Daily Express, Manchester
Great Ancoats Street, Manchester, UK
Sir Owen Williams
1935 - 1939
photo Martin Charles, Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc
Manchester's original Daily Express building is considered the best of the three similar newspaper offices built for Beaverbrook Associated Newspapers Ltd. The others are in Glasgow and London's Fleet Street, where Ellis and Clark were retained as architects. In Manchester, the second of the three, Owen Williams was able to take on the role of both architect and engineer.
The site, bordered as it is by wide streets on three sides, allowed Williams to make the most of the 'glass box' concept. Not only did it enable good use of daylighting but it also allowed the printing works to be viewed from the street — making it an exciting building. These days the building houses a high-tech business centre.
As he had at the earlier Boots Packed Wet Goods Factory (1932), Williams was able to respond to the operational demands of the client's industrial processes and their exact workflow requirements by designing a concrete column-and-slab structure that provided unencumbered working areas. This was done by carefully optimising the spans and the unobtrusive positioning of columns.
However, unlike the Boots project, here Williams adopted a true curtain wall glazing system using clear glass and Vitrolite (black glass). Bands of Vitrolite were used to both conceal and represent the positions of the columns and floor slabs — the presses in the 7.3m high printing hall were fully visible. The hall floor was raised to loading deck level, allowing partial views of the basement as well. This arrangement made a spectacular sight, particularly at night when the presses were in full flow and the hall and basement brightly lit. The back third of the printing hall contained a mezzanine.
Based on a simple double square rectangular plan, the five storey building has a general floor height of 3.6m and square structural bays of 11.88m at its heart. These consist of two-way floor slabs with 914mm square columns. The grid then reduces to 11.88m x 7.62m at the perimeter, where floor slabs are supported by reduced-depth columns (914mm face width, 305mm deep).
Corner columns were avoided by the use of cantilevered curved transoms (horizontal glazing bars) and moulded glass — a design technique that helps lighten the appearance of the building. Edge beams support the slab and curtain wall in the curved sections.
The fifth storey and roof level plant rooms step back progressively to allow for window cleaning — a trademark of Williams' architectural work. Cradles are suspended from a series of permanent arms projecting from the fifth floor balconies enabling the cleaners to haul themselves up and down the face of the building.
Another similarity to the Boots project is Williams' use of increased floor slab depths at column heads to accommodate the extra steel reinforcement needed in the concrete at these points. In this buiding he uses asymmetrical, tapered cruciform shapes, each adjusted to suit the particular span.
Unusually, each column on any one floor is subtly different depending on its location. At the column heads, provision was made for service ducts to pass through. Williams also introduced under floor service ducts for lighting and telephone wiring. This allowed flexibility in the layout of office areas.
The column and slab design is more of a tailored, architectural solution than the design of the Boots Factory, which took more of an American approach, with construction details repeated on an industrial scale.
Express Printers closed in 1989. The building is now used as offices and where the Press Hall was is now open space.
Architect: Sir Owen Williams
"Manchester - An Architectural History" by John J Parkinson-Bailey
Manchester University Press, 2000