Where's the architecture?

MediaCityUK: the £600m northern redoubt of British television.

With the BBC’s licence fee frozen, cuts looming, its top-rating chat show host Jonathan Ross departed and a mouthy Radio 1 DJ, Chris Moyles, complaining on-air about not being paid for months, you might think it’s a new era of austerity for the formerly big-spending BBC. And you’d be right. But as it happens, the preceding era is ending with two mighty building projects, two huge new headquarters complexes in London and Salford. Yes, Salford. The spiritual home of Coronation Street.

Broadcasting House in London, the original home of the BBC, has been undergoing a massive expansion programme for years now, and it will take a year or so yet to complete. Television Centre out in West London, meanwhile, has already been expanded with a campus of new office buildings, one of which doubled as the home of the fictitious ministry DoSAC in the scabrous political comedyThe Thick of It. BBC Scotland got its glittering box of a new HQ in Glasgow in 2006, courtesy of Stirling prizewinner and Royal Gold Medallist David Chipperfield. And now it’s the turn of the north-west.

The BBC has long had a strong presence in Manchester – and considerably outguns the emasculated Granada TV, once its big commercial regional rival. Now however it is set to move to the rival city of Salford, the other side of the Irwell and Ship Canal. It is decanting not only its existing regional operation, but also five departments and around 1,400 people up north from London – including sport and children’s – so Match of the Day and Blue Peter, plus its flagship breakfast show and sections of Radio 5 Live. The move is controversial. Many BBC staff in London resisted the shift and some – such as sports editor Mihir Bose – allegedly resigned rather than move. But the move will happen as planned during 2011. The destination is called, in ripe marketing-speak, MediaCityUK.

This is an exceedingly curious place, a piece of American Downtown at the head of the Manchester Ship Canal, close to the Old Trafford football ground. It won’t be just the BBC moving in there, though they have taken three large buildings and a big chunk of a separate studio complex which will also act as a new recording and performance venue for the BBC Philharmonic orchestra. There are also apartments, offices, independent production studios, the media faculty of the University of Salford, a huge public piazza, a new park, and a hotel. The whole thing is costing up to £600m and boasts its own power station and tram terminus.

But it is not the BBC which is shelling out all that money upfront. Although the Corporation is paying for the massive relocation and fit-out costs, it is leasing its buildings from Peel Holdings, a mighty development company in the North-West which owns docks, airports, shopping centres, plus the entire Manchester Ship Canal and all the land that comes with it. Peel’s flagship development in all this is the area known as Salford Quays, Manchester’s Docklands, which has been going through the redevelopment mill for years now. Like all former docklands, it has suffered from an air of bleakness and incompleteness. So I went there wondering: has the arrival of MediaCityUK made it into a real place yet?

The complex makes the final piece in a waterside triumvirate, along with the cultural lodestones of the Michael Wilford-designed Lowry (theatre and art gallery) and the ‘shattered globe’ of Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum outpost. I remember being quite impressed when the Lowry was first built in what was then a postindustrial wasteland, then appalled when I revisited it and saw the commercial tat they had built right up to it. The Libeskind building needed to be bigger. But MediaCityUK aspires to civic architecture, arranged on a fan-shaped masterplan (original designers being architects Benoy) radiating from the western rotunda of the Lowry.

It works in one sense – it has a public, urban edge, proper civic space in the form of a large piazza (great for Last Night of the Proms-style outdoor broadcasts) and a new landscaped mini-park. The buildings are an assortment of slabs and towers. There’ll be shops and cafes in there, plus a new pedestrian swing bridge across the Ship Canal. What you don’t get, however, is fine architecture. Whoops.

It’s weird – if I was spending £600m on a complete new media-centred city district, I wouldn’t be tempted to skimp on the quality of the design. This is mid-table commercial stuff when it needs to be at the top, cultural, end of the table. OK, so the three main BBC buildings were initially designed by another Stirling Prize winning firm, Wilkinson Eyre, but they were then handed over to a different outfit, Chapman Taylor, who also contributed other buildings (Wilkinson Eyre stayed in command of the new bridge, however). The studio complex with its two bookending towers (hotel and apartments) is by Manchester architects Fairhursts. An office tower with latticework flanks, rising from a podium of accommodation for the University of Salford’s media faculty, is by Sheppard Robson. Landscaping (rather good, with a stepped waterside terrace) is by Gillespies.

In a sense the whole thing is not to do with the individual parts, but the overall composition. You can imagine the argument not to try to compete with the two other look-at-me icon buildings on this patch, the Lowry and the IWM. But hell’s teeth, this is the BBC! It’s culturally huge, part of the fabric of the nation! It wouldn’t have hurt to have got a top-class architect to steer this through from first to last, instead of cobbling it all together with many hands. But this doesn’t seem to be how the world of British regional property development thinks. And the last thing the BBC was going to do at a time of cutbacks was build itself an expensive-looking palace.

As a place, though, I can see it beginning to work. The relatively low studio complex might not do a very good job of visually holding together the back of the enormous plaza, but it has a proper big public foyer inside and there are interesting working spaces, such as the new rehearsal/performance studio for the BBC Philharmonic orchestra, and studios ranging from small to very large indeed (with children’s show Blue Peter occupying a medium-sized one). Each studio is signalled from the outside by having its coloured walls protrude through the roof. The University of Salford’s building nearby is looking promising inside. The views from the towers are a lot better than the views towards the towers (especially the horrible Holiday Inn hotel). And the bridge should be OK, since Wilkinson Eyre are very good at bridges.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t be in despair if I was a BBC evacuee about to be put on the train up north. Architecturally it may have missed the boat, but the overall masterplan hangs together. This is not a bit of window-dressing regeneration, but the real thing, with real jobs, big enough to make a difference across the whole north-western economy. Coming here used to feel like coming to the ends of the earth. Now it may be far from perfect – one sighs at what it could have been – but it feels like a real fragment of city. It IS a place.

Editor’s note: since this article was published the BBC’s commercial rival, ITV, has announced that it too is moving to MediaCityUK, along with the Granada regional news team and the permanent set and production facility for its long-running soap Coronation Street. This makes it still more of a place. However, the state and commercial companies will have the broad murky waters of the Manchester Ship Canal between them. And the renderings of the new ITV building – in a mindless business park aesthetic – do not make one whoop for joy, as you see here.


Related Hugh Pearman article in the RIBA Journal: http://is.gd/99Sl6q

MediaCityUK: http://www.mediacityuk.co.uk/

Benoy: http://www.benoy.com/

Wilkinson Eyre: http://www.wilkinsoneyre.com/
Chapman Taylor: http://www.chapmantaylor.com/
Fairhursts: http://www.fairhursts.com/
Sheppard Robson: http://www.sheppardrobson.com/

Landscape architects
Gillespies: http://www.gillespies.co.uk/

This article won the 2011 Urban Design Group national journalism award. Thanks to sponsors the Francis Tibbalds Trust.

Text and some photos © Hugh Pearman. Updated version of the article first published in the Culture section of the Sunday Times, 21st November 2010, as “Regeneration Game”. Photos and images by Hugh Pearman, Wilkinson Eyre, and Peel Media.

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