The Art of Science at City Tower
Manchester's white beacon of modernism, and the city's third largest tower, is a visual tribute to a the city's scientific achievements
It’s hard to place City Tower, formerly Sunley Tower, in the brutalist pigeonhole these days. It’s a white beacon of modernism guiding you across China Town, a siren of the 60s beckoning you towards it from its podium behind the classical architecture of King Street. It’s the third tallest building in the city, and remains the highest commercial office space.
And set within its facade is a concrete tribute to the scientific achievements of the city, because look closely - those gable walls are a giant circuit board.
Completed in 1964 it was originally named Sunley Tower after developer Bernard Sunley, and the architects of the building were Covell, Matthew and Partners. The tower is one of three buildings within the Piccadilly Plaza complex - the Mercure Hotel and the college of law completing the trio. The law school takes the place of the much loved Bernard House, a shadow of its former self. The trio are said to be a modernist take on that other famous city triptych - the Town Hall, the Town Hall extension, and Central Library.
The oriel windows are new, and quite wonderful if you can get inside them - the highest one on either side are some of the best viewing points in the entire city, as you can see in this video of artist Neil Dimelow talking through his Manchester panorama drawn from those exact windows.
The painted white concrete now reveals the original circuit board relief pattern - a proud nod towards 'Baby' - the worlds first computer that was made here in Manchester.
The Small Scale Experimental Machine, or Baby, paved the way for the computer technology we know today and was built and designed by Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams at The University of Manchester.
But maybe that isn’t the intention of the gable decoration at all, maybe the design is more cryptic than that - I once heard a rather fanciful story that the relief actually reads 'Original Modern' in Mayan Hieroglyphics, as proposed by a Mexican designer on the team.
The plaza was built, like Oxford Road, to operate at first floor level but the neighbouring buildings that would have connected to the plaza with skyways were never built. Artist William Mitchell told Natalie Bradbury of Shrieking Violet of his plans to illuminate the plaza with a 350ft by 65ft advertising hoard that ”comprised of thousands of lightbulbs triggered by film and photoelectric cells”, and apparently the holes where the bulbs would have gone are still visible. Mitchell’s plan for this is pictured below, with many thanks to the always enlightening Flickr user seva_nmb
I spoke recently to Joy Mitchell, William Mitchell's wife, who tells me that the gable end patterns were a “belt and braces solution” that not only made the fixing points for this lighting scheme easily accessible simultaneously but it served as a feature for the building in case Mitchell’s lighting scheme was turned down.
It’s been suggested that the tower is one of 22 identical buildings around the country, all the exact height and style, as part of the UK’s move to prioritise the conservation of communications in the event of war (the same reason we have the Guardian Exchange tunnels).
The roof of the building is one of the main broadcast transmission sites for the city with a host of radio station antennas, and two watchful guards looking over gardens below: two nesting peregrine falcons.
When the plans for the Plaza were under discussion a certain Joseph Sunlight (the architect of Sunlight House on Quay Street, and the man responsible for over a million council houses in the region) voiced his opinion in a letter to The Guardian:
"To the Editor of the Manchester Guardian.
Sir, I understand to-day that the scheme for the building of a commercial skyscraper of shops and offices in the Piccadilly site, which appeared in the press last week, is coming before the Manchester City Council for acceptance and confirmation to-morrow. It seems to me a great pity that the City Council, on behalf of the citizens of Manchester, should commit itself to a decision so hurried. The people of Manchester should be given a little more time to consider and reflect before that magnificent opportunity of the Piccadilly square is prevented from being used for some big civic or cultural centre, such as Professor Richardson, the president of the Royal Academy, suggested when he last visited Manchester about six months ago. It is the last opportunity that Manchester citizens will have for 100 years of making Piccadilly a great feature of Manchester: a fine art gallery and museum might be set in the centre of that fine square. I suggest that the City Council should postpone their final decision and allow a little more time for reflection.
Yours, Joseph Sunlight, Sunlight House. Oct 2 1956.”
Sunlight might not have approved of the Plaza but even he must agree that the spruced up City Tower we have today is a fantastic reincarnation of its former self.
Take a look, if you dare, at old photos of the tower prior to the Bruntwood refurbishment, and see just what a splendid job the architects Stephenson Bell have made of the facelift. The old tower had fast become one of the landscape of the Eastern bloc with a brown, rain-stained facade - a guide in how not to use concrete, but Stephenson Bell had long spied the potential and tried unsuccessfully, in 1995, to list the building.
Prior to the tower being built there once stood the Parker Street warehouses. The warehouses were bombed in 1940 and before being redeveloped as the plaza complex they functioned as huge water reserves for the fire service for the duration of the war.
The loss of streets and their names is always a source of fascination when looking at the history of the city, in this case, the streets that ran between the warehouses and connected Parker Street and York Street still exist in part but have been reduced in length, and Velvet Street is the only street to no longer exist. The etymology of Velvet Street is perhaps to do with those textile warehouses - one of the tenants being Charles E. Sharp Velvet Manufacturers. In many parts of the world to this day corduroy is known as Manchester Velvet.
York Street was renamed New York Street in 2008 as part of the redevelopments.
Now back to those awesome views, but casting your glance this time to street level - over by the Mosley Street corner for a brief spell during the erection of the 1 New York Street development there was a secret entrance to an underground tunnel visible. The tunnel lead beneath the street and tramline into the adjacent building; the former Royal Bank of Scotland, connecting two of its bank vaults. It has since been filled in with concrete.
Photos by Skyliner/Hayley Flynn and Flickr user seva_nmb