simpson.
Some of their critics say their work is very macho, whatever that means, but Haugh’s response is not defensive. “I can understand where that idea comes from. But I think those people misunderstand our work. There is a subtlety and delicacy to it; you need to look below the surface to appreciate it,” she explains. “Our work is layered. It’s not of the polite modernist school, but there is a richness and texture that comes out of one material. In the first wave of regeneration projects in Manchester the work was all about texture, modelling and brick, and any departure from that was treated with suspicion,” adds Simpson. “People think we only do big, brash buildings, but we were also working with the museum on the reworking of a Waterhouse building, with a great deal of sensitivity. Aspects of our work up until that point were so small-scale that it was almost product design,” says Haugh.
The history of the practice is one of ten years of youthful enthusiasm and long hours followed by eight years of growing success that has seen the practice grow from two to four or five, then 20 staff in the mid-Nineties and 60 today. One of the practice’s first jobs was a new house in Hale; the cost was £106,000 and the fees were about £6,000 over 18 months, including night-time visits. “We never needed to feed an office, so we didn’t have to take on work we didn’t want because we had very manageable overheads. At the same time they believe that it is possible to make something powerful and positive out of virtually nothing and that remains a central attitude in all of our work,” says Simpson.
The practice’s first break came when it was approached to look at Commercial Wharf, a large derelict building facing onto the Medlock, in Knott Mill, on the edge of the Castlefield Conservation area. The practice agreed to work on the project and share the risk of the development. When it was completed in 1990, interest rates were 15 per cent and they had no tenants, but it kick-started an influx of creative industries to the area. Simpson and Haugh linked up with Nick Johnson, now at Urban Splash, to form the Knott Mill Association and worked on development plans for the area. When nobody came forward to occupy a proposed bar, the practice set it up themselves in partnership with Nick Johnson and his wife. “I remember the first Christmas I left work and I had to ring back to the office to ask how you pull a pint,” recalls Haugh. Simpson really enjoyed working in a cash business. They ran the bar with Johnson for seven years. In 1992, they worked with Tom Bloxham on Ducie House, a fast-track project to get new tenants into the building that included a nightclub and caf... bar. “We were interested in bars; at weekends we used to go with Tom Bloxham and his wife to London to do research on clubs,” says Haugh.
Then in 1996 the IRA bomb exploded in Manchester, destroying part of the core of the city centre. Ian Simpson Architects won the first stage of the competition and EDAW got involved at the second stage. The first scheme included a simple diagram that created new Cathedral Street. The scheme went on to become planning guidance. In 1998 they won the competition for Urbis in an anonymous competition. In their office they have the competition model, which looked surprisingly like the finished building.
At the same time that Urbis was being developed, the practice was talking to Crosby Homes about a site at the end of Deansgate. “Urbis was a massive jump for us. Up until that point our entire project had been about the £1 million to £1.5 million. To move to a £25 million project was a leap in scale and it started our interest in scale and the envelope,” says Simpson. Urbis has come in for criticism as a building that was designed without a real use or a clear idea of content, a critique that should perhaps be levelled at the client rather than the architect. “The programme for Urbis was a flexible series of open-plan floor plates; our response was to the site. Everyone in the city knew that the content would change. Flexibility was important and I think the building is robust enough to deal with change. I don’t believe building is non-particular. The aim of Urbis was to create a new public space. While the building does not pick up on local materials, all of our interpretation was specific to the city. And it set a marker down about what Manchester wanted to be. It’s about place-making, about supporting the aspirations within the city,” says Simpson.
An architect from a rival Manchester-based company recently sent me a graphic called ‘simpson wallpaper’, a simple image of an elevation made up of coloured and fritted glass, the suggestion being that all of his buildings look the same. No doubt Simpson is familiar with the gag, but hardly disturbed by it.
“I am accused of always wanting to work with glass, but really it’s because I believe in natural light and I want to maximise light and views. The use of glass has to be balanced with the environmental issues. The Hilton has a glass skin; it’s a combination of clear, fritted and opaque glass. I like to see continuity between the envelope and form,” says Simpson. The podium of the Beetham Hilton is clad in a pre-cast concrete by Trent that looks like granite from distance. It was chosen because of its colour, a reference to the blue engineering brick that was used on many of the viaducts in the surrounding area. The product has attracted interest from other architects including David Chipperfield.
The architectural moves relate to surface and form, which is why some of the practice’s critics write it off as shape-making. “For me form is derived from programme and context. Our buildings are very site specific. Contextually it is not the traditional response, but they could not be anywhere else,” explains Simpson. Simpson has played an important role in the transformation of Manchester city centre, but he does not prescribe to the new urbanist thesis. “The current urban practice of recreating streets and squares where they never existed is deceitful and confusing. Glen Howells has just won the Sheffield scheme with street and squares where there used to be sheds – it is lie. There is seven acres of land in which to create a new real place, but we revert to past patterns,” says Simpson.
The practice is currently working on council offices in Chester. “It is an unlikely city for us,” conceded Simpson “but it has excited local people.” The proposed building has a concrete superstructure and a self-supporting skin, and the form is moulded to respond to views of the old town, but it is wrapped in the trademark glass skin, incorporating sandstone-coloured panels. “You can’t get the levels of natural light required using something to match the local sandstone,“ explains Simpson.
The practice works with models to refine form and the work is truly contextual. It just doesn’t look like the critical regionalist creations that we usually associate with contextualism; it is about form and light rather than materials and structural expression. “I am interested in the surface of a building because it is the interface with the surroundings in the formal and contextual sense. I am not interested in the component parts of any one building. To focus on the components is particularly hard in housing and hotels, where you might have several hundred windows. Our work is not about the assembly of bits and pieces or about integrity to materials or about the modernist notion of expressing the frame. It’s not connected to the American architectural language of expressive structures. As far as I am concerned, structure is there to do a job,” says Simpson.
“The building may be more difficult to read, but it is more beautiful as an object. The danger is that to make it legible you resort to a language that, at this scale, becomes confusing. At this larger scale there is a clarity about our building that is not about window openings, where there is an entrance, it’s the gap between the large tower and the smaller building. At the Beetham tower you don’t need materials to code the building. There is a subtle layering in the elevation that you can understand; public spaces are clad in clear glass, private is fritted and the opaque glass covers structure and servicing,” adds Simpson.
Although he is not defensive it is clear that he believes that his work is not taken as seriously as it deserves to be. “There is a lot of polite architecture which is not offensive. For some reason Richard Murphy springs to mind. Everything has a straight angle and you can spend three weeks designing a sliding door. That’s not what I want to be doing. I want to tackle more important issues, to deal with a large contractor; unless we engage with them there is not any architecture, we just get buildings. We are not producing jewel boxes, but 200 apartments, and you can make a little bit of a difference and the city as a whole benefits. It’s hard work. Of course we would all like to design a library in a forest, but it’s not got a lot of relevance.”
The office refuses commissions for one-off houses for the same reasons. “RIBA prizes only go to polite modernism, usually in private houses. At £3 million for a private house you should be able to produce something special. You see some of these architects making housing and making a dog’s dinner of it and then they criticise us for a lack of integrity of materials and for not expressing a staircase. I can do that, we did it in the past, but why spend the rest of your life repeating yourself. It’s boring – and it’s architecture as a gentlemanly occupation,” he adds.
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