View from the top

No contemporary architect has transformed Manchester’s skyline so dramatically as Ian Simpson. After an IRA bomb destroyed the city centre in 1996, the British architect spearheaded one of the most ambitious urban regeneration projects of its time.

Seventeen years later, his vast, shiny glass buildings are most in demand in London: the 57-year-old has become one of the architects responsible for transforming the look of the capital.

Despite Britain’s reputation for historic preservation, Ken Livingstone ushered in a new high-rise era during his time as London mayor, and the dash for height has continued under the current mayor, Boris Johnson. Around 20 towers are being built or are in the pipeline, including One Blackfriars, Simpson’s scheme for a 170m glass tower on the south bank of the river Thames, set for completion in 2018.

His other big project is the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, part of a regeneration scheme to create a “new South Bank”, stretching 450 acres from Battersea Park to Lambeth Bridge. The power station has, ever since it was decommissioned in the early 1980s, been the object of feverish land speculation. Set for completion in 2016, Simpson has designed a 97,860 sq metre mixed-use complex featuring 689 residential apartments.

Unsurprisingly, like so many other high-profile developments in the capital, it is made almost entirely from glass. It is, he says, “a groundscraper rather than a skyscraper. It won’t be very tall. But at 320m, if you stood the structure on its end, it would be [10m] taller than the Shard.”

Unlike many architects who design modern buildings but reside in Georgian townhouses, Simpson lives at the top of his best-known creation: Beetham Tower in Manchester. The skyscraper’s journey to the top began in 2004, when a derelict railway viaduct occupying the development site was demolished. “Go, modernity,” he seemed to proclaim as the new building went up, protruding aggressively into the skyline like a visiting spaceship, its glass heads towering above the hulks of red-brick mills and factories left behind from the industrial revolution.

Completed in 2006 at a cost of £150m, it spikes above the city’s skyline from the south end of Deansgate. Its 48 storeys house a Hilton Hotel on the lower floors with flats for young professionals above. Of course, there are taller skyscrapers in the world: Beetham Tower, named after its developer, the Beetham Organisation, a property company based in Liverpool, may not cut it in the “How Big Is Yours?” race that’s engulfing London. In fact, at 168m it is rather small compared with the Shard, which is almost double the height.

Seating areas on the open-plan lower floor

Though for Manchester, it’s massive. Nothing comes close on this skyline. People stop and stare. Look, there it is, the UK’s first proper skyscraper outside London.

It’s early afternoon, the sunlight bright and the sky blue. Outside, hundreds of football supporters are growing restless as they wait to catch sight of Cristiano Ronaldo and his Real Madrid teammates. The players have been staying at the Hilton ahead of their Champions League fixture against Manchester United. Eventually they emerge, many of them holding manbags. Attempting to get closer, a scuffle breaks out between fans. Security intervenes.

The scene could have come straight from the pages of High-Rise (1975), JG Ballard’s darkly comic portrait of ultra-modern living up in the clouds. Characters have all the conveniences and commodities that modern life has to offer, but life in the high-rise degenerates when petty arguments between neighbours escalate into violence.

Inside Beetham Tower, on the ground floor, a large, glassy lobby offers what you’d expect from any luxury hotel. Simpson meets me here and we go up to his penthouse on the 47th and 48th floors – the highest residence in Britain (until the 72-floor Shard, near London Bridge, is completed in the coming months, that is).

Beetham Tower

How big is it exactly? “Twelve-and-a-half-thousand square feet,” Simpson replies, a touch wryly, adding that he lives here with his girlfriend, Jo Farrell, and her teenage daughter. “There’s a lot of accommodation. What was really important was to try and give it a sense of intimacy and to avoid it looking like a typical bachelor pad. It took me two years to do the fit-out.”

It doesn’t take long to see why. Simpson’s vast collection of Scandinavian mid-century furniture includes 200 chairs – designed by everyone from Eero Saarinen to Poul Kjaerholm, it had previously occupied three storerooms and two apartments.

The most striking feature of the open-plan lower floor is the indoor garden, planted with 30 mature olive trees imported from Tuscany. At this height, it is an almost unreal contrast to the skyline outside. “This is the most extreme idea I’ve ever had,” says Simpson. “The trees were lifted in by crane before the roof was completed.”

Can they be taken back out? “You’d have to take a chainsaw to them,” he laughs. “That one there,” he says, pointing to one of two cork trees, “weighs four tonnes.”

At the other end of the garden is a sauna, steam room, pool and gym. From here, a staircase leads to the upper level and into one of five bedrooms. Further along the mezzanine is Simpson’s study. “Sometimes I escape the office to come and work here. I never do my drawing on the computer – always by hand.”

