Monday, 13 July 2009

The Horizontal Vs The Vertical City

Manchester’s skyline is slowly evolving into a striking amalgamation of new architecture, but which axis is the right direction?

Ian Simpson’s Beatham Tower is an iconic symbol of the architectural development here in Manchester, but should our city thrust itself into a high-rise city centre, or should it expand the plan to create grounded structures that are still part of the earth around us.

The book City Levels, by Nick Barley, explores the hierarchy of a city, and explores the social relationship between a city’s level and it’s public. Most significantly of all is how the book associates height with the social connection, the taller a building is the more detached and baron it becomes to humans, where as a low storey building is more part of it’s environment, and has a significant attachment to the building’s users and the community around it. Socially then Manchester should push for a city that is orientated towards it’s public. Manchester has a vast culture that’s spread thousands of miles across the world, so why build further away from what makes our city a miniature world. The horizontal buildings are embedded within Manchester’s culture and a city with society at it’s heart can only prosper and evolve.

In the case of American cities, the architectural skyline is a direct reference to the countries power, the taller the more power. But us British are somewhat more modest about our power, since the decline of the empire, post Queen Victoria. Instead we divulge in other mediums, rather than the building of phallic like objects that protrude the sky. But shouldn’t we move away from this low rise strut we seem to be stuck in, developments in structural engineering are making it possible to be build eclectic forms that pierce the air above us. Except our long-standing connection to tradition still holds us back. Take Prince Charles for example, his presence in British Architecture is stalling our development in comparison to similar countries. His views, that by law means no more than a single member of the general public, has managed to destroy a billion pound project by none other than Lord Richard Rogers for a new development of the Chelsea Barracks. Whilst he ploughs on with creating a new village, Poundbury, in the heart of Dorset that already seems to be 150 years out of date. However his influence on British design is largely publicised, and perhaps a large majority of the British public shares the Prince’s views, and thus architecture will keep to tradition and remain shallow in the expanse of the sky above.

But how long can tradition last, with so many countries racing for the title of the tallest building, is it then inevitable that Manchester will join the race and build higher and higher? Take London as an example; here architecture is growing taller everyday, with no end in sight. But it is also expanding horizontally, and seems to have discovered the perfect line between the vertical and horizontal city. But London’s persona as a city is somewhat different to that of a typical British city. It has to reiterate it’s power as a capital and as one of the largest cities in the world, making height a necessity rather than a luxury. Manchester on the other hand has no need for establishing it’s strength, instead it should focus on building practical structures that serve a physical purpose, rather than a metaphorical message.

The majority of new builds in Manchester are built to a height that stretches as high as possible, without letting go from the land below. Take for example William Alsop’s Chips, in New Islington, this 10 storey building feels tall within it’s context, but it doesn’t remove itself from it’s environment. It still feels part of the ground below, and part of the social fabric that is slowly being weaved in the rebranded area of Ancoats. However about a mile away lays the relatively low Victorian buildings of Deansgate, juxtaposed against Ian Simpson’s Betham Tower. Statistically the “Hilton” isn’t incredibly tall, but it’s position in contrast it’s low rise context creates a tree in a field of flowers. This individuality, to me, detracts from the city of Manchester and the sheer height separates it from the built environment surrounding it. Architecture and society are the elements of all cities, and so Manchester should embrace architecture that is designed for societies benefit, not the financial.

Maybe Manchester will one day have extravagant buildings jettisoning from it’s horizon and the only place to live is in the sky above, but as it currently stands it has no need to promote it’s power nor does it need to stick to tradition, instead it has to carve it’s own path, it’s own horizontal path. Creating a city that is built around society rather than power.

by Jack Penford Baker

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