This man knows a thing or two about civic identity and pride of place: after all he's the architect behind the buildings that have defined modern Manchester. Here he tells Martin Spring why London should watch and learn …
It is no exaggeration to say that Ian Simpson has the highest aspirations of any Manchester architect, and that he is literalising that metaphor on the city's skyline. Above all (so to speak) with the Beetham Tower, which is soon to be topped out at 48 storeys, making it far and away Manchester's highest building. And although it can be seen from all over the city, its prominence is increased by its location on the main west, north and south axes into the city centre.
So Ian Simpson Architects is probably the practice that has done more than any other to shape the centre of the post-war city, and not just in mere size. Take No 1 Deansgate, for example, where a forceful ski-jump shape and a clear-glazed envelope set a stylish benchmark for luxury residential developments throughout Britain. The prow-fronted Urbis museum, also encased in clear glazing and standing just a couple of blocks away, is no less iconic. Nearly completed is the transport interchange and multistorey car park at Shude Hill, which - you've guessed it - comes packaged inside clear-glazed curtain walls. And the pace of construction shows no sign of slowing: in the pipeline for Manchester alone are another 43-storey tower, at least three other crystalline glass blocks, and around the perimeter of the city centre the group of slab blocks that is to become Urban Splash's New Islington Millennium Community.
Other than Urbis and the transport interchange, all these buildings are residential, and it's here that Simpson's work has wider significance than the revitalisaton of central Manchester. Instead of churning out what he dismisses as "the redbrick zinc-topped model you see everywhere", his practice makes a point of sheathing the buildings entirely in glazing, most of it clear and transparent, or translucent in front of bathrooms.
"We tend to use a lot of glass where we can," he says, "because I'm very excited about getting light into space, particularly when you're dealing with small residential spaces.
If you can get a lot more natural light into those spaces, then it improves the quality of environment significantly."
Perhaps because of his upbringing in the gloomy North-west, Simpson himself makes a point of luxuriating in as much daylight as he can find - which inevitably means in his own glassy buildings. He resides at the top of No 1 Deansgate, from where he can survey much of the city from all rooms - including his bathroom. Later this year, he plans to top that by moving into the duplex penthouse at the pinnacle of the Beetham Tower. "It's 12,500 ft2 in area," he beams, "and that includes a 4000 ft2 double-height garden planted with 22 olive trees 5 m high."
Mainstream spec housebuilders, who resolutely squeeze down their window openings to letterbox size, would become apoplectic at such sentiments. Yet, despite his high architectural aspirations, Simpson sets out to engage mainstream commercial developers with their "mundane, prosaic briefs". "I'm not interested in jewellery box architecture or one-off houses for rich clients. I'm actually interested in tackling those developers and contractors who are rebuilding our cities - irrespective of architecture, quite often. And I think that if we as architects can get in there and demonstrate that we understand their aspirations, programmes and costs, we can contribute positively, whether it's placemaking or something formal on the skyline. The residential schemes we've been involved in have been very successful commercially - they've all sold."
Stephen Frood, who as partner of Davis Langdon's Manchester office worked with Simpson on No 1 Deansgate and Urbis, confirms that both projects were achieved within budget. "Perhaps coming from the North, both Ian and his staff are flexible in terms of looking at design options and achieving the budget," he says.
Simpson and Rachel Haugh set up their practice together in 1987 while Simpson was studio master at Manchester University's school of architecture. The Manchester office has since grown to 65 staff, and is housed in a warehouse it converted, and which set in train the regeneration of the whole Knott Mill area between the city centre and canalside Castlefield. At the London office, 18 employees squeeze into the ground floor of a narrow building on Bowling Green Lane in Clerkenwell, although the practice is now doing up a larger 1950s block bought by Simpson and Haugh round the corner.
This means that both partners shuttle between the two offices every week, spending typically a day and a half in London and the rest in Manchester. They commute together, because as Haugh says, this allows them to catch up on business matters while in the train.
"Travelling doesn't get me down," says the unflappable Simpson, referring to the train journey that has recently been cut to 2 hours 10 minutes. On the day of the interview, he arrived from Liverpool by 10am, despite a transport delay. "I flew in the company jet of the Beetham Organisation," he says, "along with Beetham junior, for a planning meeting at Southwark council."
The other powerful group that Simpson - and all other architects - must deal with are town planners. But this is Manchester, where the city's councillors and officers are held in unusual reverence by architects and developers. "Once you set a benchmark like No 1 Deansgate, then the planners want quality from everybody that comes forward.
So the same sort of solution that might have been appropriate 15 years ago wouldn't be acceptable in planning terms now. So it raises the game politically and at officer level. And it becomes somewhere that people want to be associated with. So it helps developers because it raises values."
There’s a danger that London just sits back because it’s global, whereas a city like Leeds has actually got to go out there and attract people
The compliment is returned by Manchester council. "He always wants to understand the council's point of view, and I find him keen to negotiate," says David Roscoe, the planning officer for the city centre.
Currently, only about 25% of the practice's work is located in Manchester. It is also engaged in large-scale residential schemes in Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leicester and Chester. In this way, Simpson is taking the Manchester regeneration gospel to other provincial cities. "All these cities have lost their manufacturing base, and in a sense they're in a 50-year cycle of asking what the purpose of the city is. A lot of it is taken up by service industry and it is almost becoming a place to be. I think that if we as architects can support a city's ambition, then that's great."
Simpson's last great hurdle in Britain is evidently the capital itself, where he is currently designing the country's highest ever residential building, the 69-storey Blackfriars Tower on the riverfront. "Provincial cities have massively more civic ambition than London. That starts with the civic leaders saying we want this to be a better place and how can we get new inward investment to do that. In cities such as Manchester and Leeds, the architecture helps the city councils because they're beautiful places with nice public squares and exciting buildings, but also it provides accommodation for those people coming in.
"I feel that there's a danger that London just sits back because it's global and can't be compared with any other city in Britain. London gets 20 million visitors a year and doesn't need any more people. So there's a smugness of ‘We are London', whereas a city like Leeds has actually got to go out there and attract industry and people."
For decades, down-at-heel provincial cities have looked on prominent London thinkers and architects as potential saviours. Now Simpson is turning the tables. Boosted to prominence by Manchester's regeneration boom, he now proposes that the capital should learn about civic pride from the provinces.
Simpson’s transformation of Manchester
Ian Simpson Architects is busy transforming Manchester from a city of brick, stone and concrete to one of glass.
1: The practice’s latest building, a £20m clear-glazed multistorey car park that rises above a bus station and tram stop, was designed with Jefferson Sheard Architects and built by Costain
2: The first glass residential building to hit the Manchester skyline was No 1 Deansgate. Completed in 2001, it overlooks the regenerated central shopping area devastated by the IRA bomb in 1996
3: The sheer 48-storey effrontery of the Beetham Hilton Tower, to be completed this summer, is to some extent pacified by its glass skin
4: Yet another glass skyscraper is being hatched, this time 43 storeys high, for a site next to the Victorian law courts and to be developed by Albany Assets
5: Two canalside apartment blocks, where glazing is balanced by cedar cladding, form part of Urban Splash’s New Islington Millennium Community
Portrait by Mikael Gothage