Designs on the post-industrial landscape


Posted by: Creative Times on April 30, 2012 10:41

Since it was founded nearly 20 years ago, Urban Splash has played a key role in the transformation of the UK’s post-industrial landscape. Just as significantly, believes John Owens of Eskimo Creative, its relationship with design and designers has set it apart from many other property developers, as a new book charting the company’s history reveals.

Given the current and ongoing economic climate, finding a property developer who utilises design as their core offer is near impossible – the emphasis is more often on value. Yet somehow, Urban Splash have consistently managed to strike a balance.

Urban Splash are a Manchester-based property and regeneration company founded by Tom Bloxham and Jonathan Falkingham in 1993. The company was born out of a post-industrial landscape and a strong desire to change things and make things different. Manchester and Liverpool were home to Urban Splash in the beginning, housing a mass of unused industrial-sized buildings ripe for redevelopment in an age where city living was virtually unheard of.

It’s hard to think what Manchester was like back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, in light of the boom that followed, but my memories are of rain, dark grey and the awful tiles on the Arndale building. This was a city that needed some vision, so alongside early mavericks such as Tony Wilson, Urban Splash arrived at the right time.

Working for Urban Splash exposed me to a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a forward-thinking attitude that made you feel that everyone involved had a real say.

I have been fortunate to work for Urban Splash and be part of some of their most iconic projects, most notably The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, Lake Shore, Bristol and Fort Dunlop in Birmingham. Working there exposed me to a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a forward-thinking attitude that made you feel everyone involved in a project had a real say in how it developed.

A real emphasis was put on the creative process in every area – the architecture, the marketing and the delivery – but also on doing these things differently when an opportunity came along. This thinking brought me to work with some amazing people and creative agencies.

Urban Splash became a very desirable client and has worked with numerous design agencies such as North, The Designers Republic and Manchester studios Love, The Neighbourhood and Magnetic North, to name a few. It was unusual for a property developer to place as much emphasis on the visual marketing of their products as the detailed design of their buildings, something that has since been emulated by many others.

Urban Splash attracted some of the world’s biggest architects, such as Foster & Partners and Will Alsop, but also worked with what were at the time emerging practices, such as Shed KM and Ian Simpson Architects. These studios shared the same ethos as Urban Splash, and as a result the company’s portfolio shows a rich and diverse selection of work, from townhouses and high-rise living to large commercial spaces.

I now sit in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a creative hub that would not exist in its current form was it not for Urban Splash. This is true for many other cities and areas the company has worked in. Urban regeneration is an overused term nowadays, but Urban Splash were pioneers.

Times have changed dramatically since their inception nearly 20 years ago, and Urban Splash have managed to ride the storm of the current economic crisis. It’s clear their wings have been clipped in certain areas, with ambitious projects put on hold and public regeneration funds dwindling, but they soldier on regardless.

Which brings us to the book Transformation, a celebration and candid conversation about Urban Splash successes, and failures. Every single Urban Splash project is illustrated with rich photography, showing the dramatic transformation of derelict buildings into thriving living and work spaces.

The book was recently launched at RIBA Hub in Manchester, not in a spirit of nostalgia but with a real sense that there is much more work still to be done by the company. That drive is confirmed by chairman Tom Bloxham, who when asked what his favourite Urban Splash project is, proclaimed enthusiastically, “The next one!”.

I for one hope to see another 20 years of Urban Splash.

Images: Park Hill, Sheffield and MoHo Manchester; Mills Bakery, Plymouth and Rotunda, Birmingham; Matchworks, Liverpool; Chimney Pot Park, Salford; Lister Mills, Bradford

John Owens is Creative Director at the Manchester design and communications agency Eskimo Creative

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