As the trains rock rhythmically through their arc into Manchester Piccadilly, you are met with a commanding view of the city. The landscape is relatively flat, and when I was returning to Manchester, I always felt familiarity at the sight of the Beetham Tower growing in the distance. It appeared like a blunt spire in the urban profile, with its distinctive cantilevered edge at the 23rd floor, and by night it was just red pinpricks of light, the corners marked out in the air.
The Tower, which houses the Hilton Manchester up to the 22nd floor and is residential from there up to the 49th, used to be the defining feature of the Manchester skyline. It stands with its feet on the back of Deansgate locks and rises above the rest of the city to orientate us, remind us where the centre is, remind us that we are indeed in the city of Manchester. For a time, it was the only building which could rival the skyscrapers of London and other world cities.
No doubt it affords great panoramic views from the top for those who can afford an apartment near the top (according to the Wikipedia page, it is possible to glimpse Snowdonia from the penthouse). For the rest of us mere mortals, we can only crane our necks up to its giddy heights, as a reminder that we are firmly planted here on the ground.
The glass-fronted construction commands the centre of the city and dominates the view from afar. It is an edifice which demands recognition. It cannot be ignored. Like all extremely tall buildings, it forces the viewer into submission, it makes us feel small compared to its height and the scope of technical achievement. It rules the skies above Manchester.
That is, after all, a central purpose of the Beetham Tower and other skyscrapers: to express the competitive attitude to go beyond, an embodiment of the aspiration to attain even greater height. In the skyscraper, we sense the physical display of progress in the built environment. Of course, only a few are able to participate in this progress. This spectacle can only serve to highlight exclusion.
While I have experienced familiarity in response to seeing the Hilton on my approach to Manchester, there remains the fact that the hotel acts as a symbol of exclusion. Feelings of familiarity are really associated with returning to Manchester, and approaching the Hilton undoubtedly signals that I am nearly back on the wind-swept canal-side streets of home. The real message of the Beetham Tower is that there are some in this city who afford the luxury of the Hilton or the apartments above. If you’re standing the suburbs of Moss Side or Gorton, from where the Tower is clearly visible, the building serves as a reminder of the distinction between those who have, and those who have not.
These days when you look toward the city centre you see the whole of Manchester rising. Cranes teeter over the many building sites of Manchester while the concrete blocks go up first, then the skeletal girders and finally the whole is encased in a glassy exterior. The Beetham Tower is no longer the defining feature of the skyline.
Some see the construction of sleek new office spaces and company headquarters as a sign of progress. How can a city enter the world stage without a striking sunset silhouette and shining financial district? I do not welcome the construction of these buildings, not least because they are unattractive, lazy architectural statements. For the most part, skyscrapers like the Beetham Tower follow in the tradition of International Style, which we’re all familiar with, even if you don’t know it’s called that. If you think of a skyscraper, chances are it’s a modern take on the International Style: tall, boxy spire with regular rectangular windows, lots of glass and concrete.
The problem with the International Style is exactly that: it’s international and ignores the existing characteristics and local materials of the built environment. City centres and financial districts across the world are becoming increasingly homogenous. If you’re standing in a landscape of brushed concrete surrounded by towers of glass, it’s difficult to tell anymore if you’re in Beijing’s Sanlitun or downtown Toronto, as Justin Davidson explains in a talk entitled “Why glass towers are bad for city life - and what we need instead”. Davidson makes exactly this point, which is that glass buildings are literally and figuratively textureless. They are reflective and impenetrable. The glossy exteriors become barriers that we have to navigate when we walk through the urban environment.
Manchester boasts a variety of historical building styles. It’s a great place you are fond of architecture and looking up. The Northern Quarter is a veritable patchwork of repurposed warehouses. There’s the canal-side constructions around the Museum of Science and Industry, and the iconic structures of Manchester Central Library and the neo-gothic Town Hall. Toward Stockport you encounter the red brick factories and funnels.
It’s not that these styles are inherently better than the glass and steel of International Style buildings. Rather, it is the fact that these buildings are not all the same, and that they much better represent the locality, in comparison to a globalised style which we can go and see in many of the world’s major cities. I can accept that some find architecture after the Beetham Tower aesthetically pleasing, it’s a question of taste after all. But wouldn’t it be a little boring if this is the style which comes to dominate cities? These structures seem more a cut-and-paste exercise than creative solutions to city life, and demonstrate little local sensitivity.
The city profile is changing rapidly. From where we live in Moss Side you can see the new structures going up, vertical competitors of the Beetham Tower. You don’t need to read the Manchester Evening News’ coverage of new buildings in Manchester to get the sense that the city is growing toward the sky; it’s visible in sheet number of building sites and dangling cranes.
The majority of the new buildings are to be luxury living spaces, as the surge in city centre property prices drive the interest in upward construction. There is even a development nicknamed “Skyscraper Alley”, through which the Mancunian way will cut. The developments are alreayd beginning to challenge the supremacy of the Beetham Tower. The Owen Street skyscraper, for example, is already giving the Tower a run for its money, and Owen Street will be significantly taller than the home of the Hilton Hotel.
The changing skyline reflects the economic and social changes in the city of Manchester. These developments do not just “happen”; they are manifestations of investment, motivation, the impact of capital. It is also the imprint of international norms on our city, as Manchester comes to look more and more like other global metropoles, and while such developments are progress for the few, they may serve as reminders of division to the many.
For better or for worse, Manchester is going in a single direction, and that’s skyward.