Will Alsop’s 2005 proposals for a coast-to-coast northern SuperCity may have seemed a stretch of the imagination but many of its ideas are very relevant today, argues Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson + Partners.
Alsop’s plans included city networks using existing assets such as football grounds and Ikea stores as nodes.
In 2005 I went to see the exhibition SuperCity in Manchester at Urbis – the museum of urban life – a great venue, sadly long since closed. SuperCity was the brainchild of the late Will Alsop, very much in the tradition of Archigram and Alsop’s former mentor Cedric Price. The exhibition invited visitors to “have a dialogue with a future which may or may not exist”, including “a visionary daring prophesy for the north of England – a future where the vast M62 corridor is a singular entity, a huge coast-to-coast ‘SuperCity’, 80 miles long and 15 miles wide’. Alsop’s contentious individual masterplans for areas inside the SuperCity included proposals for a beach outside Bradford town hall and Barnsley’s makeover as a modern Tuscan hill village.
The exhibition explored Alsop’s radical vision in the light of the then deputy prime minister John Prescott’s plan to regenerate northern England, outlined in his ‘Northern Way Strategy’. I would argue that its lessons are just as relevant to the current ambitions for the north. The idea of the ‘northern powerhouse’ – a vision for ‘a superconnected globally-competitive northern economy’ – was first introduced in June 2014 by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Some progress has been made. New mayors have been appointed. New bodies such as Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and Transport for the North (TfN) have been formed. Flagship projects include the £380 million upgrade of the A1(M) from London to Newcastle; the £16 million development of the Halton Curve, which will allow direct trains between north Wales and Liverpool for the first time in decades; the first Sunderland bridge to be built over the River Wear for 40 years; and a £16 million government investment to improve Newcastle’s cycling lanes.
The SuperCity was 80 miles long and 15 miles wide, containing “semi-autonomous federated subregions”.
These are laudable and important projects. But they do have all the hallmarks of an episode of Yes Minister, compiling a list of random unconnected projects to demonstrate that something is happening. They are unlikely to have the manufacturing centres of Germany or the innovation centres of America and China quaking in their boots.
As architects, we tend to believe that the answers to most problems are to be found in design, but first the strategy needs to be established to allow design to flourish.
It is beholden on architects to stretch the imagination and to lead opinion, and Alsop’s ideas certainly achieved this. Although I disagree with many of the concepts presented, Alsop did make a number of fundamentally important points which, 15 years later, have still not been addressed.
The lifestyles on offer in the northern powerhouse have to be attractive. Alsop understood the importance of places that are both distinctive and appealing, proposing “a series of brand-new settlements as centres of high energy …designed in their totality by leading architects to ensure that all are different… These new cities, linear and polycentric, will take pressure off our traditional centres and be in themselves dynamic and culturally diverse settlements.”
Whether the solutions are a beach outside the town hall in Bradford or Barnsley’s Tuscan reinvention is doubtful. But Alsop realised that something needs to be done to attract and retain talent. I know, as a lifelong Manchester United fan (my father was born opposite their old Newton Heath ground) that there have been many international stars who have chosen to play for London clubs in order to experience its culture and attractions. Rather than compete on the same terms, the north has to make a virtue of its unique attractions. Each town or city needs to build on its own identity and strengths. Architects, planners, engineers and designers can help.
Alsop’s colleague James Hulme, presumably trying to diffuse the charge of megalomania, said: “The deputy prime minister’s office and our firm have reached similar conclusions about the future of northern cities… A seamless coast-to-coast city would be a nightmare. This exhibition is anti-sprawl, it’s a plea against homogeneity. The places in between towns are as important as the centres themselves.”
Alsop’s painted sketches show features such as windfarms as well as more esoteric concepts such as “sounds of fun”, “ticklish knees” and “dancing feet”.
Many of the northern towns are skirted by the most beautiful countryside and we must preserve the unique environments of this area. Alsop’s vision combined a strategy of protecting the countryside along with pockets of extreme densification. He even wrote an account from the pen of a fictitious resident: “In my city, which is 80 miles long and 15 miles wide, I enjoy points where I can be alone in an urban wilderness … I live in a new village that is actually a single building where 5,000 people live, work and play. Everyone wakes up to a view of the moorland and yet my village did not destroy it as it rides high over the surface of the earth. The older centres are accessible and offer a variety of treats as well as employment. To the east lies the pleasure fields and in the west genuine 24-hour nightlife … The park and ride facilities at the motorway service areas usually contain beautiful gardens and first-class restaurants.”
Some of Alsop’s proposals may sound like some sort of bizarre dystopian future, alien to the northern towns, but cities like Manchester are often the first to adapt to new ideas. Indeed, Manchester is home to one of the pioneers of urban living and densification. Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash has arguably done more than any developer in the country in advocating city-centre dwelling and revitalising our cities.
His pioneering work in the 80s and 90s has seen large areas of many cities regenerated as he has led the way for many other and larger developers.
The SuperCity was equally radical in its transport policy. Small private cars were allowed only for short distances to link with extensive bus routes. Buses were allowed to leave the highways, but not lorries. Local distribution was served by smaller vehicles. Trains were used only for long distances, usually at high speed as a replacement for domestic air travel. Manchester Airport represented Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds, which became “with their different strengths, a collective world city and a destination for travellers from every continent”.
Air and rail connections
Weston Williamson + Partners (WW+P) has been working on a high-capacity rail link connecting new freeports in Liverpool and Hull via Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. The new link will increase the catchment for Manchester Airport with check-in points at the improved regional stations. Alistair Lenczner from Expedition, the project’s engineer, points out that the population of the northern powerhouse is almost exactly the same as the Netherlands, which is effectively served by Schiphol Airport and has regular train services to all parts of the country. I think Manchester Airport can serve the region in the same way as Schiphol serves all of the Netherlands, with everyone living within a 90-minute train ride from the airport. Essentially, it should be possible to imagine “the north” working as an independent state in terms of infrastructure … not that I’m advocating this, but a lot more regional devolution for the north would be good. The north should be like a hilly version of the Netherlands!’
Efficient public transport gives the northern cities a key competitive advantage. In WW+P’s research into the commuting patterns in 10 global cities, Manchester was the city with the average fastest commute with 43% of commuters getting to work under 30 minutes and a further 40% in under an hour. In a post-Covid world it is to be expected that more people will prefer to work in cities with a more civilised commute. London will have to work hard to make rush-hour transport acceptable, whereas cities like Manchester have an advantage in geography and demographics.
Technology and the potential to create amazing structures have changed rapidly, yet we as human beings have changed little. Many still prefer the spaces and places of a 2,000-year-old Roman town to say Ville Radieuse. Le Corbusier was a wonderful architect but a flawed urban planner. Radical urban planning strategies have struggled to engage with – or win over – popular opinion. There is a lot to be learned from Alsop’s approach.
Martin Stockley, the Manchester-based engineer who worked closely with Alsop, explains the power of Alsop’s idiosyncratic drawings: “Will understood that if you have a discussion with local people over a masterplan model showing blocks of buildings, they immediately zoom in on the architectural style, size etc and the discussion goes nowhere other than opinions. If you show buildings as a giant fish, Marge Simpson’s hair, a golden teddy bear etc, nobody discusses the architecture. Why would they? So the discussion is immediately about all of the important stuff like facilities for locals and streets. A lot of our urban design and masterplanning is painting by numbers and soulless. You have to have a broad proposition, then develop parts and see what happens.”
Alsop said in 2005: “SuperCity aims to break down conventional barriers to thought by constantly asking ‘what if ?’ and then converts these thoughts and visions into tangible realities which I hope will intrigue and inspire visitors in equal measure.’
It certainly did exactly that for me. I remember it as an inspirational collection of ideas on a par with the 1986 Royal Academy exhibition London As It Could Be. It offers a lot to build on. As Steve Jobs said: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’ When it comes to the Northern Powerhouse there are many dots to connect.