Minimalist Manhattan-style loft apartments are an imposing addition to the South Bank skyline. What lifestyle statement are they trying to make? And how does a 15-storey mango-yellow tower deliver it?
A bright yellow, 15-storey tower at Bankside on London's South Bank, visible for miles around, is advertising the capital's hippest new residential development. And, to remind prospective purchasers that this is another opportunity to get into loft dwelling, there are hundreds of huge, rectangular gridded steel windows for all to peer inside.

It is not often that one gets to see a completed development by tagging along on a site inspection with the architect – in this case, Piers Gough of CZWG, flourishing his formidable perspex cane – and the client, Angus Boag of the Manhattan Loft Corporation. The first item on the agenda was Boag's wish to ditch a wave-shaped undulating ceiling that was not offering the hoped-for additional pizazz in an already stylish and Gaudiesque entrance hall.

The Bankside Lofts are located in a mixed-use development costing about £14m, which has been completed in five phases over two years and comprises 130 loft flats, a five-storey office block and four commercial units. It is part new-build and partly carved out of the upper floors of retained industrial buildings.

The provision of loft flats has been flavour of the month for several years now, but most of today's developments seem to have abandoned the original concept: an enormous, former industrial space offering adventurous folk the chance to provide themselves with unusual living accommodation, usually featuring tall spaces, Brobdingnagian sections of riveted structural steel and floor-to-ceiling steel windows. Now that everybody has jumped on the bandwagon, "loft" has taken over from "luxury" and "executive" as the estate agents' open sesame to customers' wallets, and has come to mean a not-particularly-big space that the developer cannot be bothered to fit out.

Revamped industrial

Manhattan Loft lays reasonable claim to be the market leader in loft developments, having completed five since it started in Clerkenwell's Summer Street seven years ago. Perhaps the shrewdest move by Harry Handelsman, who runs the operation, was securing the South Bank site on almost the same day that its illustrious neighbour-to-be, the Tate at Bankside, received lottery funding – a trick he has repeated at another project in Rosebery Avenue, where Sadler's Wells has reopened for business. I was relieved to learn that Manhattan Loft is a British operation – the name is merely to inspire confidence – rather than yet another indication that the Americans are here to show us how it should be done.

Manhattan Loft's standard brief to its architects specifies that the building should be tailored to accommodate fitting-out by the private individuals who buy the leaseholds. Naturally, the developer is keen to sell the shells as soon as they are finished, irrespective of the progress of the project as a whole. To this end, the scheme is designed with separate temporary access, so that the leaseholders' builders can work on the flats without compromising the main contractor, and centralised skip removal is part of the deal. At Bankside, contractor Sisk won the first phase by competitive tender, and the other five by negotiation.

The shell units are offered with an abundance of potential plug-in points for pipes and power, and plug-out points for flues, although, as Gough points out, this has not prevented some leaseholders from sticking new flues in the most extraordinary places. The upper units have balconies, and all are accessed by lifts and lobbies, with plenty of prominent insulated pipe-runs and galvanised steel plate to reinforce the industrial aesthetic.

Manhattan Loft also provides prospective purchasers with a warts-and-all guide to what to expect, and a list of architects and designers that can help. Part of the ongoing programme involves letting the retained commercial units. A well-developed scheme buzzing with style-conscious residents (the Purdey Hicks Gallery, among others) helps fizz up the atmosphere and boost rental values. For this reason, the firm has resisted the temptation to unload huge chunks of its accommodation to speculators. "Eighty per cent of the occupants in our first development are still there," says Boag with some pride.

Potential for contemporary interiors

A number of architects have fared very well. Most prospective purchasers start with no idea what is involved . They are buying a loft flat because it is a lifestyle consumer product, like a car.

"The majority are 'design virgins'," I was told by Simon Colebrook of the Douglas Stephen Partnership, whose practice has completed nearly 30 fit-outs. "Usually when you suggest to a prospective client that they need a limestone floor with everything made out of sandblasted glass and zinc sheet, they reel in horror. But here it was almost as though it must be right, just because we'd suggested it. The 'loft look' is really just as much of a style as Victorian repro, but because the design is architectural rather than merely decorative, commissioning clients can have their apartments individually tailored to a much greater degree."

There is no particular profile of resident. They are certainly not all designer couples in their 30s – one couple even reverse-commutes from their thatched cottage to hang out in a split-level minimalist cube at weekends.

"In many ways, our most interesting client was a couple with grown-up children and a country house who had been prised out of a traditional mansion flat in Sloane Square," says Colebrook. "I'll be interested to see the split levels full of 18th-century pictures."

Also, as Boag points out: "Fitting out flats is always a pig for a developer. Reducing our prime debt as early as possible is our main consideration. We have fitted out some schemes ourselves, but you can't get more than four or five people working in each unit, however big they are. Now we leave all that to the residents."

Bankside is unusual in that the new-build residential development is also offered in genuine loft form: seven levels of dwellings with enough headroom to fit in sleeping platforms or even full mezzanine floors. Unit sizes vary widely, from 50 m² up to 200 m² – although even this was not large enough for one punter who bought two, despite their £450 000 price tag.

The spine of the development is made up of a Victorian warehouse and a 1950s print works. The design load for the presses was great enough to allow the original lift core to be doubled in height to eight storeys without needing extra foundations. On to this extended core Gough has grafted his mango-yellow tower, an elegant yet robust landmark. Handelsman is so delighted with CZWG's work that he has commissioned the practice to fit out his own triplex flat on the top three floors, complete with dumb-waiter to the roof terrace and two levels of balconies.

The red-brick Victorian warehouse is linked to the new building by a raised communal garden, below which is parking for 90 cars, wittily screened with an expressive, open-web brick wall.

The tower is the best bit, and refreshingly simple, particularly from the front. The view from the trains coming into Blackfriars Bridge is rather more haphazard; a change in adjacent roofing materials is jarring; and some of the brickwork is not great. But, as an exercise in injecting a new lease of life into fading industrial buildings, it is hard to imagine it being done much better.

Product specification

External render
Rockwool Rockshield Steel windows
Mellowes Archital Aluminium windows
Comar Aluminium Systems, Aluminium Sashes Profiled aluminium roofing
Broderick Aluminium Asphalt roofing