Best Modern Architecture in Manchester, UK

Updated on November 11, 2019
Iammattdoran profile image

Matt is an avid traveller and self-confessed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, & travelling the world.

Manchester Architecture Vernacular

Once known as 'Cottonopolis', the City of Manchester in northern England was, during the 19th century, the largest producer of cotton garments in the world. Manchester was at the very heart of the international cotton and textile trade and a considerable number of advances in industrial technology were developed in the city. The City of Manchester was built on industry and this was reflected in the architecture of the city. Huge mills and warehouses dominated the Manchester architecture scene. These mills and warehouses formed the city centre with a doughnut of Victorian terraced housing and poorly built back-to-back dwellings forming a dense inner-city area.

Colonnade of Manchester Town Hall Extension fronting on to St Peter's Square
Colonnade of Manchester Town Hall Extension fronting on to St Peter's Square | Source

By the mid-19th century Manchester's architecture was exemplified by cotton mills - the dark satanic mills as they came to be known across Lancashire. There were over one hundred cotton mills in Manchester, many good examples of this fine period of architecture in Manchester still stand today and have been converted for more modern uses such as apartments, hotels, offices, restaurants and even a cinema and bowling alley. By the early part of the 20th century however, the textile manufacturing industry had fallen into decline. Cotton production had started to move to other parts of the world where labour was cheaper. These once great mills became empty and fell into disrepair. And yet worse was to come: before any the regeneration of Manchester could be attempted, further damage was inflicted during the second war, followed by a period of intense destruction and the clearance of land for new development.

Architectural Juxtaposition in Manchester

Classic juxtaposition between old and new architecture in Manchester
Classic juxtaposition between old and new architecture in Manchester | Source

Huge new social housing projects were created - many of which would not even see out the end of the century, so badly did they fail - and new offices and hotels were built to the then-fashionable architectural designs of the 1960's and 70's British and international architecture scene. But, investment and employment was lacking and the population of the city continued to fall sharply. Whole families and generations found themselves out of work and unable to get back into employment. Social problems deepened and the city found itself destitute and in serious decline. Architecture in Manchester and across much of the rest of the UK went into a black hole for the next few decades.

Where is Manchester

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Rebuilding Manchester in the 21st Century

As the 21st century approached a new generation of planners, architects and public officials started to spring up from the rubble and drag Manchester into the future with vision, ambition and a renewed sense of enthusiasm which had been lost for so long. Modern Manchester architects like Ian Simpson and Roger Stephenson were the architects that the city needed to demonstrate its intentions and thrust the city into the new millennium. After an IRA bomb destroyed part of Manchester City Centre in 1996 the city was united in launching Manchester into the 21st century, and for the first time in years there were new landmark buildings popping up that people were proud of and which were visible totems of this renewed sense of vigour and vitality.

Manchester Architecture Poll

Do you prefer modern architecture or more traditional architecture?

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Today, Manchester City Centre is modern, cosmopolitan, safe, vibrant and still distinctly Mancunian, and the architecture in the city aptly reflects this new confidence. Below are just a few of the new building projects which have been built within the last few years that represent Manchester's ambition and success. Of course, the city also attracts a lot of international attention through the continued success of Manchester United and Manchester City football clubs.

Oxford Street at Dusk. Manchester
Oxford Street at Dusk. Manchester | Source

The Iconic Beetham Tower

Completed in 2006 at a height of 157 metres and 50 floors this was, for a short time, the tallest residential building in Europe and is the tallest building in the UK outside of London. The building has won many architecture and design awards and is possibly the best example of the new wave of bold architecture in Manchester.

The lower half of the building is a 285 bed Hilton hotel with a spectacular cocktail bar on the 23rd floor offering awesome views over Manchester and the surrounding area. The upper floors feature 219 residential apartments including a stunning duplex apartment on the top floors bought by the architect, Ian Simpson, for three million pounds. This has apartment has the largest floor plan of any apartment outside of London.

