Architectural practice FAT has a reputation for taking the mick. But its new social housing scheme in Manchester is at once playful and perfectly serious.

As I stand with an architect on a street corner in east Manchester, a woman walks by pushing a pram. On the other side of the street stretches a short terrace of brick houses named Islington Square, designed by the architect. Her face contorts in disapproval and she utters a short Mancunian expletive. What has provoked the woman's ire is no doubt its utterly bizarre styling.

Part housing frontage, part film set, the mock-Dutch facade has been gouged out in front of patios and extended upwards further along to increase its stature when seen from afar

Part housing frontage, part film set, the mock-Dutch facade has been gouged out in front of patios and extended upwards further along to increase its stature when seen from afarv

The frontages of the 10 two-storey houses extend upwards as free-standing gables. The 10 gables are broadly Dutch baroque in style, with convex and concave curves and right-angled crow steps. But in places they are abruptly truncated at sheer vertical edges, and in other places they are punctured by empty window openings with clear sky beyond. The red brickwork is interleaved by bold zig-zag patterns of dark blue and yellow brickwork, like an inept attempt at knitting Argyll socks. And from the brick facade project Juliet balconies and window boxes in white-painted timber cut into club or heart patterns.

Behind the elaborate facade, the houses appear are utilitarian flat-roofed boxes, faced in plain white render. And at the street corner, the terrace veers off at an angle, rises to three storeys and is topped by a sequence of inverted arches and high spires, as if left over from a northern foray by Antoni Gaudí.

"The last thing it's meant to be is kitschily ironic," says the architect, Charles Holland. He could have fooled me. It hardly helps Holland's case that he is one of the three founding directors of FAT Architects, which stands for Fashion Architecture Taste and has a reputation for playing stylistic games.

Elaborate window surrounds, balconies and patterned brickwork give a rich if playful texture seen close up 

Elaborate window surrounds, balconies and patterned brickwork give a rich if playful texture seen close up 

Joke or not, doesn't this postmodernist playfulness come at the expense of the occupants? The fact that the terrace comprises 23 affordable houses adds to this suspicion of haut pranksterism, especially since they have all been occupied by former tenants of the Cardroom council estate, condemned as rundown, deprived and disenfranchised. Surely FAT wouldn't have been so playful if the development needed private home-buyers. Nobody would actually choose this for themselves, would they?

Well, yes, apparently. The residents were handed substantial control over the development. This was offered to them by Urban Splash, as part of its bid to redevelop the Cardroom estate within New Islington, one of seven model millennium communities set up by English Partnerships to pioneer new forms of sustainable development. As well as the name, tenants chose both the housing association, Manchester Methodist Housing Group, and the architect, FAT, out of a shortlist of six. Holland reckons it was FAT's fascination with traditional and vernacular architecture that swung the vote. "We are interested in reconciling the contradictions between modernism and traditionalism, or how to design housing to appeal to the developer and the residents," he says.

We interviewed each tenant in their own house. Our photos of their houses formed the launching pad for our scheme

With the housing association and architect on board, the residents were invited to participate in an elaborate design consultation that took several months (see "Chewing the FAT", page 58). Tenants got involved in the most basic development decisions. Understandably, their reaction to the Cardroom estate figured prominently. At first sight, the early 1980s buildings look decent enough: they were made up of rows of two-storey brick houses with gardens. Tenants wanted to keep that basic format and had already rejected an apartment scheme.

But they wanted larger windows and they hated the informal cul-de-sac layout because it encouraged rowdies to besport themselves and thieves to break in through back gardens and vanish down a maze of narrow alleyways.

The exuberance of their prospective tenants previous homes' interiors inspired FAT’s vision for their new homes

The exuberance of their prospective tenants previous homes' interiors inspired FAT’s vision for their new homes

When asked, prospective tenants reacted against their existing council houses

When asked, prospective tenants reacted against their existing council houses

In response to the tenants' concerns, FAT came up with a novel reinterpretation of the English terrace house that married fanciful styling with practical solutions. In basic layout, Islington Square consists of a pair of parallel terraces with continuous front walls rising straight off the pavement and small rear gardens that back on to each other and offer no scope for break-ins from the street.

