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The Transformation of Piccadilly Plaza

Piccadilly Plaza is one of the biggest and most high profile buildings in Manchester. Begun in 1958 and completed 1965, it was the first purpose built multi-purpose development in the city. It was designed by Covell Matthews & Partners.

Bold in design, size, height and impact, it was intended to herald a new post-war Manchester. If the original plans had gone through, a string of similar developments with even taller towers would have stretched down to Oxford Street. What is now Chinatown and the district around it would have been mostly razed to the ground.

Things didn't quite go as expected. Piccadilly Plaza soon showed major design flaws. There were airflow problems caused by downdraughts next to the office tower. The interior shopping piazza was never successful, due to its location on the first floor. The general public never warmed to the giant concrete structure, described as 'brutalist'.

But Piccadilly Plaza had its good points. The smaller office building, Bernard House at the Portland Street was eye-catching with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof. And Sunley Tower was imposing, American in scale, with a strong similarity to the UN Building in New York. The hotel was interesting - like a set from Thunderbirds - though its condition deteriorated over time.

UN Building New York and Sunley Building Piccadilly Plaza compared

I could see its faults, but I was always sympathetic to Piccadilly Plaza. It was begun in the year I was born, and I remember it opening. As a child, its scale and vision caught my imagination. For me it was a new and exciting Manchester of the future that was starting to come true.

Piccadilly Plaza stood unrenovated and mostly unloved for three decades. And then in the wave of development that gathered pace in the 1990s, things started to change. New owners Portfolio Holdings began a renovation job on the building. The distinctive Bernard House was demolished to be replaced by a new and, most would agree, inferior building, which in 2005 remains unlet. The rest of the Plaza was to have had a makeoover, including the covering over of the concrete gables with their designs inspired by circuit boards. Confusingly it was to have been renamed 'Piccadilly Exchange'.

Then in 2003, Bruntwood Properties unexpectedly bought Piccadilly Plaza and as a statement of intent, moved their head offices into the 23rd and 24th floors of the Sunley Building, which they renamed City Tower.

They quickly started to make plans for the renovation of the building, and contacted leading Manchester-based architects Stephenson Bell.

Roger Stephenson was already keen on the building. In 1995 had attempted to have it listed, without success. He enthusiastically accepted Bruntwood's invitation, and set about developing ideas. Generally the aim would be to retain as much as possible of the original character of the building, whilst doing certain things to remedy its design faults.

After playing with a few off the wall ideas, a final set of plans was drawn up and here are the main points.

A new atrium created in the centre of the plaza, allowing people to walk through between the Piccadilly Gardens side and the Chinatown sides.

Access to the tower brought down to ground floor level, with new lifts and stairs.

Replacement of the windows on the tower with new black-coloured panes

Cleaning of the exterior concrete and application of protective Keim paint

Tidying up of the communications dishes on the roof, and the possible addition of a red-coloured lighting feature.

New plate glass windows on the podium, and a reduction in the overhang over the pavements on the south side, towards Portland St. The podium renovation on the north side, towards Mosley St, carried out by the previous owners to be retained.

In place of the first floor piazza, new giant size open plan office space with large windows overlooking surrounding streets.

The transformation of York Street, to the rear of the Plaza, into a pedestrian-dominated street free of buses.

The hotel will also undergo renovation by owners Jarvis, who have a lease on the Piccadilly Hotel until 2040.

My verdict:
I'm sure that the renovation of Piccadilly Plaza under the direction of Roger Stephenson is the best possible scenario for the building. It's regrettable that Bernard House, with its distinctive roof so beloved of schoolboys, was destroyed. Nevertheless, the aim should be to enhance what's there to the fullest extent.

I'm not sure whether I like the black window glass, but I'll reserve judgement until the work is complete. My instinct to preserve the builidng exactly its original state is simply not practical. I'm sure that the new Piccadilly Plaza will take on a new lease of life, thanks to the renovation by Bruntwood and Stephenson Bell, and that in 30 years time, who knows, maybe the general public might start to like it.

Stephenson Bell are widely considered to be Manchester's leading renovation architects, and have renovated many older buildings as well as designing new ones. Buildings designed or renovated by Stephenson Bell Architects include: Chorlton Park Housing, Smithfield Buildings, The Radisson Free Trade Hall, the Manchester International Convention Centre, and many more. Click to go to the Stephenson Bell website.

Bruntwood Properties is one of the most high profile property development companies in northern England. In and around Manchester, Liverpool, Bimingham and Leeds, the red oval Bruntwood sign can be seen on scores of office buildings which they have bought and renovated. Manchester-based Bruntwood are at the centre of the property boom which has been transforming cities across the UK and beyond. Click to go to the Bruntwood website.

Portland Street Manchester with Piccadilly Plaza

Quirky facts about Piccadilly Plaza

The two main buildings Bernard House and the Sunley Building were named after the property developer who built it: Bernard Sunley.

For many years, the Piccadilly Hotel had no street entrance. It was thought that in the future, all visitors would be arriving by car. Until the street entrance was opened, hotel guests arriving on foot to walk up the spiral ramp clutching their luggage.

The first floor piazza was to have linked up with neighbouring buildings via all-weather pedestrian bridges, similar to those in Minneapolis. The other buildings were never completed and the piazza remained cut off.

Peregrine falcons once nested in the tower. As part of the refurbishment, a nesting box will be installed to encourage them to return. It is planned to have a tv camera with pictures relayed to a big screen on the podium below.

Will the Piccadilly Plaza falcons become as popular as 'Big Brother'? Find out from September 2006 when the renovations are scheduled for completion.

See all photos of Piccadilly Plaza Manchester

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-09-21

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