The Beetham Tower with that classic juxtaposition between old and new.
The Beetham Tower with that classic juxtaposition between old and new. | Source

Manchester Civil Justice Centre

This 17 floor, 80 metre shining example of modern architecture in Manchester was completed in 2007 as part of the Spinningfields development in the City Centre. It houses 46 court rooms and is the largest purpose built law courts to be built in the UK since the Royal Courts of Justice were built in London in 1882. At the time of completion the building had the largest glass wall in Europe, but many agree that the most interesting feature of the architecture is the way in which the building's floors cantilever at the sides. Some of these floors cantilever out of the building to 15 metres. It's this feature that has given it the nickname of the 'filing cabinet'. The architectural design of this stunning building was done by the Australian architecture practice, Denton Corker Marshall. This building has also won numerous architecture and design awards.

Manchester Civil Justice Centre
Manchester Civil Justice Centre

Urbis (Now the National Football Museum)

Completed in 2002 it was the glass-clad Urbis that really signalled Manchester's growing ambition and intent upon entering the 21st century and is an iconic example of modern Manchester architecture. At only 6 floors high it's not the tallest building but its striking aesthetic certainly draws the eye of all passing visitors. Here the architect designed a stunningly simple, yet very elegant glass building that slopes its way down from a height of 35 metres. For the first 10 years of it's life the Urbis building contained a permanent museum dedicated to the modern city. It also had temporary exhibits but many felt that the space inside was never effectively utilised. Since 2012 Urbis has become home to the National Football Museum which moved from it's former home in Preston. As with the Beetham Tower, Urbis was also designed by local Manchester architect, Ian Simpson who is responsible for much of the 21st architecture and skyscrapers in Manchester.

Urbis (National Football Museum)
Urbis (National Football Museum) | Source
Urbis (National Football Museum)
Urbis (National Football Museum) | Source

One Angel Square

In 2008 the Cooperative Group, a company founded and based in Manchester, announced plans for a new HQ building and the redevelopment of several million square foot of land in the northern part of Central Manchester.

Completed in 2013 the new Cooperative Group headquarters, One Angel Square, set the bar at a very high architectural level for other new developments to come in this part of the city. The double-skinned building is one of the most environmentally friendly office buildings in the world and is ultra low carbon. One Angel Square, part of the NOMA estate, is 72.5 metres tall with 17 floors and holds 3000 staff. The building was designed by architects 3DReid and demonstrates that architecture in Manchester continues to excel.

The new building is the centrepiece of a large new public square that highlights quality architecture in Manchester and also quality landscape architecture.

One Angel Square, Manchester
One Angel Square, Manchester

The Imperial War Museum North

Berlin-based Polish architect Daniel Libeskind won an international competition held in 1997 for the design of this iconic building. Situated just over a mile outside of the centre of Manchester at The Quays, the Imperial War Museum North (or IWMN) was officially opened to the public in July 2002, the same summer in which Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games. Being given the opportunity to design the building was something very close to the heart of Libeskind as, hailing from Poland, he had lost dozens of family members during the second world war.

Libeskind says of his design, 'I wanted to create a building that people will find interesting and wish to visit, yet reflects the serious nature of a war museum. I have imagined the globe broken into fragments and taken the pieces to form a building, three shards that together represent conflict on land, in the air and on water.' This is a great addition to the architecture in Manchester.

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester
Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

Manchester Architecture Poll 2

Which is your Favourite Example of Manchester Architecture?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Matt Doran


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      • Iammattdoran profile imageAUTHOR

        Matt Doran 

        7 years ago from Manchester, UK

        Thanks for the comment srsddn. Manchester has certainly changed a lot on the last 20 years but is still a great place to live and study.

      • srsddn profile image


        7 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

        iammattdoran, Thanks for sharing all these wonderful architectural additions to Manchester. I wish I could visit it once again and see the changes/additions myself after a gap of two decades. I was a student at University of Manchester in 1991-92. It is a great city and I love it. Voted up and pinned.

      • playtime2013 profile image

        Michael Zhang 

        7 years ago from Beijing, China

        Ok, thank you very much for your advice! I think I'll have sufficient time to enjoy England!

      • Iammattdoran profile imageAUTHOR

        Matt Doran 

        7 years ago from Manchester, UK

        Thanks for the comment playtime. Most visits to England don't tend to stray too far out of London. I'm not saying there's a whole lot to see and do in Manchester but it's a pretty cool city to visit.

      • playtime2013 profile image

        Michael Zhang 

        7 years ago from Beijing, China

        Really attractive guide for me as I'll travel to the UK this summer. Thanks a lot for your efforts to converge them together!


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