'Wanton vandalism': why Neville and Giggs' Manchester towers are despised

With its flawed design and lack of affordable housing, the footballers’ St Michael’s project faces fierce opposition. But an investment-hungry council isn’t listening

From their Cheshire mansions’ bathroom taps to their radiant spray-tans, it’s a running gag that footballers have a thing for bronze. But now Manchester United heroes Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs want to take their love of lustre one step further and bestow on their home city a pair of colossal bronze skyscrapers, right opposite the town hall.

“Our vision is to deliver the biggest statement in architecture and development that Manchester has seen in modern times,” Neville declared at an event for the St Michael’s project in September, unveiling a £200m plan for two towers of 21 and 31 storeys containing luxury flats, offices, restaurants and a five-star hotel, to be erected on the site of several historic buildings: a 19th-century pub, a 1930s police station and a 1950s synagogue. Looming like a pair of bronze tombstones above the low-rise Victorian centre, it is a “statement” that not many Mancunians seem to want foisted on their city.

In a public consultation, 70% of respondents opposed the project, while Historic England has warned of “substantial harm” to the city centre. Save Britain’s Heritage has damned the scheme as “a town planning disaster of a magnitude not seen in decades”. Yet the council is likely to approve the project. It is the same body that has massaged these big bronzed erections into being, and will gain a significant bounty from seeing them realised.

5 Broadgate, another project by St Michael’s architects Make.
5 Broadgate, another project by St Michael’s architects Make. Photograph: Make Architects

The design is the work of Make Architects, a practice that is no stranger to controversy, holding the dubious honour of being three-times shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building of the year – for its garish Nottingham university campus in 2009, its blingtastic Cube in Birmingham in 2010 and the gargantuan silver shed of 5 Broadgate in the City of London last year. They have become a favourite of commercial developers, as experts in maximising the amount of bulk it is possible to squeeze on to any given site – a talent they have now pushed to the limit in Manchester.

In the firm’s basement studio in London, surrounded by models of designs for hefty high-rise schemes around the world, Make’s founder, Ken Shuttleworth, explains how the scale of the St Michael’s project has escalated over the past decade.

“It all began about 10 years ago with the synagogue,” he says. “It was falling down and they didn’t have any money to repair it, so they came to the council to see what could be done. They decided that the only way to keep the congregation in this central location was to sell the site for development and get a new synagogue included as part of the deal.”

The council entered into a joint venture partnership with the Jackson Row Development Company – set up by Neville, Giggs and entrepreneur Brendan Flood – and helped to assemble the site, acquiring the neighbouring police station and seeking the backing of deep-pocketed investors. The footballers, it now seems, are little more than the grinning PR face of a lucrative deal between the council, the Singapore-based investment company Rowsley and the Beijing Construction Engineering Group, the Chinese state-owned company already at work on Manchester’s £800m Airport City project, which is to build the towers. The headline of a Forbes profile on Rowsley’s major shareholder gives some indication of the nature of the investment: “How Singapore Billionaire Peter Lim Makes Money from Thin Air”.

Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville in front of the St Michael’s plans.
Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville in front of the St Michael’s plans. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Launched at the Cannes property bonanza MIPIM in 2014, the partnership is the kind of glitzy international cocktail that the gold-bangled council chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, has enjoyed mixing over the last few years. Retiring this spring after 20 years in the driving seat of the city’s regeneration, he has been fond of courting overseas investment from China to Abu Dhabi to fund council joint ventures, sourcing high-octane fuel for the northern powerhouse. St Michael’s feels like his last hurrah, the biggest bauble of the lot.

“The council has always had big ambitions for our project,” says Shuttleworth, explaining how the city asked for a 200-room five-star hotel to be included in the scheme and encouraged the architects to make the buildings taller. “Our first options looked at filling the site with a 10-storey block, then various arrangements of U-shaped courtyards and stepped buildings, but the council felt we weren’t being ambitious enough.” Manchester city council declined to comment on the specifics of its involvement, but stressed that “the planning authority has a legal duty to disregard any interest the council may have in a site”.

In the interests of maximising the built volume, while opening up as much of the plot as possible for “public space”, Make came up with a pair of fat oblong towers, 65 and 45 metres wide, extruded to 31 and 21 storeys respectively, framing a pair of spaces at their base at two different levels, connected by an ambling staircase.

The base of the Jackson’s Row redevelopment.
The base of the redevelopment, located on Jackson’s Row. Photograph: Make Architects

“There’s no other public space like it in the world,” says Shuttleworth, showing me a computer visualisation of a series of terraces stepping between the upper and lower squares, flanked by walls dripping with foliage and populated with drink-supping punters. It is a scene familiar from many malls across the globe. Partner-in-charge Stuart Fraser says the vision is inspired by a street in Malta, which both he and Neville know well from holidays there, where a couple of bars animate a stepped passageway. The difference is that in Malta the route goes somewhere, whereas here it ends in a dead-end at the back of the site, five storeys up in the air above the synagogue and conference centre. A narrow escape stair is the only way back down to the street.

