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Tom Bloxham
 
Urban Splash's Tom Bloxham speaks exclusively to Pride Of Manchester about his life and the city's architecture
9th June 2003

Tom Bloxham moved to Manchester as a youngster to study politics at the University of Manchester. Since then he's tried his hand with a music stall and a poster shop in the legendary Afflecks Palace before becoming a household name with his property development company, Urban Splash. Their brave approach of redeveloping old buildings rather than knocking them down has won much praise from the people of Manchester and it was therefore no surprise that Tom was made Chair of the North West Arts Board. He spoke exclusively to Pride Of Manchester about his life, his influences and and his thoughts about the city's architecture.

 

Pride Of Manchester: We believe you're one of the key influencers on how the city has developed into what it is today. But when you first came to Manchester from London did you see this as a place in which you could spend the next 20 years or more?
  Tom Bloxham first came to Manchester to study at the University of Manchester

Tom Bloxham: "No not at all. I thought I was just going to come to study I suppose for three or four years."

 
At University, you didn't really plan for a career in architecture
"No - I did Politics & Modern History"
     
Tom Bloxham started off in Manchester's Afflecks Palace
 

So what made you suddenly go into property development?

"What happened was I came to college - I'd been working for a year before selling fire extinguishers door-to-door. I wanted some money so I started selling records and posters in the Student's Union at the University. I then went to try and find a shop but I couldn't get a shop so I got a tiny unit in Affleck's Palace. And then I wanted a bigger shop but there was no space left so I took a lease in what's now Affleck's Arcade. Anyway, it was too big for my posters so I started sub-letting part of it. I ended up making more money from sub-letting the space than selling the posters and thought 'I must be into property!'"
     

Have you kept any memories from your poster business?

  Tom Bloxham owns a series of Sex Pistol posters
"I kept one of every poster I did for years but I've lost those. I have none up on my walls but what I have got is a collection of Jamie Reed Sex Pistols ones that I bought of him."
 
What type of music were you into at the time?
"I wasn't really into music to be honest - when I started selling records, I bought all the wrong records. As a kid I was into all the punk stuff and the ska thing but I'm not a great music connoisseur"
     
Urban Splash bought Quay Bar in Castlefield
  You're involved with Baa Bar on Deansgate Locks and also the one in Liverpool.
"Yeah, it started because they were tenants in Liverpool actually but they went bankrupt so I took it over. We're now expanding looking at six or seven different bars now that are run."
 
One of those bars, Modo, have just taken over Quay Bar, which is a fantastic building.
"Quay Bar has been bought by Urban Splash actually and they're tenants. it's quite a nice bar now and perhaps potentially it could be a development site at some stage in the future "
     
Your first building in Manchester, Ducie House (behind Piccadilly Station), was saved from demolition and a future life as a car park. Is your passion for old, quality buildings like that still the same today as it was then?   The inside of Ducie House
"I'm interested in good buildings - I don't mind if they're old or new to be honest with you. I'm possibly more excited about new buildings but it always struck me as a total waste if people are going to demolish perfectly good buildings, and often very attractive buildings, just because they didn't know what to do with them."
     
Tom Bloxham loves the CIS building
 

Are there any new buildings in the city that have really caught your eye that you haven't been involved in?

"Yeah, I like Number 1 Deansgate, which externally I think is great. I think that the Piccadilly Gardens looks really interesting. I like the CIS building."
 
Why the CIS building? It's an old 1970's style isn't it?
"Yeah, well there's a bit of Mies van der Rohe there. I just think the confidence - it's the tallest building in Manchester - the confidence in the organisation that built it as their head quarters - very modernist looking. I think it looks good, it's great when it's lit up. I think it's a cracking building."
 
The Box Works was an old art deco building whilst Britannia Mills was an old Victorian warehouse. What's your favourite style of architecture and are there any architects who have heavily influenced you?
"The last one we've done, I always like better than any others and hopefully it will keep getting that way. Personally I like really simple modernist buildings, probably my favourite architect is Mies van der Rohe with things like the Barcelona Pavillion. I can appreciate a lot of different sort of styles - it's quality that's important rather than style."
     