Model cars – the real versions of which Simpson has owned

On display are some model cars – the real versions of which Simpson has owned, including the Alfa Romeo 8C concept car, Ferrari 599s, and a 1960s Ferrari 250 GT Series II Cabriolet, “the only Ferrari that has made me money”.

We return downstairs for a cup of tea and take a seat in one of three seating areas, next to a display of glass vases. Does living in one of his own buildings make the Beetham Tower special? “Definitely,” he smiles. “When I designed this building I knew that it could give me this wonderful space, with the height and the light that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else ... I’m not planning on moving. This is it now. This is home.”

I mention that his high-end tower has divided opinion. In his book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), architecture critic Owen Hatherley writes that the tower lacks the “confusion of most recent high-rises” and praises its “distinctive silhouette”. However, others have lambasted its excessive scale.

Simpson bats away the criticisms. “Post-industrial cities have to evolve. We are not in the heart of Rome. Every city must have a vision and every city must be open to change. I love historic buildings but I’m not interested in pastiche.”

Today the sky is clear and we take in the 360-degree views of Manchester and 30 miles beyond. “On foggy days, the penthouse floors often sit above the cloud line,” he says, standing at the floor-to-ceiling glass façade. He points out Number One Deansgate, the wedge-shaped glass apartment block he built in 2002. Just beyond is one of the city’s most striking buildings: the Simpson-designed exhibition centre Urbis, also completed in 2002, which resembles a glass ski slope.

Water feature in Simpson’s indoor garden

Until the 18th century, Simpson explains, Manchester was a pretty market town, its population living in a handful of streets. It didn’t come of age until the industrial revolution, which enabled the city to become the grimy textile centre of imperial Britain. This was the Manchester celebrated by LS Lowry, the quintessential painter of northern, working-class life, of belching chimneys and workers – the so-called “matchstick men and women” – hurrying through the terraced streets.

He points out the set of Coronation Street, the popular UK soap opera, and some of the city’s oldest landmarks: the Gothic ramparts of City Hall are just around the corner from the Central Library, which dominates St Peter’s Square, its huge limestone rotunda polished to a gleaming white. There are a few decaying mills, but they are hard to spot.

A wooden sculpture in Simpson’s home

Simpson is at least partly to blame for this: his father worked in demolition, blowing up mill chimneys. Occasionally, Simpson and his brother helped out. “To blow up a chimney you have to drill some holes and ignite them with gelignite. Then you cross your fingers and hope that the chimney will fall in the right direction.”

I point out that despite a background of knocking down Manchester’s tallest structures, Simpson now puts them up. “It’s funny how things work out,” he says, before explaining that he was 12 when he decided he wanted to be an architect.

Born in Heywood, Rochdale, Simpson excelled in art and woodwork at school. Later he enrolled on an architecture course at Liverpool Polytechnic, from which he graduated to Lord Norman Foster’s practice in London, where he met business partner Rachel Haugh, whom he describes as “fundamental” to the business’s success.

After three years, the pair returned to Manchester to set up on their own. Simpson took up a lecturing post at Manchester university to pay the bills; the practice wouldn’t turn a profit for almost a decade. In the early 1990s, he was asked, with a group of architects, to shape a regeneration framework for the city. When the bomb struck in 1996, his name became synonymous with its rebirth.

The informal living room

Controversially, Simpson’s plans meant that Grade II-listed buildings were relocated to make way for new buildings. “The bomb gave us the opportunity to completely reinvent the city,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to preserve anything, or to turn parts of Manchester into some kind of museum. I’m interested in designing the cities of tomorrow.”

The formula certainly attracts buyers. The stampede for property at Battersea Power Station was likened to the start of a Harrods sale. It took just four days for more than £600m worth of apartments to be sold in reportedly the fastest-selling property development on record.

But what do the large-scale developments Simpson is currently working on do for the look of London? There is little doubt that the capital has enthusiastically entered the mine-is-bigger-than-yours competition: from the NatWest Tower, now Tower 42, the first skyscraper in the City of London, opened in 1981; through to the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard and, soon, Simpson’s One Blackfriars and residential development at Battersea Power Station.

“They are not vanity projects – we have 999-year leases on our buildings, so they are built to last. Architects have to seize the moment – building booms don’t come about often. London has to embrace change or it’ll be left behind as a world city. In 20 or 30 years’ time, it will run out of space. We need to build vertically, and we need to build big. Why build 60 homes on a site when you can build 600?”

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