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There's a pattern here

The bright latticework of Sheppard Robson’s new CityLabs building references both Victoriana and molecular structures, and that’s particularly appropriate for this part of Manchester, says Eleanor Young

On this road of institutional giants the red box of CityLabs behind its Victorian antecedent seems natural.
On this road of institutional giants the red box of CityLabs behind its Victorian antecedent seems natural. · Credit: Adrian Lambert

‘The old building was 20% of the space but 80% of the work,’ says Neal Allen-Burt of Sheppard Robson. My first glimpse of the CityLabs building was as a glint of bright orange behind the Victoriana of the old Manchester Royal Eye Hospital. It is one of many architectural events, some more convincing than others, along Oxford Road. Perhaps that is not surprising as this area has been branded the Corridor, a ‘business location’ running out of the city centre into the knowledge quarter. Over the past hundred years it has been home to some of Manchester’s excellent Victorian galleries, Central Manchester University Hospital Trust and two major universities, each of which have had their own cycles of investment. Here science, health and university neighbours are shifting, expanding and building.

As one institution – in this case the NHS – moves into a new home, it frees up the old one. Here Manchester Science Partnerships, whose joint venture partners are part of the Corridor concept, saw an opportunity to develop its business park across the road one step further. The grade II listed hospital was not in great shape, knocked about and ultimately stripped as the NHS left. Sheppard Robson proposed that three of the lesser wings should be demolished, leaving the historic L-shaped frontage onto Oxford Road. Behind it, on the edge of a new road, sits a new, rational and simple 9m grid box. This is offset a little from the old building, forming a double funnel of an atrium in between.

  • A welter of access ramps and steps lead to the raised ground floor.
    A welter of access ramps and steps lead to the raised ground floor. · Credit: Adrian Lambert
  • The offset of old and new geometries means the atrium is widest at its knuckle, where you find the reception.
    The offset of old and new geometries means the atrium is widest at its knuckle, where you find the reception. · Credit: Adrian Lambert
  • A replacement back wall for the Victorian block was needed.
    A replacement back wall for the Victorian block was needed. · Credit: Adrian Lambert
  • Sheppard Robson's CityLabs looks thoroughly modern.
    Sheppard Robson's CityLabs looks thoroughly modern. · Credit: Adrian Lambert
  • The colours of the anodised aluminium varies with the light, sometimes strong, sometimes subtle.
    The colours of the anodised aluminium varies with the light, sometimes strong, sometimes subtle. · Credit: Adrian Lambert

It is ironic that this new building emerged from the brief of the intended anchor tenant Icon. After signing up for a 15-year lease, the drug development company pulled out shortly after it was completed. Before then there were other small dramas. Surveys showed the back wall of the old building would be too weak after the supporting wings had been removed. Pile driving a replacement meant moving the building line further into the atrium, but gave tenants an extra few metres of space. It is a shame to have lost the original texture of the material; the new bricks have a certain brashness that even the deep powder-coated aluminium frames can’t make characterful.

On the other hand, it has left the atrium with satisfying dimensions, three storeys high and up to 11m at its widest. One entrance draws people from the main drag on Oxford Road, past a lofty-ceilinged Starbucks, while the other connects with the quiet road and the hospital campus behind. The reception sits somewhat unexpectedly at the knuckle of the atrium, in one corner of the new building, but this made sense for the new core and for bridging the atrium to serve the first floor of the old building. The bridges themselves, all five of them (to allow for easy subdivision of the rented space), could have made the foyer an interesting sculptural space, but sadly a cautious approach to loading has resulted in over-hefty structures.

There is no hint of this outside. The expressive red/orange veil of the south and eastern flanks obscures a mixture of fritted and solid glass panels and itself plays an interesting patterned game, based on brick dimensions and with a nod to the structure of DNA, solid and open. Wrapping around only the middle layers of the new box, the anodised aluminium doesn’t stop one reading it clearly and the articulation of the windows of the glass façade, or rather suggestion of windows, helps bring the building to life. And as one of many pieces of a far bigger puzzle along this road, it adds a variety and depth to a fast-changing area.


 

IN NUMBERS

  • Total contract cost: £25,948,789
  • GIFA cost per m2 : £1,950
  • Area in m2: 13,303

Credits

Client: Manchester Science Partnerships

Architects: Sheppard Robson

Project manager: Bruntwood

Quantity surveyor: Sweett Group

Mech/electrical engineer: Arup

Structural engineer: Arup

Contractor: Lend Lease