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Keeping the students happy

FCBS has drawn inspiration from the city's pubs and playhouses for Manchester Met’s new Union building

A calm and handsome facade onto Higher Cambridge Road as night falls.
A calm and handsome facade onto Higher Cambridge Road as night falls. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

What do students expect from their union these days? Well, not a crumbling eighties building on the wrong side of the campus certainly. Aware of this, Manchester Metropolitan University had been planning to rescue its old union with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios coming on board to work the same kind of magic it had on the Stirling shortlisted reclad tower at the nearby school of art. 

But the options, the cost of refurbishment and the westward shift in the university’s centre of gravity with its developing Birley Fields campus began to make a new site between the two centres look more attractive. The diagram is simple: a tower alongside a top-lit, clear-span hall, because what students want from their union is play, pool and video games with space to talk and eat and drink. In the evenings it is ‘wild’ (according to FCBS’ project partner Simon Doody) with space to dance and drink and all the sound systems that go with that. But during the day the whole space is opened up as a free-flowing ground floor with hot beverages and soft drinks as much as with lager; the bars don’t have to be the main focus. And that’s important bearing in mind the increasingly diverse and studious student population and events where bars need to be locked away.

  • Facing south east, Birley Fields ahead of it,  All Saints campus behind.
    Facing south east, Birley Fields ahead of it, All Saints campus behind. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Ready for a night out.
    Ready for a night out. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • The back door for goods and get in.
    The back door for goods and get in. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Soldier courses mark out storey divisions, or not.
    Soldier courses mark out storey divisions, or not. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Down one block to FCBS' Manchester School of Art. Its shimmering Business School is also within walking distance.
    Down one block to FCBS' Manchester School of Art. Its shimmering Business School is also within walking distance. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

Outside, the graphite brick is almost as dark as the black on the school of art, which is all but next door. The Union’s interior was conceived quite differently, inspired by the local Victorian faience-faced pubs and playhouses – including The Salutation next door which has been run by the union since 2011. The union’s mustard ceramics live on in that spirit; as an inverted playhouse. 

From the start the project was conceived as hard wearing and self finished. Doody studied at the Welsh School of Architecture in the days of the Terminal, when the carpets of this Cardiff bunker of a student’s union oozed the beery aroma of Brains SA all day. Here in Manchester concrete floors in the drinking and circulation areas avoid such fumes. What you see is what you get: the walls, the outward expression of the concrete structure, have a quality finish, as you might expect from precast, with a few extra shapes cast in. Alongside the foyer is a cast-in chequerboard relief – perhaps for donor tiles to be installed – and at each landing super graphics of the floor number are inset as permanent wayfinding. There are more indents: tiny laser cuts that kiss the flat metal balusters with diamond crosses, above them a jaunty yellow handrail. You might recognise this from the polyurethane handrails of hospitals, but read against dark steel and concrete, and in yellow, it takes on quite a different meaning. The other product that Doody was proud to have borrowed is metal for the stair nosings – as used in the Underground and in public spaces – which just asks to be hammered up and down by energetic feet. In the hall the ribbed profiles of Ribloc make for a more interesting effect than straightforward blockwork. 

  • The fabric vent tubes avoid condensation and create a dramatic ceiling plane over the hall.
    The fabric vent tubes avoid condensation and create a dramatic ceiling plane over the hall. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • The union hall as play zone, games, white walls, rooflights open.
    The union hall as play zone, games, white walls, rooflights open. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Getting more clubby now as the black curtains are drawn across the walls
    Getting more clubby now as the black curtains are drawn across the walls · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Hanging tubes of LEDs make the foyer space seem even taller.
    Hanging tubes of LEDs make the foyer space seem even taller. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • The University has a worked through policy for some things - like its thresholds with large revolving doors preferred.
    The University has a worked through policy for some things - like its thresholds with large revolving doors preferred. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Laser cut nicks create a diagrid on the metal balusters, topped with yellow
    Laser cut nicks create a diagrid on the metal balusters, topped with yellow · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • The graphics, including these stick on geometries in the bar, are skilfully designed by Holden and Sons.
    The graphics, including these stick on geometries in the bar, are skilfully designed by Holden and Sons. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Quiet areas for study, the bespoke legs lightening the look of these sofas.
    Quiet areas for study, the bespoke legs lightening the look of these sofas. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Simple stairs sandwich between concrete, the higher you go the quieter the spaces.
    Simple stairs sandwich between concrete, the higher you go the quieter the spaces. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

The green ceramics of Manchester playhouses are alluded to by the handrails’ incongruous flash of yellow. This colour pops up again in the union in narrow bands of yellow tiles on the reception desk and bar, acoustic panels, furniture and an ‘interior’ wall of cutaway corner on the modest Boundary Street and the non-descript Higher Cambridge Street. 

During construction, precast panels of engobed bricks went up in two-storey lifts, the double-height order expressed on the main facade to Higher Cambridge Street with just a double soldier course splitting the brickwork and building in two, though with more playfulness on the blank wall at the back. Semi-glazed above and glazed below, they are designed as hose clean. After all, whatever the variety of things students want from a union, this place needs to be able to cope with bladders being released after a big night out. As Doody says matter of factly: ‘It’s a big pub, is this.’ 


 

IN NUMBERS

Gross area 3,998m2

Construction cost £7.5m

Cost per m2 £1,900

Contract design and build

3D Section
3D Section

Credits

Architect: FCBStudios

Project manager: Turner and Townsend

Cost consultant: Turner and Townsend

M&E engineer: Waterman Group

Structural engineer: Waterman Group

Landscape architect: FCBStudios

Cladding consultant: Montresor Partnership

Fire, acoustic and ecology consultant: Waterman Group

Catering consultant: Foodesco

BREEAM consultant: Scott Hughes Design

Archaeology: Oxford Archaeology North

Contractor: Miller Construction (now Galliford Try)