FCBStudios Architect Jack Baker moved to Manchester in 2017 to join our team there. He reflects on the Ancoats neighbourhood he moved to, what it was, what it is and what it could be.
Back in 2017, when planning a move to Manchester, the obligatory ‘best places to live’ search repeatedly told me that Ancoats was the place to be.
Even the San Francisco Chronicle had sounded it out as a must-visit for its ‘signature Manchester experience’, of industrial mills, independent cafes, bars and arts venues. Just ten minutes’ walk from the city centre with affordable rents, I was instantly sold and went to explore.
On first impressions, I struggled to recognise this description. What I did find was an area dominated by construction, cut off from the city centre by a four-lane ring road. There was a scattering of small independent bars and restaurants but certainly not the bustling street scenes I had read about. What was clear was that the area was very much work in progress.
I ventured on. Amongst the cranes and hoardings were some impressive red-brick mills and their associated terraced worker housing. Three mill complexes stand proud at the canal edge: Royal, Bengal and Murrays’. These are the kind of buildings that represent the city’s heritage and provide a strong sense of identity. This was an industrial landscape that clearly had some stories to tell and the kind of building stock that can be used and reused to create and recreate a place. I stopped for a coffee, before continuing my walk along the canalside back towards the city centre.
I was captivated. I found an apartment adjacent to the canal with views to a nearby mill and beyond, started my new job in FCBStudios’ Manchester office – which at the time was completing work on three projects in Ancoats – Murrays’ Mills, One Cutting Room Square and Smith’s Yard and settled into Ancoats life.
Fast forward just two years, and I can see why Ancoats was listed as the 27th coolest neighbourhood in the world. When the construction dust settled, new street scenes appeared within the area’s strong, urban grid and views opened up to reveal a very liveable part of the city with small independents on every corner.
Ancoats has found its beating heart in Cutting Room Square. The Halle Orchestra’s rehearsal and recording space, St Peter’s, presides over the Square and its collection of bars and restaurants, and new developments on Hood Street on the scale of the existing mill buildings have completed the streetscape. As a result, it is alive all year round, particularly throughout the summer when it acts like a human sundial as the crowds compete for the rare sight of Manchester sunshine.
Away from the Square, the quieter residential streets are characterised by the mills. Manchester Life – a joint venture between Manchester City Council and the Abu Dhabi United Group - has driven much of the redevelopment of Ancoats through a fast-paced programme of mill conversions and a smattering of new, brick apartment and townhouse blocks which complement the existing mill apartments, housing a mixed population of young professionals and families. The Rochdale Canal marks the southeast boundary of Ancoats and links the neighbourhood to the New Islington marina, with its schools, doctors and green open spaces on the waterfront.
I’m glad the City Guides were able to predict Ancoats’ future. Simply put, it has some old bits, some new bits, trees, water, schools, shops, culture, places to eat and drink, open spaces, and you can walk or cycle everywhere. But it is not finished yet. With some bold decisions and creative thinking, Ancoats could be even better.
The empty site of an old retail park next door presents a huge opportunity for extending the neighbourhoods that have grown up here. Opposite the three iconic mills, there is the prospect of further enhancing the historic canal-side and inspiring more personal connections with Manchester’s industrial past.
The unique summer of 2020 has seen some creative use of the city - circuit training in the courtyards - and people embracing the outdoors for social and business use. In such a densely populated area, new development needs to include space that can be given over to sport and leisure facilities that support inner-city health and wellbeing, and add to the growing canal-side network of green spaces for the city.
Lastly, the ring road currently creates a huge, and polluted, barrier. I am one of the hundreds that negotiate the polluted crossings on my short, pedestrian commute to work. I’m looking forward to the completion of the current Great Ancoats Street improvements which will hopefully set the tone for future developments. If Manchester wants to realise its ambitions to be a cycling and walking city, then schemes like this for traffic-calming, pedestrian-friendly landscaping and the planting of trees can make a real difference in connecting Ancoats, New Islington and the Rochdale Canal basin to the city centre.
Manchester, and Manchester Life have committed to recreating Ancoats as a neighbourhood that exemplifies the city, both in its past as the centre of industry and in its present as a vibrant, cultural and leisure destination. Here’s to seeing it continue to develop in the same way.
1. Two of Ancoats historic mills, Royal and Murrays'.
2. Terraced housing for mill workers.
3. View along Rochdale Canal from Jack's apartment.
4. Street scene along Blossom Street towards Cutting Room Square.
5. Cutting Room Square, the heart of Ancoats
6. View along Murray Street, with Murrays' Mills on the left
7. Towards Murrays' Mills from New Islington Marina
8. New Islington Marina is a lively meeting and social space.
All pictures by Jack Baker/Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios