Will's water world

An ambitious project by the celebrated Architect Will Alsop includes the creation of ground-breaking new homes on stilts, chic new bars, and even an orchard
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The Independent Online

The celebrated architect Will Alsop tightens his muffler and sets off into the teeth of the chilly wind that whips across a wasteland in inner-city Manchester. These 29 acres are to provide the site for his first residential scheme in the UK -- an ambitious project pioneered by the equally celebrated developers, Urban Splash.

The celebrated architect Will Alsop tightens his muffler and sets off into the teeth of the chilly wind that whips across a wasteland in inner-city Manchester. These 29 acres are to provide the site for his first residential scheme in the UK -- an ambitious project pioneered by the equally celebrated developers, Urban Splash.

The area is to be called New Islington, a name with its roots in local folklore. All it will have in common with Islington in London is the close proximity of social housing with homes for the comfortably off. "We want traditional pubs as well as trendy bars, a Michelin-starred restaurant and the best fish-and-chip shop in Manchester," says Urban Splash's director of development, Nick Johnson, who is walking alongside us.

"If we get it right," Alsop chips in, "people will come from other parts of town to eat, drink and do nothing. We think that's important." But just in case residents or outsiders want to do something to help pay the mortgage, the scheme will include 150,000 sq ft of office space. Not to mention a health clinic and a new school. Urban Splash is keen to attract families as well as what Bridget Jones would term "singletons". Yet there are plans for comparatively few traditional houses with gardens. Will families want apartments?

"They manage to exist in them quite happily in London and European cities," says Johnson.

"Absolutely," Alsop concurs. His masterplan for the whole area includes plenty of newly planted greenery. There's even going to be an orchard. A new waterway is underway as well. Contaminated land has already been cleared and dug for a third canal to complement the Rochdale and the Ashton. So the apartments being designed by Alsop's own firm will be on fingers of land with water on three sides. What's more, the "urban barns" he is planning - substantial family homes on stilts - will have space underneath to moor a boat. He also wants what he calls a village green and a village hall.

All this is coming on a landscape that has been uncompromisingly urban. Until the 1960s, this part of the city was warrened by terraced streets and dominated by huge mills and factories. Many of the industrial buildings are still there, albeit redesigned to accommodate offices and, in once case, a nightclub.

Part of the far horizon is blotted out by the formidable gothic exterior of what was once the Ancoats Hospital and, before that, a Victorian workhouse. "Look at the light on that red brick," says Alsop admiringly. As part of his masterplan, the hospital pharmacy will be retained and turned into 12 apartments by Manchester-based architect Ian Simpson. Prices are likely to range from £130,000 to £170,000 and work should be completed by the end of 2006.

Meanwhile, work has just started on 23 houses designed by Fat (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) from Clerkenwell in London. It's a small development of social housing and 17 of the units will go to former residents of the Cardroom Estate, built by Manchester City Council in the 1970s and occupying much of Urban Splash's new site until the bulldozers moved in. Johnson insists that every Cardroom resident who wanted a home in New Islington has been offered one, apart from those subject to a zero-tolerance policy on anti-social behaviour. "We were also petitioned to keep one of the roads from the old estate and we've agreed to that," he says. "This project is an essay in 'anything goes', albeit in a controlled way."

And that evidently suits Alsop. "What interests me about Fat's work is that you can never predict what they're going to do," he says. "What they're offering here is a play on the traditional house with ornate façades and balconies as well as gardens."

After Fat will come Chips -- 145 waterside apartments designed by Alsop himself in a timber-veneer with a rain-screen (well, this is Manchester) and expected to be completed some time in 2007.

There will be one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, and 50 of them will be available on shared equity schemes. But why "Chips"?

Because rather than have uniform rectangular blocks, Alsop sliced the building horizontally so that the three stories angle against each other like fat chips on a plate. "What was here before was small and low-rise, totally out of scale with the grandeur of the industrial buildings around the site," he says.

"And if you're going to attract more shops, bars, pubs and restaurants," Johnson puts in, "then you need more people living here." On our walk this evening, we've seen just three youths kicking a ball and a young man walking a pit bull terrier along a canal towpath... Long after the last mill closed and the real-life Coronation Streets were swept away, could it really be that this part of Manchester is set to become a vibrant community once again?

Given Urban Splash's record on regeneration, don't bet against it.

Urban Splash: 07000 373737, www.chipsforsale.co.uk

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