CIS Tower - Manchester's modern worker centred building

This blog was written by Olivia Smith:

The area opposite Manchester’s Victoria station, known as the Co-operative Quarter, contains buildings erected by co-operative societies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The variety of buildings showcases admirable feats of architectural design and material construction, exhibiting a legacy of the Co-operative Group’s proud history – from the early CWS factories and warehouses to grand buildings like the Co-operative Bank.

 

Completed in 1962 and opened by Prince Phillip (The Duke of Edinburgh), the iconic skyscraper on Miller Street housed the headquarters of the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS) until 2012. Standing over the area at a height of 400 feet above street level. At the time, the tallest building in the UK soaring atop Manchester’s skyline - now the tenth-tallest building in the city, it has stood empty since 2020.

This lofty monument survives as a spectacular emblem of architectural design that, through every stage of construction, centred the CIS workers’ welfare in every decision. A booklet that was recently donated to the CHT archive details the CIS Tower’s opening celebrations and contains photographs of its then newly-furnished interior.

1860s to 1960s – from Rochdale to the top of Manchester in 100 years

The CIS was founded along with other UK co-ops in Rochdale in 1867 and at first was based in the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s (CWS) Boardroom and offices before moving into  a building opposite the old Manchester Grammar School in Long Millgate in 1875.

In 1908, CIS constructed a separate head office on Corporation Street and began their iconic residence in this region of the city.

'The Corporation Street Head Office was regarded quite seriously as an architectural gem – probably in keeping with the Manchester Town Hall –  we have never strayed far from this particular corner of Manchester’ –

Albert Wild, CIS’s Chairman, 1962

A new, much larger location was needed following CIS’s rapid progression in the post-war years. With 2,500 employees working across ten separate locations, the decision was made to construct a towering state-of-the-art headquarters to accommodate the modern workforce efficiently. Almost a century of progress was about to manifest in Manchester’s tallest skyscraper.

Inclusive design, efficient work, and effective leisure

It was decided that every decision in architectural design would be made with the workers’ welfare in mind. Comfort, efficiency, and pleasure were central to every detail – from floor space and layout, to air quality and the ergonomics of the desks.

The tower was built without traditional windows. Instead, a network of air conditioning and ventilation systems was embedded in the tower’s structure to maintain good air quality throughout the workplace. 14 air-conditioning plants together supplied 650,000 cubic feet of conditioned air per minute. This was an important feature for protecting the health of the workers because the air pollution in the city was severe.

‘I think it will be observed when you look from the roof of this building that the air of Manchester is really not fit to breathe even yet’ – Wild, 1962

While clean, safe, conditioned air was supplied via the structure of the tower itself, the interior design of the CIS Headquarters was also planned and constructed with its workers’ good health and comfort in mind.

Cables supplied individual desks with electricity and telephone connections. The efficiency of having these facilities readily available at one’s desk made office work easy, quick, and convenient. Special cable-carrying channels removed unsightly cables from view and eliminated trip hazards by containing the cables under the floor.

Along with the convenience of having facilities ready-to-hand at one’s desk, the workers across the tower’s 24 floors of offices enjoyed comfortable desks that were suitable for long periods of sitting. These metal and nylon desks as well as their chairs were inclusively designed to be adaptable to individual requirements, meaning that everyone could work comfortably and safely. Prototypes were tested and approved by members of staff.

It was paramount amongst the aims of the project that the CIS Tower was a safe and pleasant place to work. Workers could make use of a fully equipped welfare department staffed with trained nurses in case they experienced any health concerns. In addition, the workers’ enjoyment of their place of work was as integral to its design as their health and safety.

Some of the most impressive features inside the CIS Tower were its leisure facilities. The staff enjoyed an attractive cafeteria capable of serving up to 3,000 meals across two hours, after which they could enjoy a luxurious coffee lounge. They could dance to music in the recreation room and provision was made for sports and social activities, too.

Staff could relax on the observation floor which offered panoramic views of Manchester. The windows on this top floor of the tower were made with special optical glass designed to eliminate distortion and the heating was achieved using under-floor electric cables.

The interior décor, too, was designed to encourage a pleasant experience of the workplace. Writing about the building’s Entrance Hall, architect N. Keith Scott states:

‘The rough granite floor, the white Sicilian marble walls, the white plastic troughed ceiling, the black, metal-sheathed columns combine to give a foundation of monastic calm and severity’ – N. Keith Scott, in The Architect and Building News, pub. 16th January 1963

 

The empty tower – an artefact of workers’ welfare

This once-great giant stands empty awaiting retrofitting after nearly 60 years of operation between 1962 and 2020. It exists now as tangible and visibly impressive symbol of the Co-operative Group’s ascension from humble beginnings in Rochdale to the heights of Manchester’s skies. Above all, we must learn from its pioneering feats of welfare-focussed planning and construction.

The CIS Tower’s design and objectives teach us that the welfare of the workers is defined by the very structure of the workplace. If the happiness, health, and comfort of workers determines the efficiency of their work, it is essential that the workplace itself should be a safe and pleasant environment. Not only that – a workplace that values its workers and cares for their physical and emotional wellbeing is one that is fair and ethical.

 

Many city-centre office blocks may appear to us, in passing, to be soulless - but we can find joy and pride in looking upon the CIS Tower and remembering that not only the workers’ welfare but their joy was built into this colossus of architectural achievement.