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Manchester School of Art's unexpected status symbol

MMU School of Art, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

At first look, it’s creative freedom, extravagant use of space and enormous doors that mark out Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Art. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios new ‘living room’ and ‘factory’ for the school open up a whole range of architectural experiences that seem completely improbable from the sixties tower next door that houses Manchester School of Architecture.

Interestingly though, it is this nine storey tower that terminates the university vista to the building – providing a powerful link between FCB’s colonnaded, diachroic business school, finished a couple of years ago, and the School of Art. It’s now overclad in anodised aluminium and has opening vents. The dean was looking not for a status symbol or icon, but the answer to the pressing problem of rising student numbers and falling budgets. The building’s sense of extravagance doesn’t fit this narrative but designing flexible work spaces and shifting staff from their own to shared offices is an attempt to ensure space is well-used rather than booked but unused. And even at the start of term with some students still absent, every space had at least one or two people using it.

 

A wallpaper texture is bestowed on the occasional column. Like the wood fibre in the galvanised-edged acoustic panels above, it leavens the concrete without disrupting its tone.
A wallpaper texture is bestowed on the occasional column. Like the wood fibre in the galvanised-edged acoustic panels above, it leavens the concrete without disrupting its tone. · Credit: Hufton + Crow

The ‘living room’ which fronts the building has an almost fantastical aspect: six storeys high and criss-crossed by bridges and stairs. Originally designed to be boxed in, it was felt by project ­architect 32-year-old Tom Jarman and as opening vents. The dean was looking not for a status symbol or icon, but the answer to the pressing problem of rising student numbers and falling budgets. The building’s sense of extravagance doesn’t fit this narrative but designing flexible work spaces and shifting staff from their own to shared offices is an attempt to ensure space is well-used rather than booked but unused. And even at the start of term with some students still absent, every space had at least one or two people using it.

Workshops hold the historic machinery of an arts and crafts school of art, here printing presses. In the central spaces though laptops abound.
Workshops hold the historic machinery of an arts and crafts school of art, here printing presses. In the central spaces though laptops abound. · Credit: Hufton + Crow

The ‘living room’ which fronts the building has an almost fantastical aspect: six storeys high and criss-crossed by bridges and stairs. Originally designed to be boxed in, it was felt by project ­architect 32-year-old Tom Jarman and the dean that the steels on site looked too good to cover so the inner face of the stair structure is  timber-lined – nice and high to avoid vertigo. Gradually, a rationality starts to emerge: the rectangular concrete columns running alongside the space (with risers, smoke vents and more stashed inside), and stair connections (though they’re not escape stairs). The entrance desk of curvaceous ply balancing on three points – an illusion as each is screwed in – is a reminder of the artistry of craft.

A courtyard has great potential for school shows. And the doors next to the café that separate ‘living room’ and ‘factory’ have an even more show stopping role, one they perform handsomely thanks to the fire station door experience of their subcontractor. Sometimes they are panels, screens and display spaces, at others a grand separator of spaces, or an entrance to a magic world of making: spools of cotton, looms, 3D printers, historic printing presses, students poring over patterns, and spaces to sit, tens of them, clustered in every sort of configuration and more hanging and display space. Jarman shies away from the term atrium but it is actually the building’s second, stepped and never simple.

You are not meant to understand this building, you are meant to experience it. Perhaps that is why Jarman and the practice put so much time into getting the details right – like the rubber mould-cast, in situ concrete with its wallpaper relief on some of the columns; and the highly controlled ceiling plane, an effective counterpoint to the freer flowing use. The ‘factory’ is lit from above by storey-height window lanterns. The exposed concrete is punctuated by cylindrical metal hallide lights when needed, while the rest of the lighting is set around a wood fibre faced acoustic raft. 

The plans show where each discipline is meant to reside, and they are tied to the workshops at the back of the building. But the time students spent camping out in the almost-finished building in the summer showed they didn’t see divisions in quite the same way; they weren’t going to stick to their designated spaces. And, for Professor David Crow, dean of the Faculty of Art and Design, that is part of the point: students should – and do – use the spaces that suit them, loud or quiet, collaborative or solitary. 

Living room’ to the left with cafe and dramatic stairs, topped by a grand lecture theatre/event space. ‘Factory’ to the right with design studio spaces and workshop. Lanterns at the top draw light into the deep space and sit as pavilions on the roof terrace. The reclad original sixties tower is visible behind.
Living room’ to the left with cafe and dramatic stairs, topped by a grand lecture theatre/event space. ‘Factory’ to the right with design studio spaces and workshop. Lanterns at the top draw light into the deep space and sit as pavilions on the roof terrace. The reclad original sixties tower is visible behind.

Most are out in the central spaces but to ensure there were quieter, studio like areas for those that want them, there are traditional rooms at the top. So far they are rather underused, but there is a great sense of the making and creating in the building. It was deliberate, says Crow: ‘We wanted the spirit of making, back to the arts school, a material feel.’

The top floor event space is perhaps unusual for a university where moving bodies around is always an issue. But since the lower spaces embody this, it seems to make sense that perched at the top of the atrium is a giant room cum lecture theatre that can resonate with music and sometimes has the sense of  ­being a makeshift set. It opens out (those grand doors again) onto the atrium space and then to the expansive, sheltered roof terrace. In many buildings a space of this sort, in this position, would seem like some kind of spatial trick, a coup de theatre. But here you have already absorbed the rhythm, scale and movement of the building, so this elevated space feels quite natural.  

 

The staircases and walkways show their workings with the structure but encase students in high timber sides – here in the ‘factory’ space.
The staircases and walkways show their workings with the structure but encase students in high timber sides – here in the ‘factory’ space.

Credits

Client Manchester Metropolitan University
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Cost consultant Turner and Townsend
Contractor Morgan Sindall
Structural engineer Arup
Landscape architect Dan Pearson Studio
Cladding consultant Montresor Partnership
Form of contract D&B

Suppliers

Piling Simplex
Concrete frame Northfield Construction
Curtain walling Parry Bowen Ltd, Rholin Architectural Glazing, Morgan Sindall
Roofing works Briggs Amasco, Everlast
Aluminium rainscreen GM Services
Internal glazed screens Komfort ­Workspace
Steelwork Carnaby Steel
Architectural metalwork F&J Hauck, Watermans
Joinery including stairs, bridges and acoustic linings Nationwide Joinery
M&E  Emcor Engineering Services
Raised access floors Floorplan
Concrete flooring ABS Brymar
Lifts Ansa Elevators
Catering Foodesco (designers) CHR
Partitions and suspended rafts Parpac, Archway
Lecture Theatre Seating Audience Systems
Loose furniture Howe
Public realm Nixons
Soft landcape Beech Landscape
Decoration Storey Painters
Doors & IPS WC cubicles TBS Fabrications
Oversize doors Jewer’s Doors