You say the last development you've done, you always like better than any others, but looking back which one has given you the biggest sense of achievement?   Urban Splash's Timber Wharf in Manchester

"I think Timber Wharf. I wasn't that keen on it when we first built it, but the more I see it the more I like it. it's quite subtle and some people don't like it because they say it's really plain but I think it's going to be really good. it's modern, it's new, it's different, it's got a great sense of simplicity and a very simple but huge atrium, really generous corridors - it just feels really calm and beautiful."

     
Tom Bloxham
  From your previous projects, it's obvious that you care about the heritage buildings and the 'dark satanic mills' in Manchester. Does it annoy you when you see other developers demolishing some of the city's history to replace it with bland 'same-old-same-old' buildings that will probably be eyesores in 10 years time?

"Yeah, I'd encourage anybody who actually has a go at developing difficult projects. One of the best things that happened to us was other developers copying us and coming into the city centre and doing homes because it really pushed the market and transformed it.

"What we were doing people thought it was great but 'is it a fad or fashion?' And when you get all the big major builders doing it, everyone can see it's here to stay. But I hate people who miss opportunities and build mediocre buildings, alternatively knock down what are perfectly good buildings just because they haven't got the imagination to reuse them."

     

With that in mind, what do you think of The Haçienda development and the controversy of the original building being destroyed?

  The original Hacienda

"I have fond, affectionate memories of the Haçienda just as a club. But I think, given the fact it's not going to be a club any more, I think if thats the case you want to find new uses for it. Most of the building of the Haçienda was basically a shed - it used to be a boat yard with not very much to commend it'self by. So replacing that building with something new, I haven't got a problem with as long as the new building is better than the old one. I thought possibly a lack of imagination to use the old name 'The Haçienda' - perhaps they should have done something different and new. All the things that the Haçienda stood for is perhaps the antithesis of what Crosby City Flats stand for."

     
St Georges Church apartments in Manchester
 

Whilst you praise people for coming into the city and copying your approach, for example the St.George's Church apartments next to Urban Splash's sales office at Castlefield, is there anybody who's come along and nicked a property you had your eyes on?

"Oh sure - loads of them but that's just the market - whoever pays the most will get the properties. Nevermind that, the only thing that does annoy me is people who buy properties and don't develop them. They just sit on them there waiting for prices to go up - I think thats not really helpful to the city. I mean as long as somebody gets a property and starts developing it and tries to create some good buildings then they've got my support."

 
Any big regrets you've got with some of those you've missed out on?

"Oh, I've missed out on hundreds! You know, I can point out half the buildings in Manchester which I've been offered, at sometimes as low as 10% of what they're worth today, and I've said no to them. But you can't buy everything can you?"

     
Given that you were involved in saving the Old School House in Trafford Park, what are your thoughts on the destruction of the old MetroVickers/GEC-AEI office building which was just around the corner?   The Schoolhouse in Trafford Park after a touch of Urban Splash

"It was one of the first steel-frame buildings actually. 1914 or so it was built and it was a copy of their headquarters somewhere in America. All the way around it was a model village - one of the largest villages built - and there was loads of Coronation Street terraces. The school was obviously The Old School and there was a church and chapel and some shops."

     
Modern Manchester - the site which once housed Metro Vicks - one of the most historic buildings in the North West
  As you probably know, it's now been knocked down and turned into some big corregated warehouses (Electric Park). Does it annoy you when you see things like that happen?

"Yeah but I'm not a conservationist for the sake of conservation but I thought the whole area was quite an interesting area. I don't know enough about it really to get annoyed but I thought the old building had a bit of character and it was an interesting historic building as it was quite an early steel frame one. I dare say, they would argue it was no longer suitable for the purpose. But quite often, as we've shown with The Match Works [in Liverpool], you can find new uses for old buildings. But I don't know enough really about the detail of it."

     
You've successfully bridged the Manchester/Liverpool divide and pulled off some great projects in both cities - how does working with the respective City Councils compare?   The Urban Splash 'slug' sales office in Manchester

"I think Manchester for a long time have been known to be business friendly and a city I wanted to do business in. Liverpool in the past certainly had the opposite reputation. I think Liverpool are working very hard to try and improve that and to be a council to do business with and, you know, we've done a lot of joint ventures with them - a lot of very successful things. So you know, both cities are in the Premier League of cities to do business - you can work with both of them, but I think Liverpool has made some mistakes with the property industry, particularly in King's Dock. I think it still, like all of us, has probably got a bit more to learn about selling land and doing joint ventures with property developers."

