It’ll never work they said. You can’t build 5000sqft apartments in old mills in the centre of Manchester, there’s only 600 people living there. You can’t revitalise poor areas of Plymouth from your grey home up North. Pre-fab housing failed in the 60’s, you can’t make them desirable, nobody is going to buy them.
“Absolute bollocks” – not a direct quote from Tom Bloxham (Urban Splash), but I feel it sums up his thoughts.
Myself and my business partner Dan were very kindly invited to the “It’ll never work” 25 years of Urban Splash exhibition in the wonderfully angular Benzie building (home to Manchester Met’s School of Architecture).
On first impressions it was everything you expected from a property exhibition. There were numerous pictures and content documenting the history of the business – tick. There were large props with Urban Splash slogans on dotted around the room – tick. There was a Q&A with Tom and several Directors of the business – tick. And there was lots of free booze, big effing tick.
Whilst wondering around the room trying to work out whether I recognise anybody I’ve seen on LinkedIn, I decided to make my way through the wonderfully impressive space. Having been lucky enough to meet Tom previously and conduct some work with the business, I had a fairly good understanding of what the developer has achieved. However, seeing it laid out on massive lightbox that must have been over 10m long, you forget what a journey they have been on.
It’s a tale of innovation, balls, nativity, recovery, pig-headedness, and a sprinkling of ridiculous creativity. It’s really hard not to shower Tom and Urban Splash with praise and admiration – it’s really quite frustrating as with privately-owned property developers, there always feels like there is a sinister side. I couldn’t and can’t see it with Urban Splash.
Once we had digested the content of the exhibition, and several glasses of wine and a few “It’ll never work” ales, Mark Latham (Regeneration Director, US) announced that a Q&A would be starting after a couple of introductions from some rather important people –
First up, was Malcolm Press, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, who gave us all a reminder just how high up the universities are in the rankings for architecture. Bloody high was the impression I got from that, somewhere between Harvard and Cambridge (in your face, Cambridge).
Second onto the stage was Suzy Jones, Director of RIBA North and co-creator of the exhibition – which by all accounts sounded like there was a good chance this thing wasn’t going to work (there’s a theme running here) as they had just 12 weeks to throw it together.
Seeing RIBA’s desire to work with Urban Splash on this, shows you just how important they have been to British architecture, and Suzy was very genuine with her praise for the business.
Finally we had one of the north’s head honcho’s Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Andy gave us a jovial 10 minutes on the importance of housing in Manchester, building a wall in St Helens to keep the Liverpudlians out (they’re paying apparently), whilst slathering Tom with compliments – and to be fair, you could tell he meant them.
It was at this point I had finished my beer, but was fairly front and centre for the following Q&A with Tom, Simon Gawthorpe (Managing Director), and Nathan Cornish (Group Director) – by the time I realised, the Q&A was underway and there was no way a 6’2 person in a long green jacket with a camera round his neck is not going to be noticed sneaking off for another beer.
Thankfully it was a genuinely interesting and engaging 30 minutes. It’s clear the three of them (4 if you include Mark, who was asking the questions) have a great relationship with each other and the respect between is nothing but mutual.
After a few humorous anecdotes about their times at Urban Splash, it was opened up to the floor for questions. Now, it’s usually this point people look around to see if anyone had the stones to ask a question (I certainly didn’t), but very quickly hands shot up, and people asked a mixture of questions.
The question I didn’t have the balls to ask was actually answered by Tom unprompted. I wanted to hear his thoughts of property developers who don’t think about place-making, the communities, the impact it can have on an area. “Gold-diggers” was the term he used. He then pointed to a big illuminated sign with those exact words on. Question answered.
While the last question was being fielded, I made my break for the table with free alcohol and all was right with the world. A couple more beers later, and tipsy networking was on the cards. I managed to collar Tom for 5 minutes, to discuss a recent review I did for Urban Splash, but also so I could shower him with praise (it’s almost impossible not to, I swear!).
Then just before we left, we bumped into Gary Jackson, CEO of DeTrafford Estates, another company we’ve been doing some work with recently and a good friend of Tom’s I believe. We then proceeded to have a very similar conversation (again, with a healthy chunk of praise).
Feeling like our work was done, Tom was kind enough to invite some people from the event to a pre-MIF gig (Manchester International Festival, for heathen’s who don’t know the initialism already) at the disused Mayfield Train station to see 0161’s finest, Bugzy Malone. Self-proclaimed King of the North, and I’m not disagreeing with him (he’s stacked).
The space at Mayfield is absolutely stunning, the arches are so high you almost feel like you can’t see the ceiling, and I managed to get a few pictures before the booze completely took control.
On my way out, I caught my last glimpse of Tom, waved, and walked into a pillar. Some of my finest work.
Overall, the evening and after-party went in a flash and I have to say was one of the few industry events I’ve genuinely enjoyed from start to finish. I salute you Urban Splash, and here’s to another 25 years.
It’ll never work? Well it did. How ironic… ohhhhhh I get it now.
By Anthony Kaye, Director at Alderpoint Partners