Roger Stephenson. Layering the City.

It was good to sit down and have a catch up with Roger. I don’t do it that often these days.

We worked together in a building on Jordan Street in Manchester for seven years, which he designed. One of the first Victorian buildings in our city to be reclaimed and re-invented, it was turned into what the RIBA journal called a ‘warehouse to a workhouse’ for the creative industries.

That was in the very early 90’s. A project completed on a very tight budget but in which Roger says, “We invented Manchester’s industrial language of architecture and people are still using it now. Basic, raw materials and finishes. Open electrical trays and galvanised trunking. All practical and exposed, rather than hidden away as it had been previously.

At that time Roger was invited to speak about his work in Manchester at the World Architecture Symposium in Japan. He was invited there by internationally renowned architect Kisho Kurokawa, following a visit to Manchester organised by Roger.

Kurokawa said that it was, ‘So good that you are bringing buildings back to life. In Japan we don’t treasure our buildings, we knock them down and build new ones.

For that trip to Japan Roger produced a little book called ‘Layers,’ explaining the ethos of his practice as, “Learning to understand the soul of our city and devising our own similes, with which to construct a rich urban fabric. We weave, patch and fill using the time layered fabric and materials of the city.”

Originally from London and graduating in 1969 from Liverpool University, Roger chose to live and work in Manchester. “Because,” he says, “of the challenges.” But he goes on to refute that much held theory that the IRA bomb in 1996 led to the regeneration we now have.

4 Jordan Street was just one example. “The regeneration started way before that at a grass roots level. Factory, the coffee bar culture, independent designers, independent music. The government had to invest in the City after the bomb and so grass roots and top down met. That was when the city really started to sing.

From early days Roger knew how to use the media, employing a London PR consultant one day a month to come up to his practice, gather information about current work and returning to lobby the ‘Londoncentric’ architectural press. That may seem basic now, but we are talking the 80’s.

His reclaiming and synchronistic architecture, using and layering Manchester materials became iconic, influencing the visual language of the City to this day. But that all sounds ‘in the past.’

Walking around Manchester today means walking past (or entering into) dozens and dozens of buildings created by Roger Stephenson and his team. And what I cherish are times when I’ve sat with him and he’s sketched with a fountain pen into his little notebook. A sketch in black ink which, two or three years later, is a landmark in our city.

These landmarks are too many to list. Maybe Google for yourself to appreciate the influence that Roger has had. Manchester Convention Centre, The Radisson Hotel, the new School of Music at Chethams. As Roger says, “We went from small knitting and weaving to some fairly big chunks of the city.”

And under construction now (amongst many projects and not just in Manchester), the dramatic extension of Hallé St Peters in Ancoats.

So we drink coffee in the Stephenson Studios at Riverside Mews and I muse to myself that the Rog I have known and worked with for several decades is now Professor Roger Stephenson. OBE. But he’s still talking to me about new projects on the horizon and how excited he is about them.

Titles change, but people don’t. 

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