The terraces themselves are, in Holland's phrase, "hollowed out" by a tiny secure car parking space or patio placed behind the front wall of each house. This explains why the continuous front wall jumps up and down between single-storey patio walls and two-storey house frontages. It has also led to L-shaped house plans, which substantially increase daylight and views by accommodating windows on two walls of all habitable rooms bar one.

Another benefit of the L-shaped plan has been to expand the dining-kitchen with windows looking out on to front patio and rear garden on both sides. At the same time, the living room has been condensed to something like an old-fashioned Northern parlour. A novel twist is that the upstairs landing has been enlarged to a little study or contemplation area with its own oriel window. "It's a nod to [arts and crafts architects] Edwin Lutyens and Charles Voysey," comments Holland. It also allows working from home.

The scheme is playful by looking askew at architecture and by giving layered readings. It’s honest, exuberant and lively

On an even more practical note, the scheme meets the millennium community's ambitious sustainability targets by achieving an excellent EcoHomes rating. The pioneering use of microCHP, or individual combined heat and power units, in each dwelling help achieve the rating. On the other hand, the elaborate brick facade boosted construction costs above the excellent benchmark of £969/m2 to £1055/m2, admits Simon Fenton of QS Simon Fenton Partnership.

Fine, but what about the architectural styling? Holland claims this also derives from tenant consultation … of a sort. "We interviewed each person in his or her own house," he says. "Our photos of their houses and gardens formed the launching pad for our scheme." Thus, tenants' richly patterned wallpapers and false fireplaces were morphed into the Argyll socks brickwork across the facades. And their accumulation of ornaments found its way into the elaborate mock-Dutch gables and window surrounds, along with the profusion of patterned, add-on balconies, window boxes and window surrounds.

Even the three-storey flats at the street corner wear

Even the three-storey flats at the street corner wear

a weird coronet to increase their height

And the prominent false gables and patterned brickwork? Okay, Holland admits, tenants did not specifically request those. Rather they are an Urban Design ploy: they make up a free-standing backdrop at the end of a series of long medium-rise apartment block "fingers" proposed by New Islington's masterplanner Will Alsop. "This facade is in scale with the fingers and can be seen from far away," says Holland. "It's a big, bold urban gesture, with detailed design for viewing close-up."

In effect, the front facade is a large film set. "It's mannerist in that it exaggerates and plays games with certain things like traditional motifs and languages," says Holland. "We have pumped up the scale and flattened and distorted things.

"The scheme is playful by looking askew at architecture and by giving layered readings," he continues. "I'd say it's honest, exuberant and lively."

It takes some getting used to. And the window boxes are an invitation to destruction from drunks. But they do add quality

Perhaps the strongest example of stage-set layering is in the abrupt switch between the elaborate mock-Dutch brick facades and the white boxy houses behind them. "It's a fusion of Tudorbethan and adobe hut," comments Holland.

So what do the tenants think? They like the big windows, which compensate for smaller rooms. "There's bags of light," says Terry Sherlock (see "A resident speaks out", above). And Bob Wilkinson likes the generous dimensions in the bungalow he shares with his disabled son, Dave. "He can turn in his wheelchair without banging into anything," says Wilkinson.

As for the external styling, Wilkinson and Sherlock didn't quite expect their neighbours' predilections for knick-knacks and garish wallpaper to be proclaimed to the street. "It took me by surprise," says Wilkinson. "It takes some getting used to," adds Sherlock. "And the window boxes are an invitation to destruction from all the drunks passing by on their way to and from the [City of Manchester] stadium. But they do add a sense of quality."

All in all, Islington Square has several pluses. It is heartening to see affordable rented housing that is not treated as poor cousin to private owner-occupied housing. It is even more encouraging to find tenants being so intensively consulted and heeded, despite the multi-headed client, which comprised English Partnerships, Urban Splash and Manchester Methodist Housing Group. As for the end result, the scheme offers novel practical solutions to high-density urban housing. Not least, it emanates a strong, utterly distinctive style with a sense of fun.