     
The Urban Splash designed Travelodge in Liverpool
  In fairness to Liverpool, a lot of criticism that's been directed to Manchester City Council for allowing the 'anytown budget hotel' style architecture can not be directed their way, which is highlighted by the Liverpool Travelodge, designed by Urban Splash and arguably one of the best of it's type in the country.

"Yeah but to be honest it's more to do with us owning the land, which to be fair we bought from Liverpool and forcing it through was defying the odds. I mean, The Premier Lodge at the top of Princess Way by the Mancunian way, just coming in to town is the most vile building - I mean the architecture is just so poor - apologies to the architect, if they used one, but I really object to things like that..."

     
"The thing with most art is it's actually voluntary isn't it?... I've got no time for the Mary Whitehouse's of this world - if you don't like a film, use your remote control - if you don't like a book, don't read it - if you don't like a piece of art, turn your eyes away from it - but architecture is compulsary; we all have to look at it every day and I think it's really really important we work hard to build great buildings."
     
Prince Charles said something similar a few years ago and got ripped to shreds by the media.   The Manchester Premier Lodge - "the most vile building!"

"Yeah, but I think my tastes differ a bit to his. The issue with it I think is I keep passionate about it but I think, at one stage anyway, he equated all things old as being good and all things modern as being bad.

I think there's just two types of buildings - good ones and bad ones. Some old buildings are very very good and some old buildings are very mediocre, and likewise some new buildings are excellent and some new buildings are mediocre."

     
The Britannia Hotel in Manchester
  Everything that Urban Splash has done should stand the test of time, whereas some other developments in Manchester are likely to be eyesore's in fifty years time. It makes you wonder what they are going to do with them in that time as it would be hard to demolish a building that's populated by lots of people who've paid to live there.

"Some people are proud sometimes to put up buildings with a lifespan of ten or twenty years, which again I find abhorrent. Again, if you look at all the old Victorian legacy that was left - the likes of the Britannia Hotel, it was actually built as warehousing, then used as offices, then as a hotel, and maybe in a few years could be turned into flats or something else - Buildings of an indefinite life but are quality buildings. Every few years, you may have to come back and refit out the inside of them but the buildings should last forever."

     
You're known as being an innovator with socialist tendencies and someone who has always been prepared to take on a challenge, but now that you're a millionaire with an MBE and Chair of the North West Arts Council, is there any danger you will become a 'safer' Establishment-type?   Tom Bloxham

"Erm... I hope not! I'm not sure about socialist - I always thought I was quite a successful capitalist, although I know what you're saying. Would I be a boring Establishment type? No but it's a bit worrying isn't it? I always used to complain that whenever you saw these boards and groups of people there, it was the same old usual suspects that used to crop up...and now I suppose I can be accused of being one!"

"Erm, I don't know... whenever I'm in a position of influence I always try to challenge things that I think are not right and I'm always quite forthright with my views. To be honest with you, I think it shows a confidence in the government that they actually put me in positions of power."

     
Old Trafford - home of Tom Bloxham's beloved Manchester United
  Finally, you've been a student, you've sold records, you've had a poster shop, you moved into bar ownership and obviously, you're a property developer, but what's your next career move Tom?
 

"Oh, who knows? I've tried lots of different things and I've been into radio stations and everything else. But in property I've found, both it's a massive industry that you'll never grow to dominate and, secondly, it's something that's great fun with a real sense of achievement of taking a crappy site and turning it into a good building. So I think I'll be in this for a few more years and try to avoid any further distractions."

     
So you don't fancy moving into stadia development and putting a few extra much-needed seats into your beloved Old Trafford?

"You never know... you never know!"

     

 
Thanks Tom for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to talk to Pride Of Manchester.
 
Pride Of Manchester would especially like to thank Cathy Cunny at Urban Splash for helping us arrange the interview.
 
This interview is 2003 Pride Of Manchester & Tom Bloxham
   
       

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