Such beginner-level urban design blunders suffuse the entire scheme. The new street frontages have been conceived as a mixture of service hatches and blunt swaths of cladding, with all activity turned inwards at the expense of the surrounding streets. When I suggest the small rectangular door in one of the big blank walls doesn’t look like the entrance to the new pub (which the developers stress will be welcomed back to the site), Shuttleworth gets out his pencil and sketches more of a pub-like frontage, as if it’s the first time he’d thought it could do with looking better than a bin store.

Strapping on a virtual reality headset, I am transported to Manchester’s little slice of Malta. I find myself marooned in the desolate square, cowering at the base of the two soaring blocks. Craning my neck upwards, it suddenly hits home quite how overwhelming this space will be: these are not towers but brawny slabs, the two sides of a slipped ravine. The cumulative impact of the double cliff-face hasn’t escaped the wind modelling consultants either: the entire piazza will have to be covered by a big framework of baffles to stop people being blown away.

The development’s bizarre staircase to nowhere.
The development’s bizarre staircase to nowhere. Photograph: Make Architects

While the project is aggressively dumb at street level, it gets increasingly banal as it rises. Employing Make’s penchant for large amounts of metal cladding, the towers rise in chunky horizontal bands (a nod to the stone rustication of nearby Victorian buildings), making the office floors indistinguishable from the flats and hotel rooms behind the relentless brown banding. A cost-cutting process after the 2008 crisis saw the anodised panels dropped for painting the whole thing black (“nice and glossy like a BMW”, says Shuttleworth), but they have reverted to bronze following consultation, after public animosity over the two black behemoths.

In an attempt to add a little finesse, the towers taper back at their summits to form “arched crowns”, Shuttleworth says, “because Manchester is full of buildings with funky rooftops”. At one point, the tops were to lean away from each other, but he felt the composition looked too much like a clothes peg, so now they look like a pair of electric shavers. The drawings in the planning application indicate these rooftop eyries will be dedicated to mechanical services, although the architects say that one might become a penthouse and the other a terrace for a restaurant. Either way, neither will contain a public viewing deck, nor will there be any affordable housing on site.

Historic England has been unusually fierce in its condemnation of the scheme, arguing that none of what is being proposed justifies the “substantial harm” that would be caused to the surrounding fabric, where nine conservation areas meet. “We are not against tall buildings,” says Catherine Dewar, the heritage body’s planning director for the north-west, pointing out that it listed the city’s 1960s CIS Tower and New Century House. “But they’ve got to be in the right place and the right design. St Michael’s is neither.”

Shuttleworth maintains it is “the juxtaposition of old and new that is so exciting”, and that “nothing should get in the way of Manchester moving forward”. He grew up in 1950s Birmingham and was thrilled by the wholesale demolition and rebuilding of the city. He thinks now is Manchester’s time to be just as bold.

Others share his enthusiasm, in principle at least. “We love big, epic buildings,” says Eddy Rhead, co-founder of the Manchester Modernist Society. “But this just isn’t good enough. From the sheer scale of the towers to how they meet the street, the whole idea is flawed from the very beginning. It shows a total lack of imagination – and the council shouldn’t be in the business of property development.”

The Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, now earmarked for demolition.
The Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, now earmarked for demolition. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

With a more relaxed attitude to planning under Bernstein, the city has seen a spate of towers. At least 15 buildings of 30 storeys or more are in the pipeline, from the Owen Street cluster, where Ian Simpson plans to build a 66-storey glass shaft at the end of Deansgate, to the “Circle Square” development, where blocks will rise to 36-storeys – dubbed a “poor man’s Manhattan” by local residents. For a handsome city that built some of the finest structures of Victorian Britain, none of these proposals are good enough. Instead they are the gewgaw hallmarks of a city in thrall to investment at any cost, a cash-strapped Labour council chasing the private sector for all it can get.

On a rainy afternoon this week in the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, the cosy boozer on top of which Neville and Giggs’s towers are planned to rise (and which 5,000 people have signed a petition to save), the regulars are frank about what Man United “Class of 92” now plans to wreak.

“They’re good lads, but this plan is a monstrosity,” says one customer at the bar. “They say they’re ‘giving back’ to the city, but they’re ripping the heart out of the place. There’s no consideration of what a new development actually needs. Where are the schools, doctors and dentists for these 2,000 new residents?”

“It’ll be like the Day of the Triffids,” adds another, “with these two sinister creatures rising up behind the central library. By all means invest in the area, and convert the old police station into your fancy hotel, but this is wanton vandalism.”


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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