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Civil Justice Centre Vision of a Brave New Manchester

It has been a few years in the making, but a building that is now in its final stages on the western side of Spinningfields, close to the River Irwell, looks to be one of the most radical and groundbreaking pieces of modern architecture to appear in Manchester for many years.

Manchester Civil Justice Centre at night
Manchester Civil Justice Centre at night seen from Albert Bridge

The Manchester Civil Justice Centre is designed by Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall, working in partnership with other companies and government bodies.

What follows is a street level perspective, not taken from an architectural review or press release, but based on observation by an architecturally curious pair of eyes.

It’s big - not as tall as the Beetham Tower, but if you cut it in half and placed one half on top of the other, it would nearly as tall. The height is 260 feet (80m).

It has features I have never seen on a building before: sections that jut out in mid air and hang there like the open drawers of a filing cabinet, a wall of metal grilles on the east facade that look like sunshades on a Middle Eastern building.

There is a vast glass wall on the west façade with an atrium that rises up practically to the full height of the building.

The glass wall is extended outwards at the sides, forming a double layer of glass jutting into the air. I don't think the architects had to do this, but they did.

The exterior material has a dark metallic sheen, like a giant piece of electronic hardware. Unlike many other buildings around Manchester, there's not a badly fitted terracotta tile anywhere in sight.

Inside the vast curtain wall of glass, there are rooms, 'pods', inserted at various floor levels, each one a different size and colour, in the style of a Mondrian painting.

It is an eccentric building in many respects. The exterior pods are of higgledy piggledy shape and size.The building has a ‘science fiction’ quality to it, like something out of a book of fantastic buildings that never got built, but this one did.

But despite the entertaining design, the purpose of the building is serious. Inside those funny shaped pods and jutting out bits, the due process of the law will take place. The Civil Justice Centre belongs to the British state and by extension, to the city (with a small c). On the Bridge Street entrance is a giant coat of arms with the words ‘Manchester Civil Justice Centre’.

I know that some people may think the protruding bits look like Portakabins stacked on top of each other, and others may not appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a 250 square foot wall of glass.

But my opinion, the Manchester Civil Justice Centre is the most important and impressive piece of modern architecture to appear in Manchester for decades.

It’s superior in design and concept to the Beetham Hilton Tower, and maybe architect of the Tower Ian Simpson wouldn’t disagree. The Hilton Tower was a building done quickly on a limited budget. The Civil Justice Centre has been constructed slowly, on what looks like a sizeable budget.

Standing next to the Crown Courts and visible from the town hall, the Civil Justice Centre will fulfil the promise of a fitting centrepiece for Manchester’s legal quarter, as envisioned by the city fathers in the 1945 Plan for Manchester.

I wonder what would their verdict on the Civil Justice Centre would be?

Discuss the Civil Justice Centre and other Manchester buildings in my Manchester Forums.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-01-09

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