It is impossible to walk through Manchester city centre without experiencing the creativity of leading architect Ian Simpson. The majestic Beetham Tower, Urbis and No. 1 Deansgate have redefined the landscape, stamping a positive modern identity on the bomb-ravaged shell from the turn of the century.
Simpson spoke to Northern Soul from his offices in the centre of Castlefield about his passion for buildings. “I remember telling my careers master that I wanted to be an architect,” he explains.“But at the time it was like, don’t be so ambitious. Think about being a draughtsman.”
But Heywood-born Simpson was undeterred and trained at Liverpool Polytechnic before leaving for London to finish his studies, working for the esteemed Norman Foster. It wasn’t long before his roots were calling him back and he returned to Manchester in 1985 where he met business partner Rachel Hough and the practice was born.
An initial teaching post at Manchester University provided financial security while Haugh and Simpson built up the business. “It just meant a lot of evening working and weekend working for ten years before we actually made any money,” Simpson says.
The pair set up in the Knott Mill area of the city where they remain today. The beginnings were simple: repairing existing buildings and forming the Knott Mill Association. This spanned out to Castlefield, Merchants Warehouse, Manchester Museum and the Green Room Theatre. “It was about building up a body of work,” reflects Simpson.
Never one to be afraid of diversifying, Simpson also established Atlas Bar with Nick Johnson. “I’d be down there on Sundays cleaning the pipes out, it was a very hands on thing,” laughs Simpson.
But it was the bomb of 1996 that provided Simpson and Haugh with their career-defining challenge when they won the competition to master-plan the city centre. Simpson was determined to use the tragedy to reshape Manchester for the better by erasing divides.
“The poor were to the North and the wealthy to the South. It felt like we needed to break the barrier that was established in the 60s and 70s with the creation of the Arndale and let the city breathe.”
Simpson clearly feels a strong bond with the city. “Manchester is a really lovely scale of city where the individual can make a difference, whether you’re an artist, a musician, an architect or a writer. You can walk across this city and meet people you know and I like that.”
When asked about the responsibilities people like him have towards the city, he does not take them lightly. He has visions for Manchester: “I want Manchester to be perceived as a place in which other companies should invest in so that you create jobs and I can help that perception change by creating good quality spaces and good quality buildings.”
Along with many other cities around the world, Manchester was hit hard by the recession and the many derelict and half-started building projects are a testimony to this. But Simpson is positive: “I think you’ll see over the next ten years, a lot of new development and a lot of consolidation of vacant sites.”
So where does an innovator like Simpson draw his inspiration? It’s not from his rivals.
“I’m not really interested in other people’s architecture because that is, in many ways, a distraction,” he says. “I’m really interested in the way things are crafted. I like sculpture, I like art. I think the fundamental thing about architecture is just a quality of light and space. That’s probably why we use glass a lot. When you’re sitting there and the volume is fantastic, there’s a sense of serenity.”
After creating such an impressive body of work, Simpson could be forgiven for resting on his laurels in the penthouse apartment he created at the top of the Beetham Tower – but that’s not likely to happen. There are projects in Korea, Sweden, Belgium, London and of course Manchester where Simpson feels the work has only just begun.
“Living in cities is something I’m passionate about. Instead of 20,000 people living in the city, I’d like to see 200,000 living here and then we’ll have a real buzz about the place.”
Main image: Ian Simpson by Paul Wolfgang Webster
** It spans more than 525,000 square feet of space.