The Sharp Project

Manchester Gets Sharp

October 22, 2010 by: Tim Abrahams

One day, it will be possible to talk about the creative industries in Manchester without mentioning the name Tony Wilson. That day has not quite arrived. Given the response of key figures within the city to the relocation of large parts of the BBC to there, though, it may not be too far away. Five departments, including Sport and Research and Development will move to Media City in Salford in 2011, bringing with it 2,500 jobs. However, that is not the most significant event to happen within the creative industries in Manchester. A converted 1970s warehouse on the main road out of the city to Oldham is the key to Manchester maintaining its role as an important seat of cultural production.

Without any marketing other than word-of-mouth, The Sharp Project, located in Newton Heath in east Manchester, is coalescing into a new community. When it opens in spring 2011, the building will provide a total of 15,000sq ft (1,394sq m) of office space for use by digital media companies such as SUNDE Technologies. In addition it will boast a studio and design offices block with catering, reception and social facilities, together with approximately 38,000sq ft (3,530sq m) of production space available on flexible terms. The Central Warehouse, about 31,000sq ft (2,880sq m) will provide office and wardrobe production areas for TV and film as well as a music studio and a green screen studio suitable for motion-capture filming. A further 56,000sq ft (5,202sq m) of set and other storage space, plus additional units are located in a second warehouse.

A former Sharp European Distribution Centre seems an unlikely place to provide concrete evidence of Manchester’s rebirth as a centre of high-tech media. Manchester is full of converted warehouses of course, the Hacienda being one, but none of those were built in the 1970s. Standing half-way between Manchester and Oldham on the Oldham Road, The Sharp Project is in the middle of Newton Heath, where both Manchester United and the engineered iron industry were born. The building is a steel portal shed, stuffed on one side with offices, which were added as they were needed by its previous tenants.

To the north-west stands The Gateway, a station on a new spur of the Manchester Metrolink light rail network linking in Rochdale and Oldham, which is due to be finally completed in spring 2011. The station, designed by architects Aukett Fitzroy Robinson, is dominated by a metal and glass canopy suspended from a cable-tensioned steel frame. Due to funding problems, the line extension has not yet started and the station remains unused. However, it will kick into life soon enough. In just over six months The Sharp Project will be just a short tram ride from Piccadilly station.

Ostensibly Keith Jobling is one half of the creative agency the Boot Room, which has designed websites for both the Happy Mondays and The North West Business Leadership Team. Other pioneers of digital communications technology in the city call him and his colleague Ken Campbell ‘legends’. In addition, though, Jobling is a professional Mancunian, not quite in the same mould as Wilson; but a figure who knows how to talk and who operates between the creative, business and public sectors with ease. As well as organising a brainstorming event called The Tony Wilson Experience in late 2008, which honoured the Factory Records founder to prompt discussion about the future of Manchester, he was brought in by Manchester City Council to think about the creative industries. Very early on the building was purchased by the Council to preserve the integrity of the adjacent business park, and it was handed to the city’s creative community following extensive research into the impact of the BBC’s arrival and the realisation that Manchester’s own creative talent could be left out by the Corporation.

According to Jobling, who, it is said, came up with the phrase Madchester in the 1980s, The Sharp Project is the first concrete result of the branding exercise which Peter Saville was tasked with by Manchester City Council. ‘Peter spent about 18 months speaking to everyone in the city and he left no stone un-turned. And he said at the end “the only thing that the city can really say is it’s the first original modern city.” There were other cities that were modern but in terms of our era, it is the first city that grew out of technology and industry,’ says Jobling. ‘Other cities were also involved in the industrial revolution but they existed before. Manchester didn’t. It was born out of that…. You can say anything else you want but you can’t unpick that and say it’s not true.’ Saville, says Jobling, wants Original Modern to be ‘a set of results or an understanding’ rather than a brand and a heritage project.

Although Jobling and Campbell were turned to by Manchester City Council at an early stage, the project now has the formidable figure of Sue Woodward at its helm. Woodward is a former managing director of Granada TV, who also worked as creative director for both the Manchester Commonwealth Games and as Director for Liverpool Capital of Culture. Woodward is effectively a gatekeeper, keeping costs down for the new members of The Sharp Project: start-up motion graphic artists and teenage app designers. It’s small- scale compared to what she’s used to but, as she says, referring to the huge cuts that are looming for regeneration, ‘this is a new world.’ She is living proof that even if you are a Liverpudlian woman you can achieve a great deal in Manchester if you can simultaneously deliver on the details and the bigger picture regardless of funding issues.

‘The big two single infrastructure issues and therefore capital spend are connectivity and power. We’ve got 6mW of power for this building; when you say that people begin to sit up, because that’s enough to power Disneyland in Paris. 4mW of that will be used to sustain 30,000sq ft (2,787sq m) of multiple-usage data centre. We need an extra 2mW because if you have 30 people working transferring files to Tokyo to Toronto to Tehran and back, that’s a lot of power,’ she says. The Sharp Project takes advantage of its proximity to Manchester Science Park, which, boasts Woodward, has the third most significant internet exchange in the UK, the largest outside London. The Sharp Project has a direct link into their data centre from that exchange. ‘We go straight on to the net from here,’ says Woodward.

In organisational terms, Woodward sees her role as guardian of the purse strings ‘to keep it as cheap as possible for tenants,’ is her constant mantra. Far from baulking at the task, Alastair Weir, the architect, has clearly relished converting the asbestos-ridden warehouse into a new kind of working environment. Glass-fronted containers for the creative start-ups. Data centres and sets on huge floor spaces. To save money the offices and wardrobe space for TV production have been preserved in their original state. ‘They are used to working out of the back of a lorry. This is better than the back of the lorry,’ says Weir.

The Sharp Project is being used, demolished and rebuilt simultaneously. Young practices like Project Simply who work in e-commerce and design consultancy have moved into the containers arranged along the north side of the building. Attracted by the cheap rates, they say they’ve already had a few cross collaborations with existing tenants, ‘imagine what it’s going to be like when its full,’ says co-director Christian Hill, who already has 10 companies working alongside his in 6m x 2.4m containers. It costs Hill and his business partner James Coop £75 a-week to work out of a double-sized container, with huge bandwidth another great plus. Not to mention a mural by graffiti artists Agents of Change, which looms over them.

A thick fug of artistic cross-pollination is beginning to develop around the place even as the builders raise the roof to create a social space. A producer called 80 Hertz has rented two bays to build a two-storey music studio, which, says Campbell, ‘shits on anything else in the North.’ On the first floor a TV production company called Shine, founded by Elizabeth Murdoch is producing a TV programme called My Genius Idea. Tenants are arriving thick and fast, drawn by nothing more than word-of-mouth. Woodward thinks she should have it full by the time it opens.

Although Weir refers to it as a heritage project he is more accurate when he calls it a piece of internal master planning: rationalising office space, which had been created ad hoc when it was needed by Sharp to create a regional headquarters. It’s a great piece of non-design: rational, clever, and completed on a design and build contract for Bramall. ‘I’m just waiting for someone to come here, and be the first person to say, “what’s the big deal?” Even the councillors that have started by saying “is this going to pay for itself?” end up saying, “marvellous,”’ says Jobling.

The Project’s huge potential, though, is nothing without the wider processes that are occurring in Manchester. Some of the last money to be spent by The Northwest Development Agency (NWDA) went on installing fibre optic cable in the Oxford Road area of the city. This means that not only will the University be better connected, but 500 businesses and 1,000 homes will also benefit. Highlighting the importance of broadband as an infrastructure, it is being laid beneath new tram lines.

In the west of the city, the Future Media and Technology department of the BBC has taken up home in the branded Media City district. More than 20m metres of optical fibre will be laid in the area, which will also provide 65,000sq m of office space, 23,225sq m of studios and 378 apartments in addition to the BBC buildings.

Fortunately there are those who wish to see the benefit of this being spread to the whole of Manchester. Drew Hemment, who began Future Everything 16 years ago as a music and digital arts festival has watched as it has grown into an advocacy body for digital media in the city. In 2003 he began looking at the way in which handheld mobile devices could be used to make cities more easily navigable. ‘We were working with hacked-together devices, before the days of the iPhone and Android. Now in the days of public display our work has come on leaps and bounds,’ says Hemment. ‘Fat pipe networking and open data means that a lot of the stuff we got excited about in 2003 is now possible.’

Hemment says that individuals like Dave Carter at the Manchester Digital Development Agency, an autonomous body affiliated to the council have also been instrumental in building the potential of Manchester’s communications infrastructure.With contacts in the public transport sector, Future Everything is convincing the authorities to hand over their data. It sounds fanciful but last year, somewhat stung by London announcing itself as the first Open Data city in the UK, Manchester beat the captial to making its live bus location data available.With some exciting young companies already moved in, The Sharp Project could do more for Manchester than the Hacienda did.