The big question is how widely this distinctive style will be appreciated and its sense of fun shared. Certainly its film-set character and exotic pseudo-traditional styling have not gone unnoticed. Passers-by regularly ask why no Wild West tumbleweed can be seen blowing past or ask residents what's on the menu, in sly reference to the local Taj Mahal restaurant.

Small back-to-back rear gardens defy burglars

Small back-to-back rear gardens defy burglars

Although meant disparagingly, these jests nevertheless show a none-too-refined appreciation of the "dynamic tensions between traditional and contemporary elements" that FAT intended, or even the "kitschily ironic" character that it didn't. What's more, Islington Square's style is so unique that it might escape the swings of fashion, and its high-quality brickwork and windows should stand up well to northern weather and wear and tear. And what if the tenants want to personalise their house fronts by adding their own ornamentation? Well, that's precisely what FAT had in mind.

So who knows? In time, as the scheme's bizarre styling becomes more familiar, such jests might just show more affection than disapproval.

Islington Square, Manchester key points

  • Prospective tenants chose landlord and architect and influenced layouts and styling
  • Elaborate house frontages were inspired by tenants’ decoration of their old homes
  • Frontages were extended upwards to help them compete with large new apartment blocks
  • L-shaped layouts gives each house two outdoor spaces and extra daylight
  • A resident speaks out

    After having lived in the Cardroom council estate since it was built in 1982, Terry Sherlock has just moved home over the road into Islington Square along with 22 other former tenants from the estate.

    He stands up for the external appearance. “Passers-by ask me how I like my popadoms,” he says. “They say it looks like the Taj Mahal restaurant and turn their noses up. But I’m quite happy with how it looks.”

    And anyway, looks aren’t everything. “I’m very pleased with the new house, though the room sizes are slightly smaller. But I definitely like the large dining kitchen adjacent to the garden. There are large windows, so there’s bags of daylight, and I like the Juliet balconies that you can stand out on.”

    “I know the people either side of me intimately,” he says. “So it’s a bonus that I’ll still be living with them.” Sherlock is the only owner-occupier among the
    23 residents. He was made an offer he couldn’t refuse: a £62,000 reduction in the price of his new house, provided he doesn’t sell it for 10 years.

    Sherlock has two passions that presented challenges in the move. One is a pool of koi carp: a new pool was created by the contractor in his garden. The other is an elaborate well stocked bar, which his son, Jimmy, had built for him in his old house. “It won’t fit into the new living room.” He will also have to forgo his mock-stone fireplace, which likewise will not fit into the living room.

    All in all, Islington Square is a big improvement. Describing Cardroom, he recalls: “When we move in it was fantastic, beautiful. But over a period of time it got rundown and people moved in who were really rough. My house was broken into twice, and the thieves could escape down passageways.”

    Project team

    Clients Manchester Methodist Housing Group, Urban Splash
    Architect FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste)
    Structural engineer Whitbybird
    Quantity surveyor Simon Fenton Partnership
    Design-and-build contractor Richardson Projects

    Chewing the FAT: The consultation process

    Despite any unease they may have about the final look of Islington Square, you can’t say tenants were not consulted.

    The exercise was spread over several months.

    It started with the architect, FAT, visiting each resident in his or her existing home and progressed through several open design workshops at the local pub and even included a visit to model schemes in Amsterdam. All design aspects were covered from overall architectural style, site layout and internal configurations down to tenants’ individual choices of decorations and kitchen fittings.

    “There was a lot of scepticism on the part of the tenants at first because of their experiences in the past,” says Nick Johnson, director of developer Urban Splash. “So they were allowed to make informed decisions and never told what to do.”

    Johnson’s account is corroborated by tenants. “We were asked for our views every step of the way, and they were duly considered,” says Terry Sherlock. “So I’m very pleased with how it went.” Bob Wilkinson attended all the workshops and went on the Amsterdam trip.

    “I thought it great to be shown things in the workshops,” he says.

    The diagrams were drawn up for the workshops by FAT. “We also prepared cardboard models and brought large felt-tip pens, so people could draw on them,” recalls FAT director Charles Holland. “We broke the design down into its component parts and worked through them with the tenants using CAD. This was a real leap forward, because CAD can involve